Our democracy needs reform – but how ?

Brexit has exposed serious shortcomings in our representative democracy. We voted to Leave the EU in June 2016 but nearly 3 years later we are still in the EU with no immediate prospect of a clean break.

The question on the ballot paper was straightforward: Remain or Leave  with the choice presented like alternative candidates in a ballot – not a prejudicial ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the question. Like others, I lobbied for this traditional ballot format with candidate type options during the Electoral Commission’s consultation about running the Referendum ballot.

Pity they didn’t go the whole way and conduct the counts in individual constituencies, declaring locally, as with a General Election. Their unnecessary innovation is suspicious…

What has become clear in the last 3 years is (i) the bad faith of too many Remain minded politicians and (ii) the embedded EUphile mentality in our top civil service.

Both constitutional and moral norms were violated by the present Government seeking to limit the supposed damage of Brexit to the UK economy, and the very real damage to the EU itself.

The welfare of our country is being seriously jeopardised for the sake of the continued existence of a failing project which deserves to fail.

So, there are calls for real change. Calls for radically altering our constitution to stop this sort of thing ever happening again.

But let’s make the right diagnosis. Don’t confuse the set up of our constitutional arrangements with the culture at work in those arrangements. It is the EU-centric culture which has perverted the process of Brexit, not our constitutional arrangements. A Leave voting PM would have had us out by now – and with none of the Remainiac treachery we find in the current Withdrawal Agreement.

The use of Referendums is very attractive. Certainly it worked for Brexit, and for the issue of Scottish independence. A straight choice on a fundamental constitutional matter which people have had years to consider.

The call for a Referendum on Brexit was decades old. And the resistance to holding a Referendum was only finally overcome when the Remain Establishment believed they would win. Cameron’s government did not prepare for the alternative, and quite undemocratically and unconstitutionally forbade any preparations.

The issue was clear and could not be fudged. Despite Project Fear and Project Economic Disaster. [There were no other strategies for Remain to pursue because any objective reading of the EU project could only lead to a Leave vote by freedom loving democrats].

But there are very real risks to be faced about the use of  mass consultative exercises which displace the traditional norm of representative democracy. Take this current example.

The EU is proposing to abolish the twice yearly clock change for summer and winter from 2021. A consultation exercise has been launched across the EU, including France where I live. It is being conducted by the French equivalent of the House of Commons via their website for one month – 4th February to 3 March 2019.

It appears to be a very helpful and open exercise in consulting the public’s views. It explains why the exercise is being held. It allows respondents to give reasons [pre-formatted options] for their choices and to say how strongly they feel about the issue on a scale of 1 to 10.

It even has a page which explains and gives examples of what the key impact will be between eastern France [Strasbourg] and the furthest west in France [Brest] of opting for either winter time year round or summer time year round.

The big issue here, besides the disruption of changing the clocks every 6 months,  is what time of day it gets light and and when it gets dark. That differs between the eastern extremities and the west. And believe you me,  it makes a difference when you don’t see daylight till gone 9am in winter in Brittany !

But the most important factor in all this – a factor which underlies the entire issue of when it gets light and dark – is not discussed in the preamble, has not been mentioned in the media reports I have seen, and is not explained in this consultation exercise either.

The most fundamental issue does get raised, but right at the end of the questionnaire with no warning or explanation as to why it is there, and only when you are about to finish – and after you have already answered questions which negate all consideration of the issue.

What is it ?

It is the geographical reality of which time zone France really belongs to – and where its government has opted for it to be since 1940  [for economic and military reasons, the invading Germans put France on European Central Time].

France and Spain actually belong in the same geographical time zone as the UK and Portugal.

And because France is artificially one hour ahead of GMT in winter, we have dark mornings till late in western France in winter.  Indeed it’s dark till  late for much of the year.

If France chooses to go for year round summer time, keeping their existing one hour discrepancy from GMT, then we wont see daylight in Brittany until gone 10am in mid winter…

But of course, people living in eastern France won’t really care much about conditions in the far West … and with one day left for the consultation to run, the evening news reported that a majority of the 370,000 respondents want  summer time all year.

So, we have here a concrete example of how public consultation can be so framed [either by design or by default arising from assumptions and predisposition] which (a) sidelines the most pertinent fact in play and (b) sets the interests of certain parts of the country at odds with the ordinary and reasonable expectations of those in another [who wants dawn at 10am !].

Such exercises are easily used to justify a plan which is already in preparation. It is telling that the ministers charged with formulating the plan are the Transport ministers. Their concern for ease of trade across borders is not the same as the concern of the overwhelming majority who live in the same place for 99% of their lives.

And that may well explain why the most fundamental fact has been sidelined.  Being in the same time zone as Lisbon and London will not suit a French government which sees its economic, social and political priorities as being harmonised with Germany, central Europe generally and with Spain.

Such are the distortions to which voters become unwitting rubber stamps.

Such are the distortions we expect our elected representatives to identify and to resolve responsibly on our behalf.

But as Brexit has revealed, too many – though not all – of our MPs refuse to accept their proper responsibility and in doing so, tempt us to dispense with their services  altogether !

That is not the answer,  of course. Destroying the entire system for the sake of resolving specific abuses by particular people at a particular time is a response out of all reasonable proportion.

The remedy lies in addressing the specific areas which require reform. Therefore make provision

  • for the dismissal of rogue representatives, and

  • for electorates  to  prosecute MPs for breach of contract. 

It does not lie in destroying what is fundamentally and strategically the most practical way for democracy to work in a world which will never be perfect.

Ray Catlin