Like it or not, despite the best efforts of many of us, it seems Brexit might actually happen. Whilst I continue to hope it doesn’t, it is worthwhile considering what happens next.
The recent conference “Brexit: What Now, What Next” considered certain constitutional arrangements which Brexit had put under the spotlight, particularly those between the devolved parliaments and Westminster, and between the constituent parts of the UK, as well as our European neighbours.
No mention was made of the UK’s electoral system, “first past the post”. I can’t help thinking that FPTP is largely responsible for Brexit and for parliament’s inability to find a way out of the mess Brexit has caused. Brexit is, I reckon, a great advert for proportional representation.
FPTP wasn’t used in the UK until 1884, not even 150 years ago, so whilst some people seem very attached to it, it doesn’t have a long historical pedigree.
Creating the Conditions for Brexit
There are many putative causes for Brexit. One of them was the feeling that that votes didn’t have a voice and that Britain was run by a “metropolitan elite”. One of the effects of FPTP is that it creates “safe seats” which are unlikely to change hands during an election, meaning that few votes actually determine the outcome of an election. Voters feel it doesn’t matter who they vote for.
The referendum gave voters a chance to express their anger.
Under proportional systems, most votes cast can influence the outcome. One’s voice is heard. Every vote counts.
The Two Party System
FPTP promotes a two party system: it is hard for third parties, such as the LibDems or UKIP to gain traction.
This has prevented the two main parties in the UK from separating into what might be their logical constituent parts: left- and right- wing Europhile and Europhobic parties.
It has been suggested that David Cameron called a referendum on Britain’s place in the EU as a way to keep his party together. If PR had been in place, they might have split decades before, since each faction might have felt it had a viable position outside of the main party structure.
One common argument against PR is that it leads to coalitions. I view this as a strength: a coalition represents the views of more of the electorate than support a single party.
It would also mean a party wishing to hold a referendum would need to convince its coalition partners. I believe this would have greatly reduced the likelihood of Cameron calling a referendum.
I also think it would have made scrutiny of the enabling legislation for a referendum on such a large constitutional change more effective: to pass such legislation would have required building support for it, including putting safeguards in place.
The British government has shown itself to be an inept negotiator. Theresa May, perhaps to keep the hardliners in her party happy, treated the 52/48 result as 100% in favour of Brexit. Despite her warm words when she took office, she hasn’t tried to bring the country together or build bridges between Remainers and Leavers. The referendum chose Leave, and the rest of us have to lump it.
She didn’t even try to build a consensus in parliament, even after her ill-timed election took her majority away.
And so she has found her plans blocked by parliament, split between those who want Brexit but not her plan and those who would prefer to stay in the EU (a better deal for the UK than either her plan or a hard Brexit).
If parliament had been elected under PR, the prime minister would have had to appeal to whatever coalition might have been formed: they’d have had to include a plurality of views, which might have lead to more equitable, open negotiations – no “red lines” etched in stone. And maybe they’d have had a broader range of skills to choose from, too.
If – IF – Brexit happens on March 29, no one knows what will happen next. Because with six weeks left, we don’t know what Brexit will be like. Should some form of deal be reached, the next couple of years – the transition period – very little will have changed. Ardent Leavers will be mighty disappointed; everyone else will breathe a sigh of relief.
If there’s no deal, and the forecast food and medicine shortages come to pass as Kent becomes a lorry park as we crash out – well, maybe everyone will be disappointed.
Either way, the UK faces years more negotiations on a trade deal in which the EU hours all the cards. And a national conversation as we seek to find our place in the world.
It is unlikely that either scenario will heal the deep divisions in either the Tory or Labour parties, particular if a far right party such as that mooted recently by Nigel Farage comes to pass. The Tory and Labour parties both seem fissile. (I actually wrote this a few days ago. Today seven Labour party MPs left to sit as independents.)
It is possible – maybe even likely – that either Scotland or Northern Ireland will seek to leave the UK.
Such large scale constitutional changes might yet serve to drive demand for proportional representation.