‘THIS Parliament is a dead Parliament!’ boomed the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox just over two years ago, at the height of the Brexit debacle.
In fact, Representative Democracy as a system essentially died at that time, its credibility destroyed by the arrogant refusal of both the executive and MPs to enact the will of the people. It briefly stuttered back into life with the Conservatives’ landslide victory against Corbyn, and had this government stuck to the agenda it was elected on it is just possible to imagine that, subject to reform, it might have survived. As it is, the grotesque spectacle of COP26 has certainly sealed its fate.
Last week an important psychological bridge was crossed: there were widespread demands across the political Right for a referendum on the green agenda. Allister Heath in the Telegraph led the charge, echoed by Richard Tice of the Reform Party, who seems to be moving towards advocating a Swiss style system, and Nigel Farage. A poll by the Telegraph showed more in favour than against the idea. In fact, the use of referenda has been creeping up on for decades: we have had them on a new voting system, devolution, Scottish independence and, of course, Brexit. Significantly, though, these were all seen as constitutional issues. Last week was the first time there has been a serious call for a national referendum on domestic policy.
What has changed? Britain’s system of representative democracy has always been far from perfect: an ‘elective dictatorship’ in Lord Hailsham’s famous phrase, and one in which it is almost impossible for insurgents to challenge the two-party duopoly. (Given that the Tories have almost always prioritised office over ideology, many conservatives ruefully observe that it is really a monopoly, with the country inexorably drifting leftwards over time.)
The answer is that the pure representative model has been fatally undermined by the rise of the global cognitive elite and their rich, deep networks of relationships and communication that are such a feature of the information age. It is not a matter of vast conspiracies controlled by some sinister Dr No figure, but something both far more banal and powerful – the natural, organic tendency towards subconscious alignment of self-interest that is a consequence of intensive communication. Networks also have another immensely powerful property – they contain no single point of failure. Thus, even though we have exited the EU, other paths and nodes such as the UN still exist for forwarding radical elite agendas – as COP26 illustrates.
However, the networked culture of the elites has one enormous weakness – the closed groupthink they indulge in makes them blind to political optics: watching the jet-setting hypocrites at COP26 brings to mind the closing sentences of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, when the animals look from man to pig and back again. Similarlytheelite’s refusal to accept the result of the 2016 EU Referendum did them far greater long-term political damage than Brexit itself.
Consequently, people now see more clearly than ever that we live in a Potemkin democracy. Green zealotry may be the elite’s issue du jour, but it is only one in the list of major issues such Islam, mass immigration, the transgender madness and the culture wars where they are in direct and permanent conflict with the masses. As a result, the calls for a hybrid direct/representative democratic system will grow louder and louder. It will no doubt be a long hard road, but ultimately I don’t think politicians will be able to hold the line. The question we should turn to is exactly what form the new system should take: we would be very foolish to rely on our opponents remaining flat-footed for ever, and those in power will plainly try to construct a system that they can manipulate to their advantage.
Therefore, we must grab the initiative and start thinking immediately about how to fit referenda into our constitution: how should they be triggered, and by whom? What constitutes a fit and proper question, and who sits in judgment over it? What power in law do they have if passed? What censure can the people take if politicians refuse, as they did with Brexit, to honour the result? On what grounds can they override an explicit manifesto commitment? How soon can the same or similar question be asked again? What safeguards are there to ensure an unbalanced, factual narrative – not just during campaigns but in the years leading up to them? (Carole Cadwalladr may be as mad as a box of frogs, but she did have a point about the lack of auditing of campaign ads on social media during the EU referendum. It is very easy to see how long-term semi-covert social media campaigns by powerful interests could be used to mould opinion and then push for referenda on some issues – drug legalisation being a prime example.) How are referenda financed, and from what sources are campaign contributions allowed? Of course, the results of such deliberation should be put to the people in – you guessed it – a referendum.
The wheel of history has once again turned: last weekend was Guy Fawkes night, once celebrated as a national deliverance from arbitrary power, but during my lifetime more as a great ‘Up Yours” towards the elite, with Fawkes himself seen as an increasingly sympathetic, even iconic, figure. More than 400 years after the fact, the moral legitimacy of the institution he sought to destroy has gone for ever. It is only through a new, more directly democratic system that, to borrow a famous slogan, we can truly ‘Take Back Control’.