A very, very long time ago I did a stint as a Special Constable and I recall an old hand warning me about getting involved in domestic spats. When someone in uniform appears, he said, the arguing couple tend to forget their differences and turn on you instead.
If the country’s 16m Remainers and 17m Leavers are the arguing couple, then the most recent Savanta ComRes polling for the Daily Express (published yesterday) suggests that Parliament may unwittingly be playing the role of the conciliatory copper by uniting the country against them and the wider political system.
The poll reveals an electorate whose view of their leaders could barely be worse:
- Just one in 20, six percent, say Parliament is emerging from Brexit in a good light
- One in ten think the Brexit process has shown that politicians are in touch with the mood of the country
- Three-quarters think the Brexit process has shown the current generation of politicians ‘are not up to the job’
Unsurprisingly, therefore, 72% say the Brexit process has shown that the British political system needs a complete overhaul.
The public mood is more darkly anti-parliament than I can ever recall – including during the expenses scandal - fuelled daily by reminders of its failure to deliver an outcome that meets the very public commitments given to abide by the result of the 2016 Referendum. It is perhaps no surprise therefore that only 13% feel ‘the current British political system enables my voice to be heard’.
Even though Remain voters tend to think the Leave side lied during the campaign, and Leave voters tend to think the Remain side lied, most voters are not as dogmatic as the good folk camped outside Parliament with their banners, drums, dogs and tea flasks. A majority, 53%, agree that the result of the 2016 Referendum should be respected and that there should be no second referendum. Perhaps it shows the strong British sense of fair play that even one in three 2016 Remainers (31%) agree.
The equation looks something like this: whether the UK ends up staying in the EU or leaving it, around half the country could feel disappointed that the outcome wasn’t the one that they wanted. But if the half who voted Leave also feel that the result of a legitimate democratic vote in which they participated was deliberately scuppered, they are likely to feel a sense of anger too.
All of which may help to explain why, by a margin of two to one (52% to 26%), voters say Theresa May was right to warn that if Brexit is stopped it will cause ‘a catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust in our democracy’. And again, many 2016 Remainers (39%) agree with this sentiment.
From the same poll we uncovered a huge groundswell of support for major institutional political change:
- Two-thirds of voters (67%) support scrapping the honours system
- More than half (54%) support reducing the number of MPs
- Six in ten (62%) support devolving more decisions away from Parliament
- More than half (52%) support replacing First Past the Post with a more proportional voting system
- Almost three-quarters (72%) support having a written constitution ‘to provide clear legal rules for how Government Ministers, Parliament and civil servants are required to act’.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that, whatever the outcome, instead of bringing resolution to the country’s political disconnect, Brexit is likely to exacerbate it. Voters may reasonably ask how Parliament expects to be able to heal the divisions in the country when party leaders cannot even agree on whether to speak to one another.
Parliament needs urgently to find a means of restoring confidence in its democratic credentials and in its competence to execute the will of the people. Otherwise Brexit will mark not the end of British populism but merely the start.