In December 2018, the British Army took control over a large area of common land in Cumbria. According to the Financial Times, this was the first ‘enclosure’ of commons in England for more than a century. But it happened a long way from London, where the media were already obsessed with the Brexit-related goings on at Westminster. So it was not widely reported, and left almost no imprint on the national consciousness.
That was a shame. The enclosure of common land was one of the major events of English history, and its recurrence in present-day Cumbria should have triggered deep historical resonances. It went unremarked at the very moment at which, if properly understood, it had the potential to shine a light on an important fact of contemporary British politics.
A conventional explanation for the UK’s current political turbulence, much favoured by political commentators, is that it arises from a clash between two types of democratic ‘method’ – representative democracy (through Parliament) and direct democracy (in the form of referendums). Igor Judge, a former Lord Chief Justice, writing in Prospect, says that the current Brexit impasse is simply the outcome of this conflict – ‘when both systems are employed simultaneously to resolve the same problem, the risk of accident is obvious‘.
On this view, the UK’s current crisis is one of constitutional mechanics. The mistake was for David Cameron to have employed the essentially alien mechanism of a referendum, which sits ill with the British tradition of parliamentary democracy. This led to a grinding of the constitutional gears which can only be resolved either by Parliament reasserting control or via a second referendum. Had Cameron avoided the unnecessary innovation of the first referendum, none of this would have happened.
This would, if correct, be comforting. Mechanical problems can be fixed by technicians. A constitutional problem caused by politicians can also be resolved by them. But in truth, the crisis is deeper, wider and more fundamental. It is a crisis of legitimacy, going at its heart to the question of public trust in the UK’s democratic institutions, and indeed to the matter of their essential trustworthiness. It is here that a very brief history of the English enclosures offers a pointer to the source of the malaise.
Continue reading A Crisis of Legitimacy – Parliamentary Democracy in Historical Perspective
(Part 1 of 2) The regulatory framework for public service television broadcasters, such as the BBC and Channel 4, contains a unique provision which requires them to produce part of their programming outside of London. How this works, how it is policed by Ofcom, and how the broadcasters respond to it, provide an insight into the serious structural problems with the government and economy of the UK, in particular the English regions.
Every year, the UK media regulator, Ofcom, publishes a set of data which receives far less attention than it deserves. This is the annual ‘Made outside of London‘ register, a list of television programmes produced outside the capital by, or on behalf of, the UK’s four public service broadcasters (the PSBs – BBC, ITV3, Channel 4 and Channel 5).
Two things are surprising about this document. The first is that it exists at all. Regulatory bodies typically have no interest in whether, or to what extent, their regulated sectors contribute to economic activity in the UK’s constituent nations and regions. The second (which explains the first) is that Ofcom compiles the data to monitor compliance with duties imposed by Parliament. Each PSB is under a legal obligation to ensure that part of its programming is produced somewhere other than London.
This represents an exceptional, in fact unique, example of the law being used to require a measure of decentralisation in a major sector of the UK economy.
The data would merit scrutiny if only because they were so unusual. On examination, it turns out that they also offer a stark illustration of the underlying structural defects in the government and economy of England.
Continue reading London Calling – the BBC, Channel 4 and the Problem of the English Regions
Referendums present us with apparently simple choices, but the binary nature of the questions they ask masks layers of complexity. Their outcomes are shaped by votes cast with a wide range of motivations, many unrelated to the issue on the ballot paper. They attract protest voting. And they are incapable of answering the follow-on questions to which their results inevitably give rise.
The EU referendum was no exception to these rules. Unpicking the strands which account for the Brexit vote will take time and careful analysis. When the history is written, it will be shown to have multiple and complex causes.
However, this complexity should not be an excuse for ignoring what is already obvious and requires no further study. Some things really are quite simple. The pattern of voting tells its own clear story.
This is that while the referendum question was about the EU, the result reveals less about Europe than it does about the nature of the constitutional arrangements within the UK itself. These, especially in England, are fundamentally unfit for purpose.
The outcome of the referendum was forged not in Brussels, but in London.
Continue reading London, the Centralisation of Power, and the Causes of Brexit