We are living in a time of unprecedented democratic crisis - of which Brexit is a symptom not a cause, argues Janet Daley in an oped commentary.
Jeremy Corbyn blamed the breakdown of the cross-party Brexit talks on the "weakness and instability" of Theresa May's Government. To which Mrs May responded that the talks had failed because "...there is not a common position in Labour about whether they want to deliver Brexit or hold a second referendum which could reverse it".
They were both right. Which is to say, the leadership of both major parties is utterly discredited. What satisfaction they may gain from trashing one another is neither here nor there. Their credibility in the country is gone. The leaders themselves are in a race to the bottom in opinion polls. And the minor parties are simply serving the purpose of protest vehicles for a furious electorate: none of them, at this point, offers anything that could count as a plausible prospectus for government.
Voters would be within their rights to ask, quite seriously, whether anyone in this game is seriously interested in governing at all, or even in conducting a sensible discussion about what the business of running a national government consists of now. We have grown so accustomed to this chaos that it threatens to become normalised, but it is very important to appreciate how very startling it is. I certainly cannot recall a time in British political life when both main parties were almost universally regarded as useless. Generally the prevailing disenchantment is with the party in power while (at least some) hope and optimism is attached to the Opposition - especially if it has been out of office for a long period. But for both parties to be pretty much equally despised is, I think, quite unprecedented in modern times.
There is an obvious temptation to attribute this phenomenon to Brexit - or rather, to the referendum on Brexit which broke the unity of both the major parties. But the referendum result was a symptom, not a cause of this massive breakdown of public trust in what we must call "the governing class". It simply crystallised and made unavoidably, devastatingly clear what had been an amorphous sense of alienation.
The organised, relentless attempt to countermand that result on the part of a huge swathe of political and economic forces has been shocking - if not surprising - to those voters who really did believe that this time their expressed wish would not be disregarded. It is truly heartbreaking to hear ordinary people (some in my own extended family) say, in genuine despair: "They don't care what we think." This goes way beyond cynicism or vague distrust. It is outrage of a visceral kind that is unprecedented in living memory. The worst of it is that no lessons whatever seemed to have been learned - except by the wrong people.
There are plenty of opportunists and rabble-rousers on the scene ready to make hay out of this. They will serve their fleeting purpose as vehicles for dissent and embarrassment to the mainstream parties but they will not - cannot - provide any substantive answers because the wrong questions are still being asked, while the right ones are scarcely mentioned.
There is a critical loss of confidence in government in much of the democratic West: a sense that what was once one's own country is being run by some world-dominating club to serve its own interests.
When anybody claims that there is a crisis of democracy, they are assumed to be referring to the systematic attempt to undermine the referendum result, as if that vote was the defining democratic act of our time. In fact, that is not true. The referendum result was not itself legally binding. It was only the Supreme Court's decision (thank you, Gina Miller) that Parliament must pass the result into law that made it so. Thus did it become, in the constitutionally accepted way, binding on Government.
But the flouting of that Act of Parliament is not the real democratic scandal. The discussion that should be dominating the public debate is whether true self-government within nation states can remain possible in an age of globalisation. In a world where international players dominate economic and geopolitical reality, can the idea of an elected government accountable to its own populations survive?
The Remain lobby says, in so many words, that it cannot. Indeed, this is their principle argument: the world is too big for parochial little guys who want to make their own way with their own leaders making decisions on their behalf. At least, that is what they say when they deign to argue at all. Mostly they just smear their Leave opponents as bigoted know-nothings. But the terms of that abuse all add up to this one significant point: Britain cannot go it alone in the way for which it has been renowned, with only its unique institutions and the judgment of its own population to guide it. The world is a different place now: you have to belong to a much bigger conglomerate whose authority must take precedence over your piddling little outfit if you are to have any chance of competing for business, making your mark, having your voice heard, etc, etc.
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This may or may not be true. (Most of the factual evidence suggests that it is not.) Either way, it is the argument that must be called out. It must be seen for what it is with all its deeply unattractive implications. This is what the case for Remain really amounts to: the democratic nation state is the past. The corporatist global bloc is the future.
It is that inexorable logic that is sensed by so many of the dissident "populist" forces in Europe and even beyond the EU. For there is a critical loss of confidence in government in much of the democratic West: a sense that what was once one's own country is being run by some world-dominating club to serve its own interests, and that this global hegemony regards ordinary people with contempt ("They don't care what we think").
If the real debate can be flushed out into the open, there might be a very different set of heroes and villains on the stage. Perhaps the benighted bigots of media legend are really the true advocates of liberty and their enlightened cosmopolitan critics are actually the placemen of self-serving international monopolies. Maybe that is the story that is yet to be told. The first politicians who dare to tell it could be the ones to rescue their party from oblivion.
* Janet Daley was born in America, and taught philosophy before beginning her political life on the Left (before moving to Britain, and the Right, in 1965)