Just over a year ago I was speaking on a panel about Brexit at King’s College London with Richard Graham, Tory MP for Gloucester. “The democratic tradition” Graham said in sickly smooth tone 23 minutes in, “is much deeper in the UK than anywhere else in the European Union.” He continued “That is not a boast, but an observation.

Graham’s words have been in my mind recently as I have struggled to make sense of the aftermath of the decision to postpone Brexit on 10th April… only for the UK government to then make precisely no forward progress on anything regarding Brexit in the weeks since.

Britain, with its democratic tradition so dear to Graham, cannot seem to find a way out of a political problem of its own making.

This, I think, is because British politics has a massive blind spot: it is blind to its own democratic deficiencies.

Now don’t misunderstand me: Germany, where I live now, and where I do my everyday politics as a member of the Grüne party, is no paradise. But I would argue it has such an attention to what went wrong in the past that it can better guard itself against the dangers of the present than the UK can.

The list of democratic deficiencies with the UK’s Brexit referendum is a long one. The Electoral Commission has fined pro-Brexit organisations Vote Leave and BeLeave for breaking campaign finance rules and the ICO fined Aaron Banks for illegal data practices. The result of the referendum, despite the corrupt campaign, can only stand because the referendum was officially only consultative. We still not have got to the bottom of the role of Cambridge Analytica in the whole thing. Plus as this excellent Prospect piece explains, the way the referendum was set up was completely wrong (and the Swiss do overturn badly run referendums), and as this super Richard Wyn Jones thread outlines, lessons as to how obtain “loser’s consent” were not learnt from the 1997 Welsh Assembly referendum case.

Meanwhile MPs in Westminster are no better at solving the conundrum. Despite the massive defeats for the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration in the three Meaningful Votes, the government keeps on ploughing the same furrow. The Tories have flirted with a No Deal Brexit, not because it is a good policy, but because it prevents outright conflict within the Tory ranks. Tories repeat the trope that 80% of the population voted for pro-Brexit parties at the 2017 election. Meanwhile the Tories’ “offer” to Labour is no different than what is in the withdrawal agreement anyway, and both the Tories and Labour interpret loses for them and gains for the pro-Remain Lib Dems and Greens in local elections as a sign that they need to get Brexit done. Really. Meanwhile Nigel Farage will not reveal who has donated £100k to his new Brexit party, and Channel 4 has revealed the connections of hardline Brexiters right to Robbie Gibb, ex-BBC and now head of Comms at Number 10.

Now I do not know what to do to solve all of this. Improved campaign finance rules, and a reform of the First Past the Post voting system, to make the Commons more representative, might be decent places to start, but that’s just my take.

The most important starting point is instead to acknowledge that British representative and direct democracy both have serious deficiencies. To date there has been no acceptance that there really is a problem. And this is not either with with the representative or the direct aspects of Britain’s democracy, but with both.

First, the referendum was badly set up and was corruptly run.

Second, there has been no debate about what referendums are good for, and where representative democracy is best.

Third, Britain’s two party system seems unable to solve any of this as both parties are so split on the EU issue.

The first of these is the most complex to solve. The British like to think of themselves as an honest bunch, but what has happened in British politics since 2015 is the very opposite of honest. But the British cannot accept they have a problem of political corruption.

This is not a case of being a sore loser. It is a matter, as in the Welsh Assembly case I cite above, of loser’s consent – to be able to accept a result one does not like. And to achieve that consent there needs to be consensus about the integrity of the process. That has been and still is sorely lacking. Until that is resolved, and the deep ills of British democracy acknowledged, the ill feeling from Brexit is only going to fester and deepen.

Who, I wonder, can step up and start to honestly discuss all of this?


  1. Gordon

    WOW, some useful links from Ralf thanks.Lots of interesting thoughts. I agree with WG that our MP,s dont know about some things they should.BUT its a big field to cover. I go and have a chat to my Con MP and he doesnt like being grilled/disagreed with. Especially about TTIP/CETA and UK can be sued if changes its mind !. The BIG problem is Climate Change and I believe we need to work with our EU friends on this, we are in it together. The whole of the EU seems to be unravelling with right wing populist parties, no doubt one reason is refugees, this will continue especially with Climate and the Northern Ice sheet melting. The other problem is lobbying by big Multinationals I remeber the figure as some 500Million Euros being spent, this is causing big problems due to folk all thinking they can have what they want !. As they say in UK if everyone want to live same lifestyle we need 2.7 planets.
    We need to educate people about our planets sustainability and what we need rather than wants. We need, Clean Air, Clean Water, Clean Food and Shelter. Rgds.


    It’s really good to hear your observations from a passionate British Europhile in Germany. But any supposed alignment by Rees Mogg with AFD is very unconvincing – walkouts from Holocaust remembrance debates? Muslim-free schools? Pilgrimages to Hitler sites? Does that sound like any part of the Tory party? You’ve been away too long! There really is less froth and drama in wider society here than you imagine. Much of the passion of politicians stems from a frustration that though we have divided between Remainers and Leavers there isn’t much popular outrage. I think that’s because the public’s positions were marginal in the first place. I might just add that shy brexiteers of the educated middle class with something to lose economically but increasingly less fearful of that as time has gone on look like growing in number.

  3. WG?
    Your point seems to be that UK politicians aren’t up to the job.
    What’s that got to do with the EU?
    My parish councillors don’t understand neoclassical endogenous growth theory. Should every tier of administration above that be torn down?
    You’re right that we shouldn’t be relying on British MPs to understand policies best decided at supra national level, and that the EU should be reformed to ensure competence (it seems to have that) and more direct democratic oversight (rather than relying on national governments doing this on our behalf).

    But blaming the EU for our own deficiencies? Come in, own your own problems?


    I disagree. There’s often no solution but a compromise. A compromise takes time. It’s messy. Coalitions routinely take months to form in Europe. There is no violence in the UK. There is no support from anything like the AFD. Hard luck, there’s simply not much evidence of malpractice that would have made a material difference to the outcome. It remains an extraordinary result given the massive weight of bien pensant opinion. The only enduring lesson I draw is that referendums have no part in our system and I hope we never have another. Apart from that I’m quite proud of the way the UK politicians are struggling and wriggling, fairly transparently, to get a deal done. We’re waiting and watching. I was a Remainer (just) but want to respect the result in the form of a compromise deal between UK politicians. It won’t be the end of the matter – it’s a process.

    • The thing that is like the AfD… is the right of the Tory Party! Rees Mogg would be right at home in the AfD!

  5. Ralf Grahn

    The observation of the Bertelsmann Foundation is that the United Kingdom is a mediocre performer with regard to democratic and governance standards: http://www.sgi-network.org/2018/

    More (comparative) detail in overview: http://www.sgi-network.org/docs/2018/basics/SGI2018_Overview.pdf

  6. The problem that you fail to address is the UK’s EU membership: the whole process has lacked integrity from the start.

    It can not have passed anybody’s notice, that the MPs who have voted for numerous treaties to be signed on behalf of the UK people haven’t had a clue as to what they have been signing.
    Since the referendum it has become clear that our representatives in the UK Parliament can’t differentiate between such things as an EEA and a customs union.

    That there is in the UK a democratic charade being played out is one thing, but to only point it out when the tide is running one way, and ignore it the other, amounts to hypocrisy.

    Many people, who have been against UK membership of the EU, have been pointing this out for many years – and have been demonised for their democratic viewpoint.
    Democracy is not something to be picked up and put down when the moment suits one.

  7. Michael Robinson

    For example:

    “Third, Britain’s two party system seems unable to solve any of this as both parties are so split on the EU issue.”

    Britian does not have a two-party system. The last decade has been dominated by coalition and minority governments, and all evidence suggests this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. However the framing of the debate by the BBC is still very much that of a two-party politics.

  8. Michael Robinson

    I think a significant democratic blind spot that may go unnoticed by native Brits is the influence that the government of the day has over the BBC budget, combined with the dominant role the institution has in framing “legitimate” political discourse.

  9. Over Here

    Apparently the German Federal system was set up by British civil servants post 45 but not considered appropriate for uk. Don’t have the facts to back this up.
    We need a written constitution. If referendums are to be used then it has to be within a constitutional framework
    Emphasis has been on eu but no discussion of local, regional or national governance.

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