An unpublished column on Brexit: until now!

From around January this year I’ve tried to get the column below published – in the Guardian UK where my previous column was published. Unfortunately, and even after endless cajoling via the Guardian at this end, I couldn’t get a reply which is piss poor but there you go. Martin Wolf tried for me at the FT. At least they responded – but with a ‘no’, which is fair enough given the oversupply of articles on Brexit. Anyway as the Brexit Brouhaha Burbles on I thought I’d pop it up here.

The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum looms over the career politicians assembled in the Palace of Westminster as the black monolith loomed over the apes in the movie 2001.

It’s taken over thirty months of thrashing through actual options – as opposed to the wild partisan imaginings in the campaign – for a ghastly, if entirely foreseeable realisation to dawn. Despite the people’s clear instruction to Leave, any specific way of doing so would command far less than the 48 percent vote for Remain.

In the teeth of the greatest crisis of British statecraft since World War II, the institutional imperatives of political combat ensure the politicians perform rather than deliberate. Not only Corbyn, but extraordinarily enough, May has clung to fantasies about getting a better deal, though the end game will presumably see her change her tune.

How did it come to this?

A year ago, I argued for a ‘Brexit Deliberation Day’ in which ten citizens’ juries of around 50 people each, selected as legal juries are, by lot from local communities around the country would consider Brexit. In such circumstances, citizens’ opinions move systematically as they better understand the issues in discussion with peers.

Isn’t this a job for parliament? Well yes. But they aren’t doing it. In fact parliament forsook deliberation for ‘the numbers’ as the party system consolidated in the nineteenth century. In the last half century the struggle for the consent of the governed has become as professionalised, as optimised to win votes as McDonald’s use of salt, fat, sugar and advertising is to win customers.

Like other aspects of our fast food culture – the linkbait to deliver clicks, internet and tabloid trolling to deliver outrage – it’s slowly poisoning us. Today’s politico-entertainment complex makes parliamentary deliberation impossible – as rare and pointless as playing chess with a badger.

Many people supported my proposal but said it was too late. It should have happened before the people voted. Indeed: As it does in the US State of Oregon in which citizens juries deliberate and advise the electorate before any citizen initiated referendum: As has occurred in Ireland’s recent string of successful referendums.

Whenever my proposal has been considered by those with the funds to make it happen, the answer’s been the same. If only we’d seen you earlier. It is too late now. Instead they’ve funded the usual political campaigns – with all their self-righteousness, manipulation and polarising propaganda that the pro-Brexit vote was a protest against – however careless, however futile that vote was.

And here we are. As each day passes, the need to find a new way grows more, not less urgent. If you’re focused on March 29 thinking it’s too late to organise a Brexit Deliberation Day, you’re probably right, though a citizen assembly chosen by lot is still possible and would reflect the people’s considered will in contrast to the polls.

But this crisis will morph into new dramas well beyond March 29th with no obvious end in sight. And, beyond Brexit, modern democracies are turning to self-harm with increasing regularity. Pursuing similar imperatives as Corbyn and May, the greatest achievement of Australia’s parliamentarians of 2013 was abolishing carbon pricing against the better judgement of an overwhelming majority of them. It’s given up on climate change, paralysed the energy market generating soaring energy prices and robs the budget of $10 billion each year. The Republicans in Congress are waving through a trade war against their better judgement. Who would have believed it?

We must look beyond March 29th if we’re not to waste this crisis. It gives Britain the chance to begin the process of healing its own democracy and showing others how. From a Citizens’ Assembly or Brexit Deliberation Day, a cadre would emerge that was well informed on Brexit and, as a group, enjoyed popular legitimacy as embodying ordinary Britons’ considered will. It could be polled to determine ordinary people’s considered opinion as developments unfold.

Imagine that cadre doing what a citizens’ assembly on nuclear power in South Australia did, selecting representatives of the best among them as spokespeople. That council of citizen jurors could have been operating, shadowing negotiations in Brussels, and parliament, shaming our representatives to put our interests first.

Surveying the scene on another occasion when Britain was searching for its soul, and fighting for its life, George Orwell wrote “The past is fighting the future and we have two years, a year, possibly only a few months, to see to it that the future wins”.

Whether they knew it or not, the apes were in the same situation as they stared at the inscrutable black monolith that came among them.

It’s the situation Britons again find themselves in today.

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4 Responses to An unpublished column on Brexit: until now!

  1. paul frijters says:

    “In the teeth of the greatest crisis of British statecraft since World War II”

    so many people say stuff like this but it really sounds hollow and confuses theater with substance. Compared to the nuclear annihilation that was the threat of the Cold War, or the implosion of UK’s position in the world following the Suez crisis, or the challenge of internal break-up given by Northern Ireland and Scotland, the whole Brexit stuff must count as a storm in a teacup. Even under the most negative scenarios the UK will essentially be fine inside or outside the EU. There is no economic collapse or major loss of life involved. At worst, brexit will herald a recession the UK did not need to have, possible followed by a decade or so in the economic wilderness whilst the population remains relatively healthy and well-off. Whoop-ti-do.

    The fact that politics is now firmly a form of entertainment is of course a worrying trend seen throughout the West. I am not sure that elevating accidental citizens as pop-stars of democracy, which is what you suggest when you talk of these citizens becoming running commentators on events, will help though. More likely that not, they’d start to behave like the contestants of Big Brother and also become entertainers who cease their chance to become famous in their democratic roles as reasonable citizens. I really doubt that the solution to politics-as-reality-tv lies in getting random citizens to perform the same role. If you’re going to have citizen juries, best do it in a form that does not offer the chance of fame as individuals because they then have exactly the same temptations.

    The obsession with individual fame is something to push back against, which is not easy. Andy Warhol was quite prophetic. The whole of society is now chasing it.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Your point about fame is a reasonable one. The method of selection proposed militates against that somewhat, but your point remains valid.

    My reference to greatest crisis of statecraft was intended not to refer to the relative seriousness of the outcome so much as the crisis. We have the population split and the political class paralysed. I don’t think this could be said for the events you reference. Suez was a right royal stuff-up and arguably greater than Brexit, but it got cleaned up after the disaster had occurred. This has been two and a half years, and remains as big a farce as it was two and a half years ago.

    • paul frijters says:

      its a farce, yes, but one that has almost no effect on the running of the country. Buses run, schools are open, health is improving, wellbeing is up, plenty of migrants are coming in, companies leave and companies come, budgets get set up complete with the usual graft for special interests (showing you that politics here is not truly paralysed at all), etc. The curious thing about the Brexit crisis is that there is no crisis, just lots of theater. So far.

      One possible reason is that Brexit is essentially the project of the whole class of people usually running after grand new ideas that never get implemented, like sustainable development or a Green future. The total absorption of that class into the Brexit phenomenon seems quite unimportant to the rest, almost as if it is just the latest show of the actors on tv. As long as Brexit doesn’t happen, it doesn’t seem to have much effect (though there are of course plenty of claims to the contrary).

      Even the split in the population is of an odd variety. No violence, not even animated fist waving at each other. Petition here, demonstration there, kilometers of newspaper columns, soap boxing galore. Almost as if the whole population enjoys playing a bit of theater too but doesn’t truly get all that excited about it.

      Brexit is the ultimate performance politics of our time. The stage is rather crowded.

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