Is Brexit a crisis for the Parliamentary system?

Everyone knows American democracy is a gong show. As Joe Heath argues a few posts below, it’s so bad that Americans have given up even thinking about how to reform their institutions. Francis Fukuyama says the country is suffering remorseless institutional decay. And surely Trumpism is the final proof, if any is needed, of how messed up things are down south.

Then there’s Tyler Cowen, who had this thought about Brexit (I bolded a few things worth emphasizing)

4. More generally, might the Parliamentary system be worse than many people think?  I’ve seen it praised so many times in the blogosphere for its clean, swift, up or down properties.  But when there is a leadership void, it hits the legislative and executive branches together, and either before or after the void it is possible to shift very badly off course very rapidly.  There are fewer intermediate institutions or checks and balances to set things right, and as Martin Wolf noted: “36 per cent of eligible voters have been allowed to decide “without any appropriate checks and balances””.  The suddenness of the Brexit problems could not happen easily in the United States, and along a number of fronts the American system of government is looking pretty good these days.  For now.  So many trials of endurance!

Now, Tyler Cowen is a really smart guy. He’s also a relentless intellectual troll — on any given day, I’d wager he sincerely believes somewhere between 1/3 and 3/5 of what he writes on his blog. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. See what people who don’t fish don’t get about trolling is that while sometimes it reveals the bad faith of the one doing the trolling, other times it is the trolled who reveal themselves.

So, ok,  I’ll bite.

There are basically two propositions here. First, that Brexit has revealed hitherto unforeseen or unappreciated flaws in the Parliamentary system. The second, that the US system is doing pretty well, not just in comparison to the UK but in general, “along a number of fronts.”

I’ll leave that second proposition as an exercise for the reader (or maybe a later blogpost) and focus on the first notion. At first blush, it would seem that Cowen has a point — there does seem to be a leadership void or vacuum in the UK. John Cassidy made that exact claim in the New Yorker a few days ago: The head of government, David Cameron, is a lame duck who has essentially washed his hands of the whole business. The leader of the supposed government in waiting, Jeremy Corbyn, is fighting a revolt by pretty much his entire caucus. As Cassidy puts it: “In the U.K.’s political system, if the heads of the government and the main opposition party don’t provide guidance, nobody else is in a position to do so.” (I guess the head of the Bank of England doesn’t count?)

That sounds pretty bad. And I suppose a system like the American one, where there’s a President, a powerful Senate, a Speaker of the House, even a Vice President, any of whom could (in theory) show political leadership, might look better on the face of it. But the thing about Parliamentary systems  is that they are supposed to be resistant to this sort of leadership vacuum precisely because of the clean and swift workings of responsible government.

So what has gone wrong in the UK?

1. Let’s start with the Brexit referendum itself. As lots of people have pointed out, it carries no legal or constitutional weight, it is merely advisory. We’ve got in the habit of using them, here in Canada, to give yay or nay to big constitutional questions, and that’s something the Brits have gone and copied over Brexit. Is it a good idea? I’m really not so sure. Regardless, a referendum is hardly a normal parliamentary instrument.

2. In a situation like the Brexit vote, the normal working of things should probably have seen an immediate change of leadership of the government, and/or a quick election to sort things out. But in the UK, responsible government has been confounded by a few things, not least of which is the country’s fixed election date law. Passed in 2011, the act fixes election dates every five years, unless there’s a no confidence vote in the Commons, during which the House has two weeks to vote confidence in a new government, or two thirds of the seats in the Commons vote for an early election. The prime minister cannot simply advise the Queen to dissolve parliament in order to take a pressing issue to the people for a new mandate.

3. Not only is the normal working of responsible government all gummed up, but the under-appreciated function of responsible opposition has gone all haywire as well. With the absolute shambles that Cameron has made of Brexit and its aftermath, the loyal opposition should be screaming for the prime minister’s head, demanding an election, and otherwise forcing the issue in any number of ways. Except it isn’t going that way, because the Opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, isn’t leading anything. He half-assed his way through the referendum, his Shadow Cabinet has quit on him, and he has the support of around 40 of Labour’s 229 MPs.

So why hasn’t he quit, or been summarily replaced by a more effective leader, who would, in turn, hold the government’s feet to the fire? Because Labour itself went and gummed things up. They recently moved to a “one member one vote” leadership process, where anyone with 3 pounds to spare could sign up as a party “supporter” and vote for the leader of their choice. The upshot? As Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit explains:

Left-wing activists flooded into Labour to vote for Corbyn, with the unprecedented consequence in British politics that a parliamentary party was left with a leader which it did not support. The problem in the referendum was not only that Corbyn campaigned half-heartedly, and was even accused of actively undermining the Labour Remain campaign, but that his presence from the very outset meant that the media and public had ceased taking Labour seriously.

Here’s the key point: All three of these innovations — the referendum, the fixed election date law, and the grassroots election of the party leader — are perversions of the Westminster system. (See this piece by Adam Radwanski for an excellent warning to Canadians on this third point). That is, pace Tyler Cowen, it isn’t the Parliamentary system that is failing here, it is a Parliamentary system that has had a bunch of kludges bolted on to it to make it more “democratic,” and, in the case of fixed election dates at least, more like a presidential system.

So don’t blame Parliament for the Brexit fiasco, blame the innumerable reformers who can’t leave the most successful political system in the world well enough alone.


Is Brexit a crisis for the Parliamentary system? — 1 Comment

  1. Small quibble:

    From the quote by Meg Russell:
    “…with the unprecedented consequence in British politics that a parliamentary party was left with a leader which it did not support.”

    But the party DID support the leader: the members voted for him, after all (on a FPTP basis, I wonder?). It is the Labour MPs who do not support him, but they hardly constitute the membership of the party.