EU Referendum has roots in UK election system (posted April 2016)

The EU Referendum is just two months away. With so many shared problems embroiling so many countries, it hardly seems the right time to consider jumping the European ship.

The UK has stayed ‘in’ for decades, feeling uncomfortable and accustomed to firing off impressive displays of recalcitrance across the Channel. This Referendum comes about because certain aspects of our culture and character never stop reinforcing our self-image as a people apart from them. We can’t explore them all, so will stick with the one that is fully relevant to the 5.5.5 & Counting website and this country’s desperate need for electoral reform. Some very important differences are reflected in the UK general election system.

We have first-past-the-post (FPTP) which aims for and usually delivers a winner-take-all result. It means that a single party can govern outright with positive support down at 21% of the electorate (Labour 2005). That often translates to a little over one-third of those who voted. In Europe, that is nowhere near enough for a party to govern outright. Across European politics, it is normal for parties with the largest support to have to negotiate coalitions and other working arrangements with smaller parties. Once they get together something like 51% representation, they can go ahead and form a government.

tragedy and comedy masks

Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) – comedy or tragedy?

Then look at the way our system sets up MPs in the chamber for deeply adversarial exchanges. Dismissing the semi-circular seating most parliaments prefer, they sit in parallel rows confronting each other across a dividing gangway. And if you’re someone in the general public or the media who likes their politics à la Punch and Judy, you’re rarely disappointed. The insults and gestures launched viciously at each other during PMQs, for example, must be seen and heard to be believed outside of a reform school yard. But even in the more serious contexts of longer debates and ministerial statements they commonly break off into put-downs of their opponents. Personal mockery is all part and parcel and stimulates their own side into braying, jeering, whooping and laughing.

A current BBC TV documentary ‘Them or Us’ quotes Margaret Thatcher after a European summit complaining that the leaders across the table were so smooth she couldn’t get anything off them. There was no edge she could create from which you’d get a bit of anger and argument and then, in her view, agreement. But in terms of improving your negotiation skills, would you really want to follow her lead? She was only emphasising how different the theatre of politics she came up through was compared to theirs. Throughout the programme too, you kept noticing that the accent of the voices railing most aggressively against Brussels down the decades was English (more on Brit-Englishness).

Our politicians work their way up through a culture where confrontation and argument are expected to trump negotiation and common personal respect. They are not that bothered about fairness – to each other or the voters at large – and have no qualms about taking power on minority support. They’ll happily then govern and have their leader strut around on the international stage as if with the moral backing of the nation fully behind them.

The mindset they acquire – or bring – produces a feeling of entitlement to bully their way through. They are unlikely to be able to see it in themselves, our current leader, David Cameron, being a prime example. He only manages to come over as reasonable during the breaks he takes from spraying disparaging and offensive comments around in all directions (by the way, this website is highly sceptical about the depth of Mr. Cameron’s stated commitment to the EU, but that’s another debate).

Abrasiveness has never worked with Europe and never will. Until the UK takes a much more critical look at its own attitudes, Remain or Leave the future looks broadly the same. The people of the UK will be kept on the side lines, ruled over by an unrepresentative minority government still taking them nowhere on a host of issues, none more intractable than the unrelenting tide of immigration. This political class is too well established to do anything other than it already knows and does. 5.5.5 & Counting argues it’s not the EU, it’s our electoral system that stifles the prospect of much meaningful change.