Division has been a defining feature of UK politics in the past few years: the fiercely fought and highly contentious EU referendum a year ago split the electorate almost exactly in half; the Scottish National Party renewed calls for an independence referendum scarcely two years since their unsuccessful campaign; and the Labour party has been plagued until recently by infighting between the leadership and the parliamentary party. Meanwhile, the UK faces the most significant negotiations in modern history, certainly in the past 40 years.
Instead of promoting unity, the government under Theresa May has taken a unilateral approach. Since May took over her party and the government last July, her leadership has been characterised by a bullish refusal to be transparent about her party’s plans for Brexit. She was reluctant, for example, to release a white paper on her negotiating position, and in her Lancaster House speech took a strong stand against scrutiny, telling the public: “those who urge us to reveal more… will not be acting in the national interest.” With negotiations starting imminently, the government seems intent on ploughing ahead with their previous plans without consulting the opposition on their decision to start negotiations before a deal with the DUP has been finalised, and before the House of Commons has even formally returned.
This is part of an even broader trend towards decreasing government transparency, and a concentration of power in the hands of the executive. For example, the Institute for Government recently reported a marked trend under the Conservatives of an increase in the number of Freedom of Information responses being withheld. We live in an age where power in UK politics is overwhelmingly held by the executive, and a Prime Minister that refuses to be open to scrutiny threatens to undermine our democratic processes. Democracy is not only about casting a vote in an election; without a written constitution to clearly define the rights of the people and limitations on the powers of government, it is increasingly challenging to effectively hold the UK government to account.
In April, May went before the country and asked the electorate to endorse her Brexit approach. She criticised the dissent from the opposition parties claiming that “division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit”. However, instead of the resounding approval of a landslide majority she was expecting to receive, the Conservatives lost seats which resulted in a hung Parliament. The public rejected the scrutiny shy, unilateral approach to Brexit negotiations.
An inclusive, consensus based approach is not just constitutionally and democratically, important but as the result of the election, it is now a practical necessity. The Conservatives will be reliant on the DUP to pass key legislation, forcing them to pay greater attention the unique needs of Northern Ireland. The 13 new Scottish Conservative MPs will also play an important role. Their leader Ruth Davidson recently called on Theresa May to “look again at their Brexit strategy”. To what extent will the Scottish Conservatives act as a caucus with a different Brexit agenda to their English and Welsh colleagues?
Even with their ‘confidence and supply’ deal the government’s working majority hangs on a knife edge, and May will no longer be able to make decisions without the support of her backbenches. The party’s electoral position is now far more precarious. Without serious efforts to understand the wishes of the electorate on the most significant constitutional change in modern times, it remains unclear whether the government could survive another election.
Mirroring the country, Unlock Democracy members and supporters were divided on Brexit; some see it as a bright opportunity for national renewal, others fear it will mean the end of hard won rights and freedoms. We started our Democratic Brexit project immediately after the referendum to bring people from all sides of the debate to explore what taking back control of our democracy might look like, and how Brexit could lead to a different type of democracy.
Unlock Democracy’s latest report, ‘A Democratic Brexit: Avoiding Constitutional Crisis in Brexit Britain,’ highlights the constitutional issues that have permitted such an executive dominated Brexit process so far. It also provides recommendations as to how a more inclusive and democratic Brexit could be achieved. It considers how Parliament, the devolved legislatures and the people could be involved throughout. Brexit could be a real chance to restore the health of our ailing democracy by undertaking a large scale deliberative and inclusive movement to collectively shape the future of our country. Alternatively, we could see the government undertake the largest power grab in modern times.
The clock is ticking after article 50 was triggered in March. If the public and Parliament don't act soon they will lose the chance to bring more voices into the conversation about what we want the future of our country to look like. There is a very real risk that we may now see the greatest constitutional challenge in modern times worked out behind closed doors, forced through by a minority government, with no clear mandate from the electorate.