A national unity government to block no-deal Brexit? It would do nothing more than dig the nation’s grave

Touted as a way to stop no deal, such a move would subvert party democracy

Lea Ypi
Saturday 10 August 2019 13:09
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The metaphor of the body politic can be an attractive one to think about political community, especially when the body is on the verge of collapse and you have a name for the disease: Brexit. The UK has been branded “the sick man of Europe” and needs a good cure before it is too late. What better suggestion than the idea of a national unity government, united only by the noble purpose of extending Article 50 to avert no deal?

The idea of a government of national unity to prevent a no-deal Brexit is a destructive contradiction.

First, there is a contradiction in its appeal to the nation. A government of national unity identifies the whole nation with the part opposed to a no-deal Brexit. It not only ignores the will of the other part of the nation, inclined to leave the EU, and indeed leave by 31 October, but denies its claim to be part of the nation, even in name.

Second, there is a contradiction in the promise of unity. A national unity government would sharpen divisions, not only in the nation as a whole but in its parts. A cross-party government formed and dissolved with the sole purpose of fixing Brexit by extending Article 50 (assuming a further extension is any kind of fix) can avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of its very consequential decisions.

By its temporary nature, by its concentration of executive discretion, by its absence of a wider programmatic commitment, it lacks the democratic credentials to chart a process of future reconciliation. It prevents citizens from linking their grievances on Brexit to wider political issues, and to engage with the deeper question of what kind of society they all want to share.

Not only does the solution sharpen divisions in the nation, it sharpens them in its political parties. In parliamentary democracies, these are the primary agents that help citizens distinguish their political views, the principles they subscribe to, and the selection of policies that reflect their commitments.

A government of national unity is the work of all but the responsibility of none. Such is the hope of course, yet British history has not been kind to pioneers of national unity. Lloyd George, the artifice of a power-sharing deal with the Conservatives in 1916, was the last prime minister the Liberals ever had. In 1931, Ramsay Macdonald’s decision to form a government of national unity with the Tories led to his expulsion from the party, and to Labour being wiped out of power until 1945. This was of course the year that marked the end of yet another government of national unity, and with it the eclipse of the prime minister that championed it – that same prime minister about whom Boris Johnson has written a biography and of whom he admires so much.

These were extreme circumstances. Only in the fantasies of the most ardent Leavers can Brexit be compared to a world war. Nor can it be compared to the Great Depression, though some Remainers have tried. Still, the fact that parties are systematically punished for their participation in governments of national unity is not the result of unfortunate historical accident. It is the logical expression of a very basic democratic tension, one where in consequential political moments, politicians that owe their power to the people they represent, turn crucial political decisions into matters for professionals.

The price of cross-party unity is the depoliticisation of those very political problems that move people to associate with parties in the first place; these problems classified as accidents that must be averted rather than as products of human will.

This leads to the third contradiction in the idea of a Brexit-stopping national unity government: the government part of the formulation. A government is an agent that uses executive power to make decisions in the name of the people. Its actions are supposed to be rooted in an organic web of democratic processes and institutions that enable the people’s will to be articulated in an intelligible way.

This is why parties have conference debates and decisions, leadership campaigns, electoral manifestos. This is why they are chosen to represent citizens, and how they are held accountable for their performance in government, and in opposition. This is why popular sovereignty is the soul of the body politic.

A government of national unity led by backbenchers rather than the current leader of the opposition would not only suspend party democracy in the present, it would destroy confidence in it for the future. Just like the denial of authority to the 17 million or so citizens who voted Brexit, the denial of dignity to the half-million Labour members represented by Corbyn reveals the enduring inability of pro-Remain elites to comprehend, let alone relate to, opinions they oppose.

Both are treated as some kind of disease from which we will be cured, provided the right treatment is found. Both display the same thoughtlessness vis-a-vis the process that led to these decisions, and the likely consequences of further ignoring their rationale. This is the way not to solve Brexit but to dig the sick man’s grave.

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