Brexit has shown the crucial flaw in our democracy – there is only one way to solve it

Our parliament is made up of one chamber whose representatives are elected by a system that ensures most people don’t get what they want, and another populated by old boys and cronies

Adam Ramsay
Saturday 26 January 2019 15:37
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Brexit: £17 billion already ripped out of UK public purse due to decision to quit EU, research shows

Brexit is but one crevasse of a constitutional crisis as deep as the Mariana Trench.

We see this crisis in the dark money that flooded into the referendum campaign, through Britain’s network of overseas territories and crown dependencies.

We see it in the failure of our regulators and our police to protect our democracy: it took the work of journalists to show that referendum rules were broken because those who are supposed to enforce these laws lack the time, money or motivation.

We see this in the national distribution of the Leave vote in our multinational state: the result was delivered by England-without-London: a country without constitutional expression, whose post-imperial identity is shaped by those who obsess about nations.

We see it in Northern Ireland, where the failure of the British to consider the border before the referendum is just another symptom of the neglect of a country whose government hasn’t sat for two years.

We see it in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to Remain but which will be pulled from the EU anyway.

We see it in Wales, where the valleys voted Leave, not despite receiving EU funds, but because they saw how badly Britain’s – and Wales’ – overcentralised state distributes money, because people are rightly fed up with having things done to them.

We see it in the confused mess about where sovereignty really lies in modern Britain: if it’s the crown in parliament, what was the meaning of the referendum? And, as the minority of Supreme Court justices argued in the Gina Miller case, why could judges instruct parliament to vote on Brexit if parliament is sovereign over courts?

We have the most centralised state in the western world, overseen by one chamber whose representatives are elected by a system that ensures most people don’t get what they want, and another chamber populated by old boys, cronies and the only guaranteed parliamentary seats for clerics outside Iran.

There is the sense that our system has allowed the same class of people, more or less, to govern the UK for a millennium, a sense that the system is designed to ensure that the same people stay in charge.

It’s no wonder people wanted to take back control.

If we are to address the root causes of the current crisis, we need to replace Britain’s decaying empire state. That means a full constitutional convention to write the rules of a modern democratic state, fit for the internet age.

Specifically, it means convening a jury or juries of citizens, empowering them to call experts and develop a process and, ultimately, to propose a written constitution, putting it or each element of it to a public vote. The EU referendum process showed us how bad we have become at democracy. But we don’t need to look far to learn how to improve – only to Ireland, whose constitutional convention, two-thirds of the membership of which was randomly selected members of the public, recommended changes to their constitution, leading to their magnificent referendum results on abortion and equal marriage.

In the UK, such a process would be more complex – we don’t have a codified constitution to begin with, just a set of rules that the powerful can bend to their own ends. But ultimately, democracy is politics by, of and for the people, and it’s time to become a proper modern democracy, with a system designed by, of and for the people.

Adam Ramsay wrote this piece as part of the Best for Britain series of articles ‘Staying and Rebuilding’. You can read his detailed proposals for a constitutional convention here

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