To say that the United Kingdom’s system of democratic governance is showing signs of strain, the day after Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed deal to exit the European Union was rejected by Parliament in an unprecedented landslide, would be a considerable understatement.
That’s because the massive vote against May’s compromise Brexit plan — by a coalition of members of Parliament who want a more radical break from the EU and those who want to remain closer to, or even inside, the trading bloc — reveals that something far closer to a systemic meltdown is already in progress.
The core of the problem is that the country’s representative democracy, in which decisions are traditionally taken by a government acting on behalf of a majority of Parliament’s members, was thrown into crisis in 2016, when the public voted in a referendum to withdraw from the EU, despite the fact that most legislators, including May herself, had argued against a British exit. It didn’t help that the pro-Brexit campaign succeeded in large part because of exaggerations and outright lies about how painless a divorce from the EU would be.
The prime minister has also ignored the fact that, as pro-EU voters continue to point out, the vote in favor of Brexit was a narrow one — the measure passed by a 52-48 margin.
While she has steadfastly refused to say that she thinks Brexit is actually a good idea, May has committed her government to carrying out what she describes as the will of the people to leave the EU, but also worked to limit the inevitable economic damage of cutting ties with her nation’s leading trade partners.
But now that May’s compromise deal with the EU has been rejected by 230 votes, and there appears to be no majority in Parliament for any other version of Brexit, the political system seems to have arrived at an impasse, just 10 weeks before the country’s membership in the union expires on March 29.
The parliamentary gridlock, and a lack of clear options for how to proceed in a country without a written constitution or any rules or procedures for how to implement a referendum result that most of the people’s elected representatives see as profoundly damaging, has prompted calls for a second referendum in some quarters, inchoate rage in others, and a wave of bleakly comic commentary online.
Before the Brexit referendum introduced an element of direct democracy into the parliamentary system, a prime minister who lost a vote on the central issue of her government by even one vote, let alone 230, would have been expected to resign or call a general election. The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has attempted to force May to step down by calling for a vote of no confidence in her government on Wednesday, but she is widely expected to win the vote and remain in office, since even her staunchest opponents in the Conservative Party, and her Ulster unionist allies, fear a Corbyn-led government more than they hate May.
As the clock ticks down, and May scrambles to come up with a revised Brexit plan before the country crashes out with no deal — a possibility described in near-apocalyptic terms, since it would likely result in all air traffic being halted, massive traffic jams around ports, shortages of food and medicine, and the collapse of the country’s manufacturing industry — a contentious debate over a possible second referendum has prompted real fears of political violence from a fringe of extreme nationalist Brexit supporters.
In recent weeks, members of May’s Conservative Party who want a closer relationship with Europe or a second referendum, like Nick Boles and Anna Soubry, have been subjected to death threats and verbal abuse by far-right activists in yellow vests and MAGA hats on the streets around Parliament.
A leader of the far-right mob, James Goddard, has also been filmed recently hurling abuse at Owen Jones, a Guardian columnist and Labour supporter, and screaming that a brown-skinned police officer who interrupted his harassment was “fair game” and “ain’t even fucking British.”
While the unruly mobs on the streets are generally small, some members of May’s government have argued that it is essential to honor the result of the 2016 referendum to avoid fueling that sort of rage. Supporters of a second referendum, like the former BBC journalist Gavin Esler, are not persuaded.
While polling shows growing support for a second referendum, as the country tires of a focus on Brexit that all but blots out other concerns, and the costs of leaving the EU have become more clear, May is steadfastly opposed to another vote. That means legislation mandating a new referendum would have to be embraced by Corbyn, who fears alienating the significant minority of Labour voters who support Brexit to please the larger number that wants to stop it.
Still, if no other solution is found to the impasse, a new referendum could offer a way out for the deadlocked Parliament. Although a result different from that of 2016 is far from certain, recent calculations by the pollster Peter Kellner suggest that the country gets more pro-EU with each passing day. As Kellner wrote in September, while older Britons voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum by 2-to-1, more than a million people have died since the vote, and nearly 2 million younger citizens who were not eligible to vote then are now. Among those new voters, polling by Kellner’s former firm, YouGov, suggests that 87 percent of those new voters would support staying in the EU if they had a chance to vote.
As a result of older Britons dying and younger ones reaching voting age, Kellner calculated that the Leave majority has been shrinking by over 1,350 votes a day, so that even if nobody changed their vote, by this Friday, January 19, there could be more people of voting age opposed to Brexit than in support of it.
“This means that by March 29, it will be difficult to sustain the argument that the settled view of the British electorate is that Brexit should take place,” Kellner observed. “We are told that we should ‘respect the verdict of the people,’ and not reopen the decision they — we — reached in 2016. The latest research shows that this depends not only on the proposition that voters cannot change their minds, but on a specific definition of ‘the people.’ It includes those who have died since the referendum — and excludes almost two million new voters who were too young in 2016 but will be old enough to vote by next March.”
Correction: January 16, 2019, 10:54 a.m.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Owen Jones as a supporter of a second referendum.
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