Discontent without end looms over Britain. Leavers and Remainers are equally despondent. Her Majesty’s Government and the Labour opposition are equally divided. The United Kingdom is deeply divided between a Europhile Scotland and a Euroskeptic England, between pro-EU English cities (including London) and anti-EU coastal and northern towns. Neither the working nor the ruling class can unite behind any of the Brexit options making the rounds in the House of Commons. Is it any wonder that so many Britons feel anxious and let down by their political system?
And yet, paradoxically, while the current Brexit impasse is pregnant with risk, the British should welcome it. Since 1945, the Europe question has obscured at least eight other questions fundamental to Britain — about itself, its political institutions, and its place in the world. Brexit is now bringing all of them to the fore, and the prevailing discontent is the first condition of addressing them. Indeed, Brexit may empower British democracy to resolve several of the country’s long-standing crises.
First, there is the Irish question. Though partly settled by the Good Friday Agreement a generation ago, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party is re-opening it by insisting that the province, which is part of the UK, must not in any way be distinguished from, say, Wales or the Home Counties.
The Scottish question has been revived as well. Just two years after Scotland’s failed independence referendum in 2014 left nationalists deflated, the 2016 Brexit referendum put wind in their sails again.
There is an English question as well. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s incomplete devolution made the English the UK’s only people not to have their own dedicated assembly or parliament, leaving them dependent on a Westminster parliament that many feel is distant and unrepresentative of their concerns.
Brexit also stress-tested a rigid political party system forged by a first-past-the-post electoral system that limits competition to existing players. As a result, Britain’s parties have come to function like cartels of conflicting agendas.
The 2016 referendum also highlighted the question of direct democracy’s role in British politics. Given growing calls for a second referendum, when and how popular votes should be held must be addressed sooner rather than later.
But the role of representative democracy must be addressed as well. Brexit exposed the myth of the sovereignty of the House of Commons when, in the process of leaving the EU, the government denied Parliament any real say even in how EU legislation should be transcribed into UK law.
Brexit also unleashed pent-up frustration with austerity, which took the form of a moral panic about migration. Free movement of people within the EU obscured the role of domestic budget cuts in curtailing public services and social housing, making an uptick in xenophobia inevitable.
Finally, since the mid-1980s, following Margaret Thatcher’s willful vandalism of British industry, the UK economy has relied on ‘the kindness of strangers’. No other European economy, except Ireland, has needed such large infusions of foreign capital to make ends meet. This is why Britain relies on cheapness: low taxes, low wages, zero-hour contracts, and unregulated finance. If Britain is to move beyond the troika of low skills, low productivity, and slow growth, its citizens must re-think their place in the global economy. Brexit is a splendid opportunity to do so, while shunning calls for even lower wages, taxes, and regulation.
With weeks left before the UK leaves the EU by default, none of the three main options on offer — a no-deal Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, and rescinding Article 50 in order to remain in the EU — commands a majority in Parliament or among the population. Each generates maximum discontent: The no-deal scenario strikes most as a dangerous plunge into the unknown. May’s deal appalls Remainers and is seen by most Leavers as the kind of document only a country defeated at war would sign. Lastly, a Brexit reversal would confirm Leavers’ belief that democracy is allowed only when it yields results favored by the London establishment.
The conventional wisdom in Britain is that this impasse is lamentable, and that it proves the failure of British democracy. I disagree on both counts. If any of the three immediately available options were endorsed, say, in a second referendum, discontent would increase and the larger questions plaguing the UK would remain unanswered. Britons’ reluctance to endorse any Brexit option at present is, from this perspective, a sign of collective wisdom and a rare opportunity to come to terms with the country’s great challenges while re-thinking the UK’s relationship with the EU. But to seize it, the UK must invest in a ‘People’s Debate’, leading, in time, to a ‘People’s Decision’.
The People’s Debate must address six issues: the British constitution, including the creation of an English parliament or multiple regional English assemblies; the electoral system and the role of referenda; the Irish question, including the possibility of joint UK-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland; migration and freedom of movement; Britain’s economic model, particularly the outsize role of finance and the need to boost green investment across the country; and of course the UK-EU relationship.
To be democratic, the People’s Debate must take place in regional assemblies, leading to a national convention, where a menu of options is finalized before the next House of Commons translates them into referendum questions that will enable the People’s Decision by 2022. Thus, the UK government must secure a transition period after the country formally leaves the EU on 29 March, lasting at least until the people can decide three years later.
During the transition period, the UK should remain in the EU customs union and the single market, with freedom of movement and full rights for EU nationals in the UK. Then, in 2022, voters can choose whether to stay in the customs union and the single market, exit completely, or apply to re-enter the EU as a full member.
When discontent is as plentiful as in Britain today, abundant democracy is our best bet.
A former finance minister of Greece he is Professor of Economics at the University of Athens.