This article was first published in Moraymint Chatter and we re-publish with the kind permission of the author.
Some years ago when travelling I met Frank Dowd IV and his brother Roddey. The Dowd family established the Charlotte Pipe and Foundry company in 1901 in Charlotte, North Carolina; Frank and Roddey are directors of the company today. Both men are interested in, and active politically in the USA. Recently, Frank shared with me an article published by Geopolitical Futures entitled, ‘The Instability of Britain: Brexit is Less Important than the Increasing Fragility of Britain and the British Isles’. The article got me thinking and resulted in me writing this post. My thoughts were reinforced when listening to Brendan O’Neill (Editor, Spiked Online) on LBC radio on the evening of 21 March when the European Union took control of the British government’s Brexit timetable.
Power and Influence
‘Power is the capacity to restructure actual situations. Influence is the capacity to modify the perceptions of others. Power and influence in combination determine political capability’
I C MacMillan, Strategy Formulation: Political Concepts,
West Publishing Company, 1978
The chances are you’re not a Member of Parliament (albeit if you are, I hope you’re reading this); you’re not a member of the House of Lords (ditto my previous comment); you’re not a local councillor; you don’t chair a radio or TV programme with millions of people in your audience; you’re not a wealthy businessman with political connections; you don’t write a column in the mainstream press; you’re not a well-connected member of a lobbying group or think-tank. People in these roles are relatively powerful – and you’re unlikely to be one of them, but in many respects I hope that you are.
No, the chances are, you’re like me. You’re the wee guy who has no political power. All that you and I have, in a democracy, is some influence. You and I can only influence change indirectly and collectively through the ballot box. If enough of us vote for something, our collective influence becomes power. This is how democracy is supposed to work. It’s a covenant between us the influencers and the people who actually hold the power to make change. Democracy is a social contract between government and the governed.
‘Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’
Sir Winston Churchill
The Social Contract Under Strain
In this post I want to suggest that the social contract in the UK seems to be breaking down. The EU Referendum exposed a gulf between government and the governed. In fact, it seems to have exposed a wider gulf than that: one between Parliament and the people. That may sound like hyperbole but bear with me.
For over 40 years, Parliament excluded any meaningful debate about the trajectory of the European Union and the UK’s membership of that institution. The received wisdom was and, to an evidently large extent today, remains that the European Union is a ‘good thing’; not perfect, perhaps, but better than autonomous nationhood. In this sense, in the context of the UK’s membership (or not) of the European Union, British voters have been quite powerless for pretty much a generation. Furthermore, the majority of the British political class is pro-EU and, consequently, any critical mass of popular anti-EU sentiment in the UK has been muted for 40-odd years.
Now, if you neither want nor have the time to read a review of the history of the Brexit process and its impact on the British social contract, then you may wish to jump straight to the Summary section below. However, if you’re interested in reading a potted, factual history of the events of the past 4 years vis-à-vis the UK’s relationship with the European Union then read on.
The EU Referendum
‘I can see no case for having a referendum on [The Lisbon Treaty]. We don’t govern this country by referendum’
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
1997 – 2007
In 2014, something happened which took the political class by surprise. The British people sent Parliament a warning shot across its bows: the electorate voted in droves for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the European Union elections. I was one of those UKIP voters.
In fact, UKIP came top of the poll; the first time a political party other than the Conservative Party or the Labour Party had won a British election since the 1906 General Election. The two main British political parties were horrified. To the Conservative government’s credit, it read the writing on the wall: the British people appeared to be losing faith in the European Union; best we ask them directly whether they want to stick with the EU, or walk away?
In June 2015, Parliament voted by 544 to 53 in favour of giving the British people the responsibility for deciding whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union, or not; Parliament voted emphatically to hold an EU Referendum.
One can argue the toss for or against referendums generally. However, since our parliamentary democracy had clearly failed on the matter of permitting debate in the House of Commons about the UK’s membership of the European Union, holding a plebiscite sooner or later was almost inevitable.
The EU Referendum Result
The EU Referendum took place in June 2016. The Conservative government along with the majority of the British political class, ‘big business’ largely through its mouthpiece the Confederation of British Industry, the Establishment, ie the wider set of individuals and institutions in society who wield power through politicians directly and indirectly, central bankers, the arts industry, academia, a raft of think-tanks, President Obama, the BBC and much of the mainstream media, Uncle Tom Cobley and all threw their weight behind the Remain (in the EU) camp.
Having decided to orchestrate a plebiscite, the Conservative government, instead of acting as the honest broker, bet the farm on the vote going one way. The government activated all the powers of the state to persuade the British people to vote Remain, including spending £9 million of taxpayers’ money on a pro-EU leaflet sent to every home in the land. The government took no steps to contingency plan for the British people wanting to leave the European Union. However, in the early hours of the morning of 24 June 2016, to the government’s stunned disbelief and the horror of all those groups I referred to above, the British people voted the wrong way; they voted for the UK to leave the European Union aka ‘Brexit’. This was simply not supposed to have happened.
‘If it’s a Yes we will say “on we go” and if it’s a No we will say “we continue”
President of the European Commission
Over 17 million British people, muted by their own parliamentary democracy for more than 40 years, had been handed a loudhailer – and they used it. It’s often overlooked that in constituency terms, 410 UK constituencies voted Leave against 240 constituencies which voted Remain. Had the EU Referendum been conducted in the same way as a General Election, the Leave vote would have wiped the floor with Remain. Ironically, 480 MPs voted Remain whilst 159 MPs voted Leave; the disconnect between the electorate and the elected had been laid bare and was consistent with the chronic failure of our parliamentary democracy in the decades prior to the Referendum. Immediately after the EU Referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron resigned.
‘We must not bow to populism’
President of the European Parliament
2014 – 17
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(Part 2 will be published tomorrow here in INDEPENDENCE Daily)