Rapid Response: How the UK Parliament broke democracy… and then blamed the people

Rapid Response: How the UK Parliament broke democracy… and then blamed the people

Katherine Jewell

Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament has created furore across the UK and inspired over a million people to sign a petition condemning the move, but this action was neither unexpected nor as drastic as it could have been. It represents just another instalment in the ongoing farce of British politics, for which the main protagonists are MPs and the central plot device is the slow but accelerating death of parliamentary democracy. The Brexit drama has the positive effect of politicising significant sections of a previously disengaged population and generating new social movements, but it has also deepened social divisions and exposed such shortcomings in the fundamental workings of government that it is difficult to see how the UK’s democractic system can viably continue in its present form.

Drawing from ongoing doctoral research on social movements, this paper provides a brief summary of some of the political and social challenges facing the UK and explores issues around the growth of the recent Remain movement.

How did we get here?
Since David Cameron first announced the 2016 European referendum through to the vote itself, there were three main ‘camps’ of opinion on the EU defined primarily by vested interests, mild to severe apathy, and general dissatisfaction with the current political/economic system. The question of Brexit was not so much the issue as the crucible through which these positions have been tempered and transformed.

During the referendum campaign UKIP tapped into anti-EU sentiments and became a significant force on the Leave side, cooperating with individual politicians from other parties and many grassroots Leave campaigns. However, the vast majority of pro-Remain campaigning was undertaken not by ordinary citizens, but by MPs and parties who expected the public to heed expert advice and vote for the status quo. There were no mass rallies with European flag-waving or viral citizen petitions to call it all off in 2016, although there was a taxpayer-funded leaflet delivered to each household explaining the historic nature of the vote, the severe consequences of Brexit and an assurance that the referendum outcome would be respected. It was only after the shock Leave result that Remain slowly started to develop as a movement of ordinary voters, although this was initially instigated through people connected to elite vested interests, notably Gina Miller with her well-publicised legal challenges.

The 2016 referendum was an almost unprecedented exercise in popular democratic engagement in the UK. Turnout for the referendum was over 72%; this is 6% more than the General Election in 2015, a significant increase on local election turnout which rarely exceeds 50% in any given constituency, and at least double the turnout for European Parliamentary elections which in 2019 only averaged 36% across the UK (Dempsey and Loft, 2019). The British public was eager to have their say, but it has always been exclusively within Parliament’s gift whether to call a referendum at all, and, more importantly, what to call them on.

Parliament’s hypocrisies and conundrums
Cameron recognised growing public dissatisfaction with the EU which led to his promise of a referendum and negotiations for a better deal with Europe. He promised a simple in-out question to be put to the people, outlined in the European Union Referendum Act which Parliament passed in 2015. The Conservative Party had a majority, but Parliament could have opposed the referendum. When Theresa May took over following Cameron’s resignation, she promised to implement Brexit, and Parliament voted for Article 50 to begin the process. Not doing so could have been criticised as anti-democratic, but the option to ignore the outcome of the referendum was open. Over the next few years May brought her deal to Parliament three times and it was rejected each time. Many MPs who are now claiming they will do ‘anything’ to avoid a no deal Brexit voted against it.

Before Johnson’s installation as Prime Minister in July 2019, it was widely discussed that proroguing Parliament was one of his options for pushing through Brexit. However, the prorogation he has proposed represents a reduction of only 4 active days of Parliament once party conference season is taken into account. Depending on your perspective, Johnson has either cynically or masterfully argued his actions are both justified and restrained. However, the immediate and militant calls for protest action by Momentum and other groups serve to further alienate Leave voters and in fact strengthen Johnson’s position.

Parliament is tasked with implementing a result that most MPs opposed personally, putting them at odds with the majority of voters; in trying to deal with this conflict many are resorting to clearly hypocritical positions. A particularly glaring example comes from many Remain MPs who blame people for voting in ignorance during the referendum and decry prorogation as undemocratic, but then call for a ‘People’s Vote’ second referendum.

Cancelling Brexit after a lawful vote would represent a fundamental breach of democratic principles. To illustrate, Liberal Democratic voters in the 2015 General Election were lied to over student tuition fees, but it would have been ludicrous to call for the election to be re-run. Democracy is messy, mistakes are made and voters are regularly misled, but it must operate on the principle that citizens are responsible for their choices and decisions taken democratically are binding. Failure to uphold the referendum would permanently undermine voter confidence in democracy and exacerbate apathy and anti-establishment sentiment.

Who are ‘the people’?Remain has grown into a social movement that claims to represent and fight for the will of ‘the people’, but who are these people? Characteristics of the Remain movement help illuminate the answer but add confusing layers of contradiction:

  • It has been adopted by grassroots activists but was originally driven by elite business people and politicians.
  • The movement argues to retain the status quo, in contrast to most social movements which fight for social/political change.
  • Retention of the status quo is an intrinsically conservative position, however a majority of grassroots Remain supporters are normally liberal or left-leaning.
  • The movement is expanding to protest against prorogation as undemocratic, but the main focus of the movement is to overturn a democratic referendum.

Meanwhile, whilst the pantomime continues between politicians, societal cohesion is disintegrating. The population is again dividing into three groups, this time defined by Leave, Remain and loss of faith in politics. Remainers accuse Leavers of being ignorant and racist, Leavers accuse ‘Remoaners’ of being anti-democratic, and these conflicts are spilling over into other social divisions. Female MPs and journalists accuse male politicians of causing the Brexit mess. Younger voters blame older people for voting Leave. European residents complain of racism, enflamed by the increasing influence of Remain and calls for a ‘People’s Vote’ with its unfortunate implication that Leave supporters might not fully qualify as ‘people’ when they voted. However, EU residents were allowed to vote in the referendum, and without them the margin for Leave would undoubtedly have been greater.

It is an empty claim that ‘people’ have been ignored in this process; unlike when the government ignored a million people marching against the Iraq War, citizens have been directly consulted over Brexit. People across the country who oppose austerity and the Conservative government, but also support Leave, are being pushed by a minority contingent into choosing their allegiances purely on the issue of Brexit; this cannot help but foster dangerous polarisations and feelings of betrayal.

What can be done now?
Parliament has demonstrated an abject lack of competence in dealing with the biggest political issue for generations. However, to move forward we must first ensure the debate includes respect for democracy as a fundamental principle. It is lamentable that no politicians have moved into this vacuum and adopted a compromise position that respects democracy by implementing Brexit but also promises a future second referendum on whether to seek re-admittance to the EU as a full member.

Apart from fear over the (hopefully) short term economic consequences of Brexit, the only other reason for Remainers to oppose this position is that they are not actually pro-European. It is important to realise that pro-Remain is not the same as pro-European; as discussed, Remainers support the status quo, which is only half-hearted membership of the EU with beneficial opt-outs on many aspects of full membership. Anyone truly pro-European could easily support a plan which represents what might be the only practicable route to full European membership for the UK. However, this would necessarily involve adopting the Euro as well as other obligations that have not historically been palatable. What most vocal Remainers seem to want, therefore, is the preferential relationship that the UK currently has with Europe, not committed membership of the European project.

Like all crises, Brexit and the corresponding breakdown of British democracy offers opportunities as well as dangers. However, in order to realise potentially positive pro-democratic political reform, fear of change must be overcome.

References and Further Reading:
Dempsey, N. and Loft, P. (2019) Turnout at Elections. House of Commons Library.
Klein, N. (2017) No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics. London: Penguin Books.
Mair, P. (2013) Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. London: Verso.
Prentoulis, M. and Thomassen, L. (2017) Left Populism: the challenges from grassroots to electoral politics. Transform: A Journal of the Radical Left, 1(1), pp. 109-126.
Winlow, S., Hall, S. and Treadwell, J. (2016) Rise of the Right: English Nationalism and the Transformation of Working Class Politics. Bristol: Policy Press.


Katherine Jewell developed her research interests during years of experience in trade union, political and community activism. She has an MA in Social Policy and is currently a PhD candidate at Liverpool Hope University, supervised by Prof. Michael Lavalette.  Her doctoral project utilises a critical ethnographic approach to explore the relationship between Momentum and the Labour Party and is underpinned by social movement and political theory.

Image: Sarah Doyle – Prorogation Protest, Liverpool 31 August 2019