After the surprise election result last week, the media is full of people claiming to know what the British people think. Among the various things I’ve heard are that the country has rejected a ‘hard Brexit’, that Scotland has rejected a second referendum on independence, and that we are fed up with the tabloids. Some claim that the country has given up on the smaller parties and swung back behind the big two (more on that another time). Many are hailing a ringing endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn, though not so ringing as to get him into power.
There are various degrees of truth behind all of these ideas, but if I remember correctly, all I did was put an X on a piece of paper. I chose one candidate to be my local MP. I wasn’t asked about the EU. I wasn’t even asked who I’d like for Prime Minister. That X can be delivered with all kinds of motivations. One might vote on the basis of the local choice of candidates, or on a local issue. You could vote out of party loyalty, or for a particular leader to be Prime Minister. You could mark that X to support a particular manifesto, or a specific policy within a manifesto. Or you might be voting tactically, as one in five of us were planning to do last week. In which case, you aren’t demonstrating your own preferences, but voting based on how you think others will vote.
In other words, there are lots of different ways of interpreting how people vote. When there is ambiguity over what we are all trying to say, we ought to try and discuss what it is that we want.
Last year the British electorate cast an even more important vote in the referendum on EU membership. We got to choose between ‘remain’ and ‘leave’, and a slim majority chose the latter. But to paraphrase Paul Simon, there must be fifty ways to leave the EU. The biggest question is over the single market, and there are hundreds of other smaller elements of EU membership. Unless we stop and discuss what Brexit actually means, there’s a high likelihood that the meaning of our humble X will be lost and misconstrued.
After an election with no clear winner, there is now an opportunity to pause and have that conversation. It should have happened earlier – perhaps before David Cameron resigned. Certainly before triggering Article 50. That it didn’t is going to reflect very poorly on our politicians when histories of this era are written – especially since the government had to be taken to court to let Parliament have a say, let alone the rest of us.
How could a national conversation take place? Here are three recent examples:
- The New Zealand flag – in 2015 the New Zealand government announced a referendum process on a new flag. A panel traveled round the country running workshops, and websites allowed people to contribute ideas and designs. There was a competition, a shortlist and a final vote. In the end, the country chose its existing flag. My Kiwi friends tend to roll their eyes at the whole affair, but there is something to be said for a national conversation around what a country stands for, what it values and how it presents itself to the world.
- The Icelandic constitution – after Iceland’s collapse during the financial crisis, the country lost faith in its political elites. As a way of rebuilding trust, the new constitution was written up through a unique process of crowdsourcing, with an assembly of constitution writers drawn from the general population. The resulting document was endorsed by 67% of voters in a referendum. A change of government has left it in limbo and the story of that constitution is not over. What is relevant to us is the idea of letting ordinary people shape a constitution rather than leaving it to career politicians.
- Our Singapore Conversation – in 2012 Singapore undertook a national public engagement exercise, running workshops and online consultations, and a large scale survey. Some 660 events took place during a year, gathering over 47,000 opinions on the country’s direction and priorities. These were then reflected in an equivalent of the ‘state of the union’ speech. This is the fourth time Singapore has done this, having run similar exercises in 1991, 1999 and 2003. All of them are a serious effort to consult real people on what their vision of the country should be.
These three processes are all attempts to ask a population what it actually thinks. It shouldn’t be too much to ask in a democracy. They take citizens seriously, build unity and shared understanding, and give everyone a voice. In return, the government gets clarity and legitimacy for its actions.
Is it too late for such a conversation on Brexit? Possibly. Triggering Article 50 and then calling an election was clearly doing things in the wrong sequence. Perhaps the EU would grant us a pause if we asked for it, but I suspect not – we’ve been pretty hostile towards them so far, and they don’t owe us any favours. A national conversation isn’t something that can be rushed, so we would need a little time. It is certainly worth asking for it.
If we don’t get that conversation now, that will make it all the more important to have one later, once we’ve left the EU. We will need to talk about what Britain means in the 21st century, who we are and what we stand for. We could finally write down a constitution. We could talk about the union and whether that’s still working for everyone, including England and the possibility of a federal model.
Last week’s election had an unusually high turnout. Young people have been very engaged. There is a moment to be seized, and there’s no reason why that active citizenship cannot be rolled into a meaningful national conversation.