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Can Brexit Topple the U.K.’s System of Government?

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The British Government has long been known for its norms, its unwritten constitution, and its historic institutions dating back many centuries. Since 2016, however, and most especially in recent weeks, it finds itself cornered by an unprecedented test of its democracy, in which its parliamentary system, its rare use of popular referendums, and divisions in public option have combined to tie it into knots. All thanks, of course, to Brexit.

When David Cameron, then the Tory prime minister, called a national referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership status in the European Union in 2013, it was the fourth referendum he’d submitted to the voters. The lesson he drew from the first three was that referendum results were eminently predictable. The 2011 Alternative Vote Referendum, the 2013 Falklands Islands Independence Referendum and the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum all had results in line with experts’ anticipations. In putting Brexit on the ballot, Cameron relied on his experts, who told him it would go down in defeat. Since becoming prime minister, he had consistent pressure from rebels in his Conservative Party to renegotiate certain membership agreements with the European Union, such as commitments to a European Army, immigration rules and financial contributions to the bloc, or to leave the EU altogether. A Brexit defeat would shut them up.

“One of the many problems with the referendum in 2016 was it was a ‘call your bluff referendum,’” says Professor Anand Menon, of King’s College in London and Director of U.K. in a Changing Europe, which leads independent research on Brexit and British politics. “It was held so the opponents of the government would have a vote and lose. No serious thought went into the fact the government might lose.”

“There was very big assumption that the status quo would triumph over uncertainty, that people are naturally risk averse,” Menon adds. “It was an assumption rooted in experience, in political science expertise.”

But the Brexit referendum made it possible for Britons to directly express their discontent with government and politics in a way that parliamentary elections seldom do. More than 70 percent of the electorate came out to vote, which was about 3 million more voters than turned out in parliamentary elections one year before. “I think there was just a massive level of distrust in ‘the establishment,’” Menon says. “Distrust of politicians, distrust of economic predictions that politicians make: Remember, we had six years of conservative or coalition government in which we were told that the economy was getting better whereas for people outside the southeast that just wasn’t there experience.”

The Brexit referendum became a powerful tool to voice this distrust and gave increased authority to the Conservative Party rebels, who now make up the party majority.

“Referenda are so powerful because you can point to them and say, ‘We asked the whole people’—and that matters, because it does provide normative weight,” says Julian G. Waller, a PhD candidate in political science specializing in parliamentary systems at the George Washington University.

But, Menon adds, “It is problematic to have a referendum in a system where you have parliamentary sovereignty, because you are pitting two sorts of democracy against each other.”

The June 2016 vote in which the majority of the British people voted to Leave  triggered Article 50 of the European Constitution the following March, which started a two-year countdown clock. However, it provided no instruction on how practically to execute the separation. And 1,180 days and three prime ministers later, the world’s oldest democracy continues to struggle.

Prime Minister Theresa May brought her Brexit withdrawal deal to the British Parliament three times before the original March 31 exit deadline, but suffered historic defeats. An indicative vote, which polled members of Parliament on their preferred way forward, drew no plurality in the House of Commons. The parliamentary gridlock and chaos have only grown worse since she was succeeded by Prime Minster Boris Johnson, who was elected this July by fewer than 100,000 paying members of the Conservative Party.

Johnson entered parliament with a slim majority coalition government but has rapidly proceeded to lose it due to his professed willingness to leave the EU even without a deal, which caused nearly two-dozen members of his own party to reject his position. “This is a weird situation now,” says Waller, “where he neither has confidence in the majority of the elected members of Parliament, nor are they allowing him to call an election.”

Indeed, the British Parliament is now stuck without a single party or coalition-made majority. Normally, for a parliamentary system to become unstuck, you have a new election with the hope of getting a new majority or being able to form a new coalition. And here’s where the particulars of the U.K.’s parliamentary system and of Brexit collide with each other.

“The parliamentary math is nasty,” says Waller. “It doesn’t work for the Brexit people. It doesn’t work for the Remainers.” And though Johnson has lost the support of Parliament, he shields himself with the results of the 2016 Referendum, which may or may not be a source of governmental legitimacy despite the long established sovereignty of the U.K.’s Parliament.

This impasse, however, isn’t necessarily a sign that the U.K.’s democratic system has failed, according to Sarah Repucci of Freedom House. Having the referendum result compete with the sovereign Parliament could be fatal to a country whose government younger and weaker than the U.K.’s, she argues, but not necessarily to Britain’s. As she sees it, neither the referendum results nor the actions of British Parliament have in themselves been undemocratic, even though the U.K.’s parliamentary system was not designed to endure governance by plebiscite.

“Britain is still a healthy democracy, but it puts a strain on the system,” says Repucci, adding that she has faith in the courts to settle this clash.

The British public’s faith may be more selective. New polls show 75 percent of Britons don’t trust the government. Johnson receives criticism for proroguing Parliament and continuing to govern without a majority. He has twice tried to call an election, but lacks the two-thirds majority necessary to authorize it. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, of the Labour Party, called the prorogation of Parliament a “smash and grab on our democracy,” but it, too, is considered legally acceptable under the U.K.’s unwritten constitution.

The most obvious way to move forward would be a new general election, though voters would decide which party to vote for based on a host of reasons—not just the parties’ positions on Brexit. For now, absent such an election, the same MPs will return following the several-week parliamentary recess that Johnson called, most likely revisiting the same divisions they had before they left.

“The fundamental problem we have here is not that Parliament is out of touch, but that Parliament reflects the fact that we don’t know what we want from Brexit,” says Menon. “And the killer thing about Brexit is there’s not a majority for any outcome—either in Parliament or amongst public opinion.”

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