MPs now back Brexit: The changing nature of British democracy

Though a majority of MPs opposed Britain leaving the EU, Parliament's lower chamber overwhelmingly voted to start the exit process. Many say they're following the will of the people, possibly in hopes of maintaining political stability. 

Parliamentary Recording Unit/ AP
This image taken from Parliamentary Recording Unit TV shows the result of the parliamentary vote in favour of the British Government's Brexit Bill being handed to the Speaker of the House of Commons on Wednesday. British lawmakers have backed a bill authorizing the start of European Union exit talks, voting by a decisive 498 to 114 to push the measure past its first major legislative hurdle.

In June, the British people spoke: they wanted Brexit. But abiding by the will of the people may be more complicated than it looks.

In a 498-to-114 vote on Wednesday, members of Parliament backed a bill that moves Britain one step closer to leaving the European Union – in spite of 75 percent of MPs having opposed leaving the EU before the June referendum. During the two days of debate that preceded the vote, many MPs said they had a responsibility to vote as their constituents had in June. Both British Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party also put strong pressure on their MPs to support the Brexit bill.

"We gave the right of judgment on this issue to the British people," said Ms. May during Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday. "They made their choice, they want to leave the EU."

At one level, this vote was merely a formality: it means MPs can now begin debating what shape Britain’s exit from the EU will take. But the vote has also forced MPs to act on their stated commitment to democracy – and justify their role in that democracy – in a rapidly changing, populist, political climate. Their approach to these challenges may shape the British political system for decades to come.

“[Politicians] feel that they’re not legitimate anymore, in the way that they used to be,” says Steven Fielding, a professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, England, in a phone interview with the Monitor, citing popular mistrust of MPs.

That mistrust was certainly evident in June, when Britain voted to leave the EU. Under pressure from Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has long advocated Britain leaving the EU, then-Prime Minister David Cameron allowed a referendum on the measure to take place. At the time, few expected that Britons would choose to leave, and Mr. Cameron likely saw it as a relatively low-cost way to silence his critics, explains Professor Fielding.

“I don’t think David Cameron would have agreed to a referendum if he thought he was going to lose,” he says, describing it as a “severe miscalculation.”

Politicians from the government and opposition joined forces to encourage the British people to “Vote Remain.” They were joined by many academics and much of the press. So when, in the end, Britons voted 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of leaving, it came as a shock to MPs – and served to highlight a divide between politicians and the British people.

That rejection of traditional authority figures is part of a broader global shift, suggests Michael Lind, the co-founder of New America, a Washington, DC-based think tank.

“There are very similar patterns on both sides of the Atlantic,” he tells the Monitor. “The new dynamic is not left versus right, it’s outsider versus insider.”

That dichotomy, he suggests, has contributed to the rise of populists such as US president Donald Trump and to growing support for right-wing nationalists across Europe.

MPs could have decided against supporting Brexit. Britain’s Supreme Court recently ruled that they had to be consulted before May could trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, beginning the process of independence.

But if it was, in large part, a desire to quell growing support for UKIP that led Mr. Cameron to allow the Brexit referendum in the first place, Conservative and Labour politicians this week may have been concerned that voting against the “will of the people” would have been counterproductive.

“Rightly or wrongly, the people have spoken – and many MPs feel that if they are just ignored, there will be a real backlash from people,” writes Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, in an email to the Monitor.

He cites Yvette Cooper, a prominent Labour MP, who said: “It was a referendum that was fought in good faith and nobody said at any time, ‘You know what, I am not going to respect the result afterwards.’”

For the Conservative Party, more narrow political interests may also have played a role, writes Martin Smith, a professor of politics at the University of York, England.

“The focus of the Prime Minister seems to be on short-term political interests of trying to win votes and maintain the unity of the Conservative Party,” he tells the Monitor in an email.

Though many MPs backed the vote in order to maintain political stability and attempt to regain the people’s trust, the vote appears to have simultaneously challenged the foundations of democracy.  

“The trouble with ‘will of the constituents’ is which ones? Is it your district/constituency? Is it England? Is it UK, and what about representing the different voices and votes of the four nations?” writes Mark Shephard, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. “It also depends on your view of representation. Are you a trustee of the people or a delegate of the people?”

On Wednesday, an unprecedented number of MPs went against their party’s “three-line whip,” a strenuous directive to vote along party lines. In most cases, these were MPs whose constituents had voted to remain in the EU. The whip also left no room for conscience, although representatives are typically entrusted to make decisions on behalf of the people.

Given that 62 percent of people in Scotland backed remaining in the EU in June, the vote has raised questions about the future of the UK as a bloc.

“If [the government does] not respect the democratic will of the Scottish people to remain in the EU it will be the beginning of the end of this dis-United Kingdom,” said Scottish National Party (SNP) politician Hannah Bardell MP during the debate, the BBC reported. The SNP opposed triggering Article 50.

Intriguingly, the very act of engaging in democracy seems to have made MPs more skeptical of democracy. Britain has long struggled with a problem of low election turnout, and turnout for the Brexit referendum was far higher than most elections. But that may not herald a “golden age” for democracy, says Fielding of the University of Nottingham.

The issue is, he says, asking for popular input can result in contradictory policies that “make it impossible to have a coherent government.” He cites propositions in California (a leading example of ballot initiative direct democracy) that call for high government spending at the same time as low taxes.

In polling conducted for The Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London and The UK in a Changing Europe, 49 percent of MPs said they were less in favor of direct democracy than before. And while half of MPs think they should approve the final deal with the EU, just 13 percent supported asking the people’s opinion in a referendum.

“Their experience has clearly not made them more positive about participatory democracy in general,” Professor Cowley of Queen Mary University of London said in the press release announcing these findings.

If referenda aren’t a cure-all, how can politicians build a bridge to the people, in Britain and abroad? In the United States, at least, it’s still a work in progress, says Dave Hopkins, assistant professor of political science at Boston College.

“There are obviously some commonalities between Brexit and the rise of the nationalist right in Europe and Trump,” he says. “I think both political parties in this country are trying to figure out what that means for them.”

But meeting people where they are, and starting a conversation that recognizes their concerns, may be a start, says Mr. Lind of New America.

“You can’t simply begin the conversation by saying there’s no problem here,” he explains, adding, “You [should be] persuading people, not vilifying them.”

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