Brexit – A chance for more democracy?


“Don’t despair, but if you must, work on in despair.” So wrote the man I quote far too much for my own good, Edmund Burke. It has been a stressful two weeks for the Conservative Party. But if my idol is to be followed, then I realise I should probably bring myself out of post-Brexit despondency over the Remain reaction and my party’s uncertain future, and start looking at things positively.

There is no way our establishment can ignore the democratic vote, and I am very confident that Brexit will happen. As to how fast, I am not certain, but I am confident that when it does, many new opportunities will finally be open to us, both politically and economically. But among the various petitions, demands, suggestions and observations that have been bandied around over recent days, I have been most intrigued by many calls for “reform” of our political system. The types of reform called for have varied from the outright undemocratic, such as outlawing referenda in the future and restricting all decisions purely to Parliament, to more familiar whining about the lack of proportional representation and the presence of an unelected upper house.

I am all for holding the politicians who put forward the arguments to Vote Leave to account – I did not vote leave in order to suddenly have all the things I hoped for swept from under my feet. It is part of the democratic process to hold our politicians to account, and I would hope that by doing so we all will receive the benefits we were promised. People have talked a lot about how immigration was a defining issue of the referendum, and it certainly was for a lot of people, but it was not solely about immigration, and for many, freedom of movement was not a problem they had with the EU. One of the most important ones for me was that very thing we must now hold in the forefront of our minds – democratic accountability. The EU was a politician’s dream: power without proper checks and balances, an institution which could gag members of its legislature from telling the people who voted for them what they were voting on among other worryingly illiberal conventions.

Now that we know we will be rid of the EU – we must be the democracy we claim to be. We must think about our democratic system, and realise that for Britain to be a leading light in liberty and democracy, we must avoid becoming the byzantine quagmire of bureaucracy that the EU was. We need to champion free trade with the rest of the world, we need to liberalise our civil service, we must do as much as we can to create as open a political system as possible. What with House of Lords reform having been on the cards for a while now, I am sure it is something that will crop up very soon, if not under the remainder of this government then surely under the next, once Brexit has fully taken place. I see such an action as being only the start of calls for massive political change by the Left.

This sort of “liberal agitation” as it was known amongst conservatives in the 19th century, is not necessarily a completely bad thing. When people demand better representation it generally stems from a deep dissatisfaction with the political class – something which Brexit already represents, as I have mentioned before on this blog. We can already see that there are problems with the political class as it is at the moment, and that the vast majority of ordinary people want some form of major social change. On the other hand, caving in to “agitation” completely is seldom the best tactic, since such mass-movements can easily be infiltrated by radicals who represent a minority, and would seek to introduce such momentous change which may sound good on paper but would be destructive or undemocratic in practice. We need more democracy, but we must tread carefully.

Allow me to use two case studies: The House of Lords and first-past-the-post voting. I have, throughout my political activity, been generally defensive of the House of Lords against those who would seek to reform it. I generally applaud the meritocratic idea behind a House of Lords with the life peer appointment system. I have never supported an elected upper chamber, being incredibly sceptical of handing over another portion of our legislature to the established parties, only to be controlled by them and used as a rubber stamp on Commons initiatives without the same scrutiny that can be provided by a House of Lords with roughly 200 independent peers with expertise ranging from business to religion and the arts. Nevertheless, I fear that Lords reform is almost inevitable at some point in the future, and has been on the cards for while, even among some in the Conservative Party (despite many cries of “shame!”). As much as the traditionalist in me would be sad to see it go, there is a new opportunity in House of Lords reform. Let’s not work for an elected upper chamber, instead, let’s be even more radical than the radicals who call for a proportionally elected one. Let’s put the demos back into democracy.

Ideally, I would want an upper house which has the same amount of members for each constituent country of the UK, say, 50 members each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But each member, rather than being elected, is drawn by a random lot of the people of those constituent countries, just like jury service. It would probably be prudent to include an opt-out of some kind so that people who wouldn’t want to take part could choose do so. We could also legislate so that employers of people who are chosen to take part for, say one or two-year terms, would be obliged to keep that person’s position in their job open for them upon their return to work once their Parliamentary term had expired. That way, we would have a very democratic chamber checking our elected politicians, and it would be mostly free from the influence of the party establishments. It could even be possible to allow some, for instance another 50 hereditary peers sit in for sake of tradition and to represent their interests – but of course this is all just proposition.

In terms of our voting system, FPTP is not very good in my opinion. I can understand why it might be chosen, considering that MPs are strictly elected to represent the interests of the constituents who elect them, and as such, each MP represents a small community within itself and is sent to Parliament on their locality’s behalf. However, FPTP does have a tendency to degenerate into a two-party system, is susceptible to gerrymandering and corruption, and eventually leads to contained party politics rather than regional and individual politics, and eventually, mass disaffection of large parts of society with the political system (remind you of anything?).

Proportional representation is all very well, but if you apply it across an entire country, you represent the people’s opinions at the expense of local representation. The UK rejected the Alternative Voting system in a 2011 referendum, and it is quite clear that many people would find a radically different voting system confusing, and do not appreciate the hassle of “ranking” candidates, and frankly, after years of simply placing an X next to your preferred party or candidate, I cannot blame them, not to mention the potential instability which would inevitably be the case in a truly proportional system, since if past UK elections are anything to go by, no political party would ever win a majority outright.

My preferred system would be one similar to that used in the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and NI Assembly, the Additional-Member or Mixed-Member system. A number of constituencies could still be used to represent local interests (perhaps reduced in number somewhat from the current 650) and a certain amount of proportionally balanced members to be drawn from the constituent countries based on vote share augmented to those constituency seats. This way we could more easily balance local representation with proportional representation of opinion.

In short – no system is perfect, but with seismic forces shaking our political system to its core, Conservatives need to be ready for change. People want something other than “politics as usual”, and it is the Conservatives who can provide it. We should not pander to the establishment in the name of democracy as the left so often does, we should not sign away our Parliament to the control of two or three major parties. Instead, let’s hold our politicians to account, let’s let the people participate and engage in democracy like never before. We need to be conservative in the face of those who would change our political system for their own benefit. We need to beat them to it – to conserve the British people’s connection with democracy we must be more radical than ever before.

Alex blogs at Burkeanthinker. Follow him on Twitter: @burkeanthinker

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty