Brexit, shutdowns, and the architecture of democracy

Why We Wrote This

Britain and the United States are both gridlocked by political discord. Whether these two democratic icons can find a way forward could profoundly affect the global appeal of their form of government.

Toby Melville/Reuters
British and EU flags flutter outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Jan. 30.

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They aren’t just any democracies. Britain’s “Mother of Parliaments” served as a blueprint for many countries, and the US Congress and constitutional system of checks and balances have been an even more influential beacon for emerging democracies. Both systems are now facing extraordinary architectural strain, much like Big Ben, whose towering presence above Britain’s Houses of Parliament is swathed in scaffolding – and silent. The stakes for liberal democracies are enormous, especially as “illiberal democracy” rises. In the United States, presidential power has been growing, while congressional dealmaking has given way to raw tribalism. In Britain, Tony Blair’s election in the 1990s embodied a move toward a more “presidential” government, a trend reinforced by David Cameron, who called the EU referendum – a rarity in Britain, where political sovereignty rests with Parliament. But Parliament has been reasserting itself. And in Washington, the shutdown jolt might reawaken bipartisan bargaining. British columnist Clare Foges recently noted that while rights abuses were not “an acceptable price to pay for ambitious government,” democracies must do better. “Our own much-vaunted political system,” she wrote, “can be painfully slow and timid.”

It would be hard to invent a more powerful symbol: Big Ben, towering above Britain’s Houses of Parliament, now silent and swathed in scaffolding. The building where Parliament itself meets is next in line, which will force lawmakers to decamp for the first time since World War II. Magnificent-looking structures, they’re creakingly in need of internal repairs.

The same might be said of Britain’s parliamentary system, as it fumbles its way toward some workable form of Brexit – withdrawal from decades-long membership of the European Union. And of the United States, where the federal government has just emerged, at least for now, from a record-long partial shutdown that has shaken the political faith of many Americans.

Both countries have fallen victim to a mix of political gridlock and dysfunction. But the potential implications stretch far beyond their borders, for these aren’t just any democracies. Britain’s so-called Mother of Parliaments served as a blueprint for many countries once part of the British Empire. The US Congress, and the constitutional system of checks and balances of which it is a part, have been an even brighter beacon for emerging democracies worldwide. 

With both democracies increasingly looking unable to cope, the stakes for those who believe in liberal democracies – and their bedrock principles, such as human rights and the rule of law – are enormous. That’s especially true when other countries are providing alternative models: more closed command systems whose leaders shrug off any need for serious accountability or limits on their power. Given the current state of confusion in the West’s two leading democracies, these systems proffer an asset Britain and the US can’t: an ability to set major policy tasks and actually get them done.

China is widening its international influence, in part through a huge finance and infrastructure program called Belt and Road that echoes the Americans’ postwar Marshall Plan in Europe. At a time when Brexit is not just hamstringing Britain but unsettling the European Union, newer member states like Poland and Hungary are shunning the British and US models in favor of “illiberal democracy,” taking aim at institutional or legal checks on central power. 

Washington and London are facing an extraordinary stress test on their institutions of government. Through the early 2000s, globalization was ascendant, and successive British prime ministers and US presidents played an enthusiastic part. Yet especially since the economic crash of 2008, a new breed of politician has been giving voice to resentment and raw anger among people who’ve felt left behind.

And like Big Ben, the British and US systems have been under their own architectural strains. In America, the power of the presidency has been growing.

In Congress, the kind of dealmaking essential to asserting coequal standing with the other government branches has given way to raw tribalism. That’s true even for many senators who, with their six-year terms, were meant to have the time and space to function as a more deliberative body. 

In Britain, Tony Blair’s election in the 1990s embodied a move toward a more US-style “presidential” government, a trend reinforced by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the 2016 referendum on Brexit. Referendums are exceedingly rare in Britain, where political sovereignty rests with Parliament, and that has led to the greatest stress test of all. The vote went in favor of leaving the EU. A majority of the Members of Parliament believed, and still believe, that Brexit risks damaging the country politically and economically.

With the clock ticking toward March 29, when Britain is formally due to leave, Parliament has been reasserting itself. MPs are groping for ways to get some sort of exit deal on which a majority can agree and, failing that, to slow things down and allow for further negotiations with the EU. 

In Washington, the jolt of the shutdown could also lead to some reawakening of old-style bipartisan bargaining and deliberation in Congress.

But a British columnist recently suggested a longer-term challenge. Writing about the “strongmen” leading China, Russia, Hungary, and Turkey, Clare Foges said that while human-rights abuses were not “an acceptable price to pay for ambitious government,” democracies needed to demonstrate a renewed ability to identify, address, and tackle major issues. 

“Our own much-vaunted political system,” she wrote, “can be painfully slow and timid.”

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