This epic fight in parliament could lead to a new, better democracy in Britain

By | December 19, 2018

Martin Kettle writes:

Revolutions do not always take place violently in public squares, in the streets around the bourses or in front of the palaces. Sometimes they take place quietly, slowly, unobserved and indoors. Sometimes they even happen without the revolutionaries themselves quite understanding what they are doing that is so transformative.

It may seem hard to believe, and there is undoubtedly a seasonal element of hope exceeding expectation in saying this, but something of this kind may be happening in front of our Brexit-battered eyes. As the Brexit argument grinds on into Christmas and the new year, we may in fact be living through the start of a quiet constitutional revolution.

Here’s why. Westminster’s Christmas party game is hunt the majority. Around 320 votes are needed for a majority in the Commons on any Brexit issue. With 90 of her 316 Tory MPs against her and the DUP opposing it too, Theresa May is well short of 320 for her Brexit deal. But there isn’t a majority for any other proposition that the government might bring forward either.

There are, however, latent majorities within the Commons for quite a range of Brexit propositions. A majority of MPs oppose a no-deal exit. A majority could be found for a better deal than May’s. And there may be a majority, when push comes to shove in January, for a second referendum of some kind.

The question facing Britain, therefore, is how can one or other of those latent majorities be set free so that it can impose itself on the parliamentary decision-making process? Here, there are two structural problems – and it is here that the quiet revolution, if it is to happen, may be gathering momentum.

The first of these problems is party politics. The two main parties are split on Brexit. Their respective factions could, in theory, cooperate between themselves, and with the minor parties, to produce 320 and more on any of the Brexit issues mentioned above. But Britain’s inherited political culture is destructively partisan. The pressure to vote with party, even it involves doing the wrong thing, remains strong, and the penalties for not doing so are great. Solving Brexit in parliament therefore requires either that one main party changes in order to cooperate with the other, or that enough MPs from one or both break with party in order to achieve the same objective. [Continue reading…]

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