To say that the United Kingdom’s system of democratic governance is showing signs of strain, the day after Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed deal to exit the European Union was rejected by Parliament in an unprecedented landslide, would be a considerable understatement.
That’s because the massive vote against May’s compromise Brexit plan — by a coalition of members of Parliament who want a more radical break from the EU and those who want to remain closer to, or even inside, the trading bloc — reveals that something far closer to a systemic meltdown is already in progress.
The core of the problem is that the country’s representative democracy, in which decisions are traditionally taken by a government acting on behalf of a majority of Parliament’s members, was thrown into crisis in 2016, when the public voted in a referendum to withdraw from the EU, despite the fact that most legislators, including May herself, had argued against a British exit. It didn’t help that the pro-Brexit campaign succeeded in large part because of exaggerations and outright lies about how painless a divorce from the EU would be.
The prime minister has also ignored the fact that, as pro-EU voters continue to point out, the vote in favor of Brexit was a narrow one — the measure passed by a 52-48 margin.
While she has steadfastly refused to say that she thinks Brexit is actually a good idea, May has committed her government to carrying out what she describes as the will of the people to leave the EU, but also worked to limit the inevitable economic damage of cutting ties with her nation’s leading trade partners.
But now that May’s compromise deal with the EU has been rejected by 230 votes, and there appears to be no majority in Parliament for any other version of Brexit, the political system seems to have arrived at an impasse, just 10 weeks before the country’s membership in the union expires on March 29.
The parliamentary gridlock, and a lack of clear options for how to proceed in a country without a written constitution or any rules or procedures for how to implement a referendum result that most of the people’s elected representatives see as profoundly damaging, has prompted calls for a second referendum in some quarters,