Has Brexit Killed Democracy in the U.K.?

Anti-Brexit placards in London. (Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

A recent article in The New York Times suggested that in an increasingly divided British society, one of the few things holding people together was their “loss of hope in democracy.”

Is this an outsider’s over-simplification, or is it true?

Democracy is certainly the cause of the U.K.’s current political paralysis. The 2016 Brexit referendum, with its stark question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” set in motion three years of political chaos in the U.K. Amazingly, it seems that since there was no expectation that Leave would win, the Government did not bother to formulate a plan for how to achieve Brexit, and now, three years later, having spent countless hours of time and huge amounts of money trying to sort out the mess, no one is any the wiser.

The blockage surrounding Brexit has caused huge frustration, For example, businesses are unable to plan ahead, not knowing how import/export will work; individuals do not know if they will be able to continue living in the U.K.; and crucially, so much Parliamentary and Government time has been devoted to the topic that other vital issues have been neglected, on both national and local levels.

Leave voters (52 percent of those voting on the day) are increasingly frustrated that Britain is still part of the EU and that the original Brexit date of March 29 passed last week, without effect. Many of them are angry, too, that immediately after the referendum, they were portrayed as “stupid people, who didn’t know what they were voting for,” an image which has stuck for the last three years. This image of Leave voters has not been helped by a rise in Far-Right rhetoric over the same period, together with increased violence against minorities.

Although undoubtedly there are many pleasant and civilized people who would like to leave the EU, the picture of thugs waving Union Jacks and shouting “Traitor” at Remain MPs is hard to live down. For these people, “Leave means Leave,” irrespective of the consequences, and any attempt to moderate the decision is a betrayal of democracy.

From the Remain side, more than six million people have now signed a petition calling on Parliament to withdraw Article 50, which gave notice of the U.K.’s intent to leave the EU. (Not to mention the 48 percent who voted against it originally). There is strong and widespread feeling against the prime minister repeatedly trying to force her deal through Parliament (MPs have now voted against it three times), while simultaneously saying that the U.K. electorate can only have one chance at a referendum. Either any democratic vote is binding the first time, or everyone can have “best of three.”

Paradoxically, though, the Brexit shambles has revived interest in politics for many people. The typical British conversation about the weather has been replaced in many situations by “So what do you think is going to happen with Brexit?” Political geeks and historians alike have been fascinated by the powers of Parliament and specifically of the Speaker to effectively determine the course of history. Remain voters have been delighted to point out that since Leave voters wanted Parliament to regain control, they can hardly complain when they do so!

Shul kiddush conversations have moved on from “please pass the herring” to discussions about whether MPs are delegates or representatives of their constituents, and what that means for a Remain MP in a Leave constituency.

Given that, until recently, commentators were bemoaning the lack of interest in politics and the apathy of the British public toward elections, increased interest in politics can only be a good thing, whatever the cause.

Brexit has stirred up U.K. politics in a unique and troubling way. It has further decreased the public’s trust in politicians, and has shown up and widened divisions in British society. Perhaps the British model of democracy is not the best one for such a large and diverse electorate, but it is proudly alive, and so is the hope that eventually a democratic resolution will emerge.