Britain’s Constitution Is Feeling The Strain Of Brexit

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When British prime ministers fall they fall very quickly. Either by defeat in a general election or from unstoppable pressures from MPs in their own parties. It is the latter that has done for Theresa May. If she loses the fourth attempt to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons in the early days of June she will resign. We know that because that’s the what she agreed to when her party’s most senior grandees visited her at No.10 Downing Street 10 a few days ago. All the rumblings from Westminster are that she will again lose the vote. Then she’ll be gone, to be a footnote in history.

Mrs May could be asked to stay on as prime minister for just as long as it takes her party to quickly elect a new leader, who will also become prime minister. It is more likely that her party will ask her deputy, David Liddington, to step up until a new leader is found. That’s assuming Liddington himself does not announce he is a candidate for the leadership. The list of declared contenders is already enormously long. Conservative MPs will hold a series of ballots until just two final candidates emerge. The matter then goes to the party’s members across the UK. There’s about 70,000 members, so just 70,000 people will hold the fate of the UK in their hands. This way of doing things is eating away at democratic politics in the UK.

Mrs May herself came to power simply by agreement inside the higher ranks of the Conservative party, when all other hopefuls dropped out. Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister who led his party to three successive General Election victories, was eventually forced out by his job and replaced by Gordon Brown. May and Brown came to the top job with no mandate from the electorate. When Mrs May tried to get a mandate by calling a General Election she lost her majority and with it the endorsement of the nation. So, we have a government with no parliamentary majority about to elect a new prime minister for Britain, voted for not by the nation but by a tiny minority of 70,000, mostly over 50 years of age, members of the Conservative party.

This time around, with Brexit having split the UK like no other event in its history, the site of a politician securing the highest office in the land without any form of mandate from the people is likely only to widen division rather than heal it.

The disenfranchised
Much is wrong with the British constitution. More and more people are dissatisfied with the first past the post (FPTP) electoral system that greatly favours the two big parties. With as little as 35% of the votes, one of the big two parties can win total control of parliament and government for five years.

FPTP means that some seats, known as “safe seats” are held by the same party for decades. In the City of Canterbury, in England’s South East corner, the same flavour of politics held the parliamentary seat from 1832 until 2017. The modern Conservative party held the seat for over 100 years. If you voted for another party your vote was wasted. A unique set of circumstances gave Labour victory in Canterbury in 2017, though with a majority of under 200 votes.

Brexit has shaken to its roots the confidence most people once felt about the British was of managing its national government. It is now common to hear people say that neither of the big two parties represent how they feel about the world. These are the disenfranchised and they are in every part of society in every part of the land.

The clamour for a system of proportional representation is growing from right and left, though don’t expect change soon.

The method of voting for Westminster seats is only one of the many ills perceived in the way this ancient democracy does things. The unelected House of Lords now has over 700 members (in addition to the 650 elected Members of Parliament in the UK’s House of Commons). The membership of the House of Lords is bigger than the number of US Senators and members of the House of Representatives combined.

Money talks
Britain’s ordinary voters are increasingly worried about how big money has eased its way into the country’s political life. All over central London are so-called Think Tanks that are often fronts for political or commercial interests. The finances of these are organisations are usually kept hidden. Every day, their spokespeople appear on TV and radio. They have huge presence and huge influence, but nobody knows who’s behind them. Are they American billionaires? Giant tobacco, oil or pharmaceutical companies? The Russian state? Arms manufacturers? Who knows? Not the public.

Then there’s the matter of how political parties raise money. The Conservative party gets millions of pounds from big business and very rich individuals. Labour raises most of its funding from the Trades Unions. The big two parties attract the big bucks because once in power the winning party has total control, so the donors can expect easy access to ministers and have a big say on decision making. In a system where the winner takes all,
money really counts.

The itch for change is getting stronger and a sensible government of the near future would be wise to set up a commission to sit for two years, take evidence and then present the country with a plan of reform. That’s what a sensible country would do. Whether a Britain polarised by Brexit can tackle such a big issue has to be in doubt. Most tragically, the longer the sore of a broken constitution is left unhealed the more open will become
the wounds and the more disengaged from moderate, peaceful, legal politics people are likely to become.

Martin Roche is a graduate of the great and ancient University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he read politics and international relations. He began his working life on a daily newspaper in Scotland and has since written for many newspapers, magazines and radio stations in the UK and internationally. As a communications consultant, he has advised political and business leaders in over 20 countries.

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