It’s time to put ‘take back control’ into action

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 3rd February 2017

It’s been a slow path, but the government’s White Paper on Brexit is another step towards giving Parliament a role in the Brexit negotiations. It’s not been without a struggle, though.

Because we are still a representative democracy (despite the injection of public votes on some of the big issues), it’s understandable that the immediate post-referendum focus would be on Parliament.

But Britain’s democracy was already evolving, with powers shifting and new styles of political engagement emerging. So it was and is impossible for the PM to confine negotiations or debate on the of Brexit to Whitehall or Brussels – even if the White Paper offers little new in terms of Parliamentary scrutiny.

Yet if ‘taking back control’ is to mean anything, it should be a re-engaged citizenry for whom the referendum kick-started a sense of purpose in being political. The next two years should be treated as the training ground for citizens to become knowledgeable about the ins-and-outs of Brexit and the decisions we face as a country.

So the question now is whether the public and parliament (and other actors) can together now grasp the challenges it sets out. Perhaps now is the moment to embark on a new way of doing politics – one that recognizes power does not reside in one place, and that democracy was taking different shape even before the referendum.

Why? Referendums produce a burst of democratic engagement – which in turns breeds a desire for more involvement. When the decision is to embark on a process however, then the vote date is actually the beginning, not the end, of a conversation about where we go next. The same need for such a process would have held had Scots voted for independence.

Which is why the straight comparison of Brexit negotiations with a stand-alone business deal is a red herring. The government is acting in good faith when it expresses concerns about showing all its cards to the 27 negotiators – stating ‘we will keep our positions closely held and will need at times to be careful about the commentary we make public’ – but in practice you cannot call a public vote, invite everyone to turn out and then shut the door when it comes to implementation.

The White Paper offers some words on this, saying: ‘We will continue to build a national consensus around our negotiating position by listening and talking to as many organisations, companies and institutions as possible.’

But the actual process laid out for this though is ‘stakeholder engagement events…covering all sectors of the economy’. If these are only for business, it’s barely scratching the surface on what is needed to bring the public along, let alone on forging a consensus about ‘where next’.

Now, everyone is claiming they are a democrat – whether it’s reflecting their constituency’s views or an amorphous ‘will of the people’. But with everyone firmly on the side of democracy, the question becomes – what type of democracy do we want to forge in the UK after Brexit?

Britain’s democratic as well as economic deficits were exposed by the referendum: the ‘left behind’ is not only an economic idea, but is also a political reality that needs to be tackled.

The White Paper is therefore a wasted opportunity not to look properly at how to involve voters – and to answer the challenge the public threw down with a call to ‘take back control’.

We’re done quibbling over the ‘will of the people’; the goal now has to be fostering an engaged, active citizenry that can itself support and challenge Parliament and government.

Referendums are on the rise – but so is a growth of deeper participatory and deliberative approaches – trials of different ways of doing democracy. Conducting a referendum as though it was a one-off ask to the people and then delegating it to the government doesn’t work in a connected, less deferential age – especially not in context of a battle between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’.

The problem is finding the in-between from whole-scale public engagement via a national referendum to parliamentary business as usual. But there are plenty of options, whether it’s a full-scale citizens’ assembly on the type of Brexit voters want, to shadow parliamentary committees or panels, made up of members of the public. Schools too, should be involved, while local businesses can help nurture the trade know-how next generation will need to thrive in a post-Brexit world.

Contested territory lies ahead – there remains no consensus on the form of Brexit, whatever staunch Leavers or Remainers say. We are making it up as we go along – citizens, elected representatives, Parliament, and with little precedent, even the courts. The binary choice offered by referendums is bound to be divisive, but they do engage otherwise non-political people, and that must be built on.

After all, there was no indy-ref style White Paper about what would follow a Leave vote. But from local involvement, a shadow Brexit select committee, citizens’ assemblies or public consultations, there are a million and one ways to do public engagement.

The government mustn’t squander the high level of interest in this: we have to be imaginative when it comes to figuring out the form of British democracy we want now.

65 million cannot be at the negotiating table, but figuring out how to ‘take back control’ is a matter for us all.  

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