Why UK needs a democratic revolution – Joyce McMillan

A seismic reckoning with the UK’s quasi-monarchical system of government is now required, writes Joyce McMillan.

Friday, 25th September 2020, 7:30 am
Is Boris Johnson simply the ‘first among equals’ or does he have the powers of a 17th-century monarch? (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Is Boris Johnson simply the ‘first among equals’ or does he have the powers of a 17th-century monarch? (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

This weekend, the UK Liberal Democrats will assemble, after a fashion, for their annual autumn conference. Like last week’s Labour conference, the event will be entirely virtual; and sometime on Sunday, this online gathering will debate a series of motions and amendments headed simply “Europe”, including one backed by the party leadership which advocates the closest possible post-Brexit relationship with our former EU partners, while effectively putting any attempt to return Britain to the EU on the back burner, for at least half a decade.

In terms of practical politics, of course, the much-diminished Liberal Democrats have little choice in this matter; the 80-strong Conservative majority at Westminster means that the question of EU membership is very unlikely to be reopened before 2024.

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Yet all the same, it should be acknowledged that this weekend marks a significant moment in UK politics; the moment when the 16 million who voted to remain in the European Union, and the further million or two who now seem to regret their failure to vote remain, were formally abandoned, so far as their wish to remain EU citizens is concerned, by all three of the UK’s main parliamentary parties. In the whole history of the Union, I doubt that there has ever been such a huge segment of opinion, on such a vital issue, so little represented by all of the main UK parties; and also so completely ignored by a government which should clearly – given the extreme narrowness of the Leave victory – have sought a compromise solution that would take us out of the EU, without grave damage to our relations with our closest trading partners.

It therefore seems important, at this moment, to recognise not only the scale of that democratic failure, but the underlying forces behind it, and their key role in creating the critical situation in which the UK now finds itself, with the economy facing the unprecedented double shock of Covid and Brexit, and the Union itself under severe strain. Essentially, of course, it is Westminster’s antiquated first-past-the-post voting system that has left all three parties scrabbling for the votes of a few hundreds of thousands of swing voters who are assumed, rightly or wrongly, mainly to be in the right-wing, anti-immigration, pro-Brexit mould; and that pressure has skewed the whole tone of British political debate towards a kind of nostalgic, patriotic right-wingery that seems almost a parody of the policies the UK might actually need, to give it a more sustainable political and economic future. A voting system which provides a government with a swingeing five-year majority on the basis of just 43 per cent of votes cast is questionable at best; and now, the extreme pro-Brexit Tories are testing the tolerances of that system to destruction.

The need for electoral reform, though, is only one aspect of the profound change needed in a constitutional system which – in its still unwritten form – basically confers the powers of a 17th-century monarch on the man or woman in Downing Street with a robust parliamentary majority. To take only the most obvious current example, the Johnson government’s UK Internal Market Bill, mostly discussed for its glaring breach of international law in enabling the UK government to tear up the recent EU Withdrawal Agreement, also rides a coach and horses through the devolution settlements of 1998, and poses serious risks to the stability of the Belfast/Good Friday peace agreement.

The fact that a government can even draft such brutal legislation without consultation or legal hindrance, and whip it through parliament with only a brief whimper of protest from a handful of Tory MPs, is in itself a damning indictment of the UK’s system of government. And if further evidence were needed of the arrogant attitudes, and corrosion of values, which this system encourages in a majority government which has decided to stop playing by gentlemen’s rules, then we can also look to Boris Johnson’s attempted silencing of parliament last autumn, to the highly questionable awarding of Covid-related contracts and jobs, without competition, to otherwise unqualified friends of the current government, and to the absolute sense of entitlement with which this government seeks to impose the most extreme form of Brexit on a country which not only did not vote for such a option, but was repeatedly assured that such an option would never be on the table.

This weekend from their living-rooms, in other words, the Liberal Democrats will debate, as they always do, some details of the UK’s constitution. They will regret our departure from Europe, pass a motion in favour of a federal UK, and continue to support electoral reform. They will also doubtless deplore the government’s dire mishandling of the Covid epidemic.

As ever, though, they will not look straight into the heart of the constitutional issue that links all of these issues and abuses. For to tackle head-on the excessive powers traditionally exercised by UK Prime Ministers between elections, and the insidious forms of corruption and clientism that power has bred under 21st-century conditions, would be to attack the very heart of the system; and to flag up a more radical democratic project than the Liberal Democrats, or any mainstream British political party, has lately been willing to embrace. Most people just don’t care about constitutional issues, we are told; and at headline level, that may well be true.

Yet when and if the moment comes for a genuine revival of centre-left politics in the UK, or in what remains of it after the current crisis, my guess is that it will not come without a seismic reckoning with a quasi-monarchical system of government far beyond its sell-by date; and a refounding of democracy on a more just, egalitarian and sustainable basis, that neither bins the wasted votes of millions at every election, nor limits the effective power of citizens to a single X on a single ballot paper, once every five years.

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