GI holds a PhD from the European University Institute.
The book Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit by Philip Cunliffe, George Hoare, Lee Jones, and Peter Ramsay seeks to put Brexit into the perspective of the ongoing crisis of political representation in Britain and offers the reforms to overcome it. It straddles the line between academic analysis and a political manifesto.
It adopts an unusual political perspective. In its overarching spirit, it leans towards the left because it places a priority on the interests of the working class. However, in some issues, it also takes a pronounced anti-EU, nationalist, and anti-migration position, arguing that these interests of the working class can be better articulated in a less globalized state with reduced labor migration. These optics result in an interesting narrative about the political development of the UK over the last half-century, to say nothing of a curious constellation of policy agendas that normally inhabit the different extremes of the political spectrum.
Summarizing the argument
Let’s start with an overview of the book’s key themes. The main problem of the British political system, according to the authors, is the “Void” – the growing dissociation between politics and policies. This gap began to develop in the 1980s due to a series of institutional changes that have delegated policymaking to non-elected trans-governmental bodies. In a resulting system, politicians often make important decisions in international forums behind closed doors, presenting them to their domestic public as foreign-imposed and not up for debate. On the other end of this process, the importance of national elected bodies, including Parliament, has diminished.
This disconnection between public opinion and political decisions has left citizens feeling a lack of control over the state, leading to frustration, support for populist parties, or even disengagement from politics. Following this logic, the referendum on Brexit was a unique chance to allow the citizens to make a key decision on a question where its interests contradicted those of the political elites.
Chapters 2 and 3 present a rather unconventional narrative on EU integration. The authors demonstrate how many EU treaties did not involve public consultations. To start, the Treaty of Rome on European Economic Community of 1957 was initially accepted in the UK without a referendum, which only took place two years after the UK’s accession in 1975. In this case, it was the Labour Party that proposed the referendum and campaigned against the Treaty. Furthermore, the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 were ratified without any public consultation. The authors demonstrate cases in other EU countries when an EU treaty was put to a referendum repeatedly until it yielded an affirmative answer.
The authors portray the Labour Party’s stance between the end of World War II and the turn of the millennium as consistently opposed to EU integration. In contrast, they depict the pro-globalization and ‘neoliberal’ right as proponents of EU integration during this period. Organized labor became so strong in the 1970s that capital could not sustain economic growth. To bypass and eventually weaken the influence of the trade unions, Margaret Thatcher turned to globalization and EU integration. While these measures helped overcome the crisis, after that the EU limited British sovereignty over economic policies. The EU and other international organizations were pushing the UK to the right by amending numerous pro-unionist policies and providing a flow of cheap labor that would hamper unions` bargaining power. Trade unionism has faded since then. According to the authors, by the 2000s, the survey results suggested that the Labour Party was perceived rather as an advocate of middle-class interests, while the Labour MPs were no longer the manual workers and were more so the middle class. The working class henceforth abstained from political life.
The book provides some practical political guidelines as well. To overcome the issue of the Void, the authors offer a package of measures that would indeed boost the responsiveness of a party system.
The most radical proposal is to replace the majority electoral system with a more widespread proportional system.
The goal of this change is to get rid of the path dependency of the old parties, which would bring about new more responsive political parties. Another proposal is to limit the corporate financing of the parties, capping yearly individual donations to £1500, which would push parties to represent the lower class better. Also, to increase responsiveness, the book proposes adding a procedure to recall MPs immediately if the public finds them no longer suitable to represent their interests. Finally, the authors suggest abolishing the upper chamber of the UK Parliament as a non-elected decision-making body. Last but not least, the authors offer to solve the UK`s ethnic debates by giving independence to Northern Ireland to have it unified with Ireland on the one hand and by convincing Scotland to stay on the other.
Is there a problem at all?
The fundamental issue with the book lies in its unquestioned foundational assumptions. In some cases, it tries but fails to substantiate their existence. Consequently, many of the challenges that it attempts to address appear illusory.
To start, the book addresses a supposed ‘crisis of democracy in Great Britain’ preceding Brexit. This crisis is evidenced by several indirect indicators such as voter turnout and social capital. The authors assert that democracy levels decreased and are due to rise after Brexit. However, all known democracy indices reflect neither erosion over the past two decades nor any recent enhancements within British politics. Maybe, the book does not stick to the conventional Dahl’s definition used in democracy indexes. But then according to which concept and indicator is British democracy undergoing deterioration?
One of the central concepts of the book is the Void that has emerged between voters, politicians, and their policies. To substantiate this claim, the authors borrow a concept of Void offered by Peter Mair two decades ago. Also, they cite the cases when elected British politicians did not organize referendums. While a reduction in the political spectrum’s variance and a growing disconnect between politics and policy-making were identified as issues at the end of the previous century, the current consensus about the problem seems to be notably distinct: an escalating polarization among adversaries. Also, the original Void goes far beyond referendums. How can this concept be operationalized and measured? The contribution would have been greatly strengthened had the authors tried to advance in this regard.
At times, the book does endeavor to establish a certain argument empirically, but it fails in its attempt. As part of what the authors claim to be a crisis of democracy, “citizens withdrew from political life.”
This metaphor illustrates a decrease in voter turnout from 77% in 1992 to 59% in 2001. This effect is normally explained not by large structural shifts, but by Labour`s apparent prevalence under Tony Blair: both its landslide victory in the 1997 elections and the polls published before the 2001 elections predicted its position as unassailable. This left voters less incentivized to partake. Moreover, right after this decline, the turnout gradually returned to its initial levels.
Similarly, the book emphasizes the decay of trade unionism, notwithstanding the fact that trade union participation rates did not change much. Neither did the role of trade unions fade.
On the contrary, they were even criticized for having an overly decisive role in Ed Miliband`s appointment as Labour leader in 2010. Furthermore, they only became more prominent under Jeremy Corbyn`s leadership.
In addition, the authors argue that European voters` lack of interest in EU-level elections is evidenced by the fact that voter turnout has seldom surpassed 50% in most of its member states. Even for the most developed democracies in the world, this threshold can be very demanding. In the US, the voter turnout in presidential elections rarely exceeded 55% between WWII and the millennium; not to mention it was as low as 36% in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The turnout in Swiss federal elections fluctuates around 45%. In France, even though the turnout in presidential elections is always high, it rarely exceeds 55% in parliamentary elections during the last two decades.
In condemning the lack of responsiveness of political parties, the authors never engage with the entire dilemma of “Responsiveness versus Responsibility”. Namely, political parties not only need to voice the preferences of voters but also need to do so in a manner that does not thwart the performance of the state. Falling to both extremes is pernicious, and so are the reforms that would boost responsiveness by dismantling an old party system. For instance, while newborn political movements indeed have greater responsiveness to public demand, once in power they may severely decrease the quality of governance due to a lack of experience and cadres in their bureaucratic apparatus.
Also, in conditions of high volatility, the movement parties coming to power prioritize short-term goals over a long-run reputation.
In so doing, they tend to resort to bait-and-switch tactics: that is, they slowly change the nature of the policies advertised during the electoral campaign to the extent they become unrecognizable or even propose policies they are not planning to implement thus greatly contributing to the Void.
It is hard to understand how some of the solutions the book offers are expected to solve the problems of the electoral system that it addresses. Above all, the authors offer changes in the external policy – that is, abdicating any control of the territories other than Great Britain and leaving NATO to achieve more sovereignty in decision-making. Since, as the authors had to eventually agree, Brexit did not improve the situation with the level of democracy at all, how would the exit from NATO do so?
To sum up, the academic part of the book does come up with a thrilling story of the anti-EU Left, especially in chapters 2 and 3, and does a great job in its attempt at defending its stance. Also, it excels in demonstrating to what extent decision-making had been externalized to international organizations. However, even in those best chapters, it falls short of proving many of its points with sufficient academic rigor. It also overlooks certain important literature such as the responsiveness versus responsibility dilemma and democratic theory.
The policy part of the book does come up with a package of measures that could indeed boost the responsiveness of the political system. However, what are the costs that the proposed measures would generate? The dismantling of the existing party system would thwart the responsibility of parties and decrease the quality of governance. Leaving NATO and other international organizations would maybe increase sovereignty – but would it increase the level of democracy? Most importantly, what would be the economic price of isolating the domestic economy? I consider this to be beyond predictable.