There is an unfortunate irony that, sadly, one of the most interesting periods in national and international politics has coincided with us here at Allthatsleft going into self-imposed stasis.
I write this, because I’ve been considering just how bad things could get – I write this because things that seemed absurd only a year or so ago now seem horribly possible: institutional and governmental racism; the break up of NATO and the EU; a strange Russian/American pact dominating politics in the Middle East; the death of the Labour Party; a breakdown in the reporting of honest factual news.
I wonder aloud, what event might send me to the barricades. Would I man the barricades in defence of the EU? Would I man the barricade in opposition to Donald Trump? I don’t know. But, perhaps, in these times where it appears that our world is becoming increasingly dominated by people who are acting with an utter contempt for democracy, then it is the very levers of democracy that we must defend, because without democracy, accountability and a proper separation of powers, then Donald Trump and his like will dominate without even breaking a sweat.
Last week, the House of Lords debated Brexit and the triggering of Article 50. Predictably the level of debate in terms of passion and knowledge was far superior to that heard in the Commons. But, what troubled me was the idea held by those who tried to derail the Bill that somehow the Lords could overturn the result of a referendum where the people had declared a desire for a certain course of action.
Don’t get me wrong, my view is unchanged, Brexit is the biggest disaster that has befallen this country since the 1930s. The debate was dominated by lies and threats with a cruel undercurrent of racism and bigotry. Politically it was ill-conceived, a desperate political con trick dreamt up by a Prime Minister who was treating our country like a roulette wheel; economically and socially it is a mess, plunging the next generation (at least) into massive uncertainty.
But, in terms of process, it was sound. The Referendum Bill was brought before Parliament by the democratically elected government, it was passed in Parliament and went before the people. The people voted. There is no provision in our electoral law to prevent one party or other in a referendum from disseminating misinformation (there is in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), nor is there any provision to re-run a referendum because the debate was poor and no one had a clue what Brexit actually meant and that now, in the cold light of day, it’s clear that the question that was posed to the people was completely unsuited for the hugeness of the task.
If Brexit has shown us anything, it is that now more than ever we need politicians and journalists who are intelligent enough, honest enough and diligent enough to hold our government to account. The standard of reporting during Brexit was woeful (often by intent rather than incompetence), and this failure together with the preponderance of nonsense that appears on Twitter and Facebook masquerading as news or fact is really troubling. But, the journalists are not the only ones who are to blame, the failure of the Official Opposition to put together a coherent argument about Brexit is scandalous.
But, these are things that can be improved. And one way in which they can be improved is if politicians and journalists start treating the electorate with a certain amount of respect by presenting them with proper honest argument rather than the soundbites, slogans and rhetoric that has become commonplace.
And that’s important.
And, it is why it is right that the Brexit Bill was not derailed in the House of Lords as the very fact that an unelected chamber might have been able to overturn the result of a lawful referendum is absolutely preposterous. The result would have been an even greater erosion of our democracy, an already disaffected electorate would have been appalled, quite rightly asking themselves what is the point of voting on anything if their declaration can be overturned by an unelected second chamber.
Sadly, Brexit is a total mess, but it’s hard to think of a way in which it can be properly halted, slow-down, changed, or even influenced. But, in these turbulent times, the last thing that anyone should contemplate is using the deficiencies in our democratic institutions to undermine the voice of the people regardless of how mistaken that voice may be – because that way lies a future that is desperately scary and desperately uncertain, a future where extremists, dictators and fascists suddenly become a possibility rather than a nightmare.