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Exploring what is next for British democracy

Brexit has unlocked a new set of challenges which go beyond traditional party-lines, entrenched political categories and existing nationals’ borders. The British political party system has been hugely impacted, as polarisation, fragmentation and the generational gap on the future of the UK politics has significantly widened. This was the subject of a panel debate hosted at Westminster by Queen Mary’s Centre for European Research.

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Houses of Parliament. Credit: Pixabay
Houses of Parliament. Credit: Pixabay

The British political system has been seen as something that is traditionally stable and resilient however in the wake of Brexit the system appears to be in a state of permanent convulsion, calling into question its founding pillars as much as its future sustainability.

Where is the United Kingdom going?

The panel discussion, organised through Queen Mary’s Centre for European Research’s Debating Europe Seminar Series addressed some of these issues. Pauline Schnapper, Professor of British Studies at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University opened the discussion by presenting some ideas from her latest book, Où va le Royaume Uni? (Where is the United Kingdom going?)

Professor Schnapper opened by discussing the background to writing her book. She said: “It is an attempt to explain Brexit to the French public who were a bit puzzled after the vote.”

According to Professor Schnapper Brexit highlighted underlying weaknesses in the political system. She emphasised that trust continues to be a major issue. Highlighting previous scandals, she argued that levels of trust in politicians remains low but it is not just a problem in the UK, there are similar levels of mistrust in France.

Professor Schnapper concluded by discussing how the Brexit deadlock showed that there was a need to have a discussion about a written constitution as well as electoral reform. “I’m struck by how little debate there has been on first past the post system,” she added.

“Democracies do die”

Chaired by Dr Sarah Wolff, Director of Queen Mary’s Centre for European Research, participants of the panel discussion included Professor Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and Professor Helen Drake, Director of the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance.

On the subject of electoral reform Professor Tim Bale said: “If Labour loses the election there may be more support for proportional representation among those MPs but in the two main parties there is little support as a whole.”

Professor Bale argued that it was too simplistic to say that Brexit was a vote by the disenfranchised and those who felt left behind, highlighting that many who voted leave were wealthy and comfortable.

On the subject of trust, Professor Bale provided a candid view. “As people seem less and less to trust in politicians, the politicians have given them less rather than more to believe in. I have seen more lies told in this election than I have ever before […] democracies do die,” he said.

Professor Helen Drake reflected on the amount of information available to both the public and policy makers. She said: “The level of information and expertise circulating is encouraging but how does this expertise enter into any form of learning for those making the decisions around Brexit?”

Professor Drake also highlighted that contrary to what some commentators had predicted, Brexit did not lead to a domino effect of other countries with Eurosceptic tendencies such as The Netherlands and Italy following suit.

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