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What Price Democracy Now?

brexit vote
Written by Nick Busvine

We are fast approaching what is probably the most important general election of our lifetimes. There is a massive amount at stake: more than I ever imagined when the referendum was held three-and-a-half long years ago. The Brexit debate has done us all a favour by shining a spotlight on the state of our democracy and institutions, as well as those of the EU.

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Many of us take our democracy for granted.  It is so easy to forget that it was hard won and that it is terribly, terribly precious.  In much of the world, political power equals money – and democracy is fine, just so long as I am guaranteed to win.  The ability of ordinary voters in many parts of the world to hold their governing class to account is laughably remote.  Two consequences generally flow from this: corruption on a massive scale by those entrenched in power; and, in the end, a violent backlash from desperate people who feel utterly abandoned and betrayed – and who opt to make a fight of it.  Large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa suffer in this way.  A combination of dire governance and unhelpful foreign interference means that more trouble is brewing in much of the Middle East and North Africa.  As a former diplomat it pains me to observe that, for all the billions spent on aid and ‘good governance’, the state of democracy on the planet is getting worse rather than better.

Can we afford to be complacent at home?  No, is the short answer.  As many of the contributors on this site have argued since the referendum, our democracy is under attack.  Let’s take a quick look at a few examples of why this is:

  • The Remain establishment have consistently misrepresented the purpose of the EU project. Ever since 1973, we have been told that it is essentially an economic club of sovereign nations – and set to stay that way.  In reality, it is an evolving political project aimed at creating a federal super-state.  If Remainers respect democracy they should be honest about this with voters – and make their case
  • UK voters have been given very little idea of the extent to which laws that apply to them now come from Brussels rather than Westminster. I have yet to hear anyone seriously argue that it is easier for ordinary voters to hold Brussels rather than Westminster to account.
  • When the UK opted not to join the Euro, we set ourselves on a profoundly different path from the Eurozone. Conscious that the UK was increasingly being excluded from key decisions on the future of the EU, David Cameron sought to persuade Brussels that there should be an appropriate status for non-Eurozone EU members.  The UK was, after all, the second biggest net contributor to the EU project.  He was humiliated – and forced to put the distinctly marginal concessions on offer to the people, who duly delivered their verdict
  • Within days of the referendum, I was told by various serving and former officials that the result was wrong and that parliament would overturn it. I was aghast.  How could so many members of our establishment so casually dismiss the referendum outcome – when so many promises had been made that the result would be respected?
  • We were then treated to the truly excruciating spectacle of a Remainer-dominated Theresa May government negotiating a pitiful deal that was designed to be worse than staying in the EU. It was so patently awful that Leaver and Remainer MPs actually joined forces to boot it into touch
  • The failure to leave the EU on 29 March was such a democratic betrayal that Tory voters began to desert the party en masse. The Brexit party’s success in May’s EU elections led immediately to May’s resignation announcement
  • The extraordinary shenanigans in Parliament following Boris Johnson’s appointment as Prime Minister showed that the willingness to simply override or subvert the referendum result remained firmly entrenched. It has been incredibly depressing to witness precisely the kind of behaviour in the UK that one has become so used to overseas, as various players have sought to fiddle the system and impose their own version of ‘democracy is fine, so long as I win’
  • Johnson himself was probably unwise to seek to prorogue Parliament. But the legal arguments were finely balanced (as the difference between the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court rulings showed).  For first time in my lifetime, the political impartiality of the judiciary has now been called into question.  This is deeply worrying.
  • But it wasn’t just the issue of judicial impartiality that was thrown into relief: civil service impartiality (as I have noted in previously on this site) has also been threatened. The civil service code states explicitly that civil servants must not: ‘allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions’.  I fear that this rule has all too frequently been observed in the breach since the referendum.  But what would really tip our civil service culture over the edge would be if suggestions, such as that of Lord Kerslake in August, were ever to get traction.  Kerslake, who was Head of the Home Civil Service 2012-14, proposed during a Radio 4 Today interview that the civil service should bypass the government in order to avoid a no deal Brexit.  He also spoke to the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, who quoted him as saying: ‘We are reaching the point where the civil service must consider putting its stewardship of the country ahead of ahead of service to the government of the day’.
  • Just as worrying was the Speaker John Bercow’s decision to allow the House of Commons to seize control of parliamentary business to facilitate the passage of the Benn Act – which removed the option of No Deal (thereby massively undermining the government’s ability to manage a serious negotiation with Brussels). For a time, we found ourselves in the extraordinary situation of having a House of Commons pass its own legislation while stoutly refusing to allow anyone – not least the electorate – to hold it to account
  • Johnson’s loss of control of the legislative process meant that an election simply had to happen. Thank heavens that – the deeply unsatisfactory Fixed Term Parliament Act notwithstanding – the House of Commons finally agreed to allow the Prime Minister to go to the people
  • One bright note for UK democracy thus far in the campaign has been the unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats’ completely anti-democratic pledge unilaterally to revoke Article 50. Sinking poll ratings have forced the Lib Dems to back-track
  • The Labour Party position on Brexit remains utterly extraordinary – and almost completely dishonest. The pledge to negotiate a ‘better’ deal and put it to a referendum is breathtakingly disingenuous.  On what basis would the Brussels offer a ‘good’ deal, if the alternative on offer was Remain?  Brussels will have no incentive to offer anything other than a bad deal (similar to or worse than Theresa May’s deal), leaving us with a choice between two different versions of Remain
  • But perhaps the most extraordinary twist of all concerns prosperity. The Remainer campaign to overturn the referendum result has been relentlessly focused on the issue of prosperity – and the economic ‘catastrophe’ that a ‘hard’ Brexit would represent.  Now, as the Lib Dem campaign appears to have stalled, we are seeing centre ground Remain voters make a tactical switch to Labour.  We know that Jeremy Corbyn’s own MP’s in the last Parliament didn’t trust him on the economy.  And yet, Remainers now appear willing to ignore their own arguments about prosperity and take the economic risk of electing Corbyn to power to stop Brexit.  Maybe the calculation is that a hung Parliament will lead inexorably to the fall of both Corbyn and Johnson – and the resurrection of a new liberal centre ground and a pro-Remain consensus in British politics.  But I wouldn’t bank on that.


Nick Busvine was a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1982-2011. During his time in the FCO, he served overseas in Kuala Lumpur, Damascus, Maputo, Bogota and Baghdad. He is a founding partner of the Mayfair-based advisory firm Herminius. Nick is also a town councillor – and is currently the Mayor of Sevenoaks.

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About the author

Nick Busvine

Nick Busvine was a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1982-2011. During his time in the FCO, he served overseas in Kuala Lumpur, Damascus, Maputo, Bogota and Baghdad. He is a founding partner of the Mayfair-based advisory firm Herminius. Nick also serves as a local town Councillor in Sevenoaks and as a gliding instructor.