Published on 17 February 2021
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Morality, legitimacy and competency: the case of Brexit

It can be tempting to think about politics in moral terms. However, in reality, it’s much more about power – whether it’s justified (legitimate) and how it’s used (competently or not). Affiliated Researcher Harry Pearse discusses how the temptation to see it one way, and the importance of understanding what it really is, were made plain by the Brexit process and its eventual resolution.

Morality is thought to be important to politics. So much so that the latter is sometimes described as the practical application or realisation of the former. Politics is therefore about the good or the just or the right, and political failure is, or easily becomes, moral failure, something bad or unjust or wrong.

The problem – if that’s the right word – is that we all have different values and define the good in different ways. We all wish politics would reflect our own beliefs and opinions. So the question becomes which (or whose) values or morals are to take precedence? The root of politics therefore isn’t morality, it’s power; the power to impose one version of the good over or instead of all the others.

Still, as Brexit made clear, it remains very common to see politics in moral terms. Although arguments of interest or expediency were relevant and forcefully articulated, the decision about whether to leave or remain in the EU seemed to have a deeper significance; a moral dimension that outweighed political calculation. Belief in or rejection of Brexit said something about one’s values. And the nation’s soul, or collective consciousness, or some other moral measurement, was riding on its outcome.

In the end, however, the outcome of the Brexit saga had little to do with moral argument. What really mattered wasn’t the values underpinning Leave or Remain, but whether or not political authority was clear and justified, and whether or not it was used effectively. The factors that eventually resolved the Brexit process were, in other words, legitimacy and competency.

Leavers and Remainers were divided on matters of principle. They argued about self-determination and supranationalism; about diversity and solidarity; about the distribution of economic growth and legal jurisdictions; and, of course, sovereignty. Where once it was loud and heated, it’s now just a murmur. Because in an important sense the contest is over. One side won, the other lost. Not by persuading their opponents of the rightness of their position, but by co-opting the power structures necessary to put their case into action.

The reason that resolution was delayed was partly that the proposals for leaving (or remaining), and the terms of the departure, were controversial and invited resistance. But it was primarily because both sets of arguments, and the values and interests underpinning them, were entangled with a knotty but fundamental question of legitimacy. That is, in the face of disagreement or opposition, who or what has the right and authority to make political decisions? (The related question of how that authority might butt up against EU and member state authority was often overlooked).

Ordinarily, the answer is obvious; it’s the government or legislature, acting upon a mandate conferred by election or plebiscite. However, after the referendum, there were various competing answers to the legitimacy question. And accusations that this or that person or institution was acting illegitimately or attempting to thwart legitimate proceedings were commonplace. The lack of clarity endangered not only the Brexit outcome, but the functioning of the state itself.

In democratic states, power resides in the people. Although, the UK has a representative system in which parliament is sovereign (authorised to make law), and popular consent – expressed, for the most part, at elections – is a check on that authority. It’s not always clear how parliamentary sovereignty is defined and articulated: whether it’s simply a parliamentary majority, or if it’s shaped by the executive – the crown-in-parliament? But referendums are disruptive because they channel a form of popular sovereignty, granting political legitimacy to the directly elicited will of the people. Using referendums alongside representative processes can therefore obscure or confuse a polity’s decision-making legitimacy, which is precisely what happened in the UK after the referendum. The location and rightful use of legitimate authority (sovereignty) was claimed simultaneously by (or for) the people, parliament, and government. And because no claim was definitive, a decision on how to proceed with Brexit didn’t materialise. The result, which lasted several years, was gridlock and stalemate.

The first claim, championed mainly by backbench Brexiteers, was that the people’s will, expressed in the referendum, was sovereign. It was an all-purpose assertion, directed at any person, group or institution deemed to be slowing, diverting or otherwise scuppering the Exit process. And it was effective – mobilising elements in the press and general population – despite overlooking both the advisory nature of the referendum and the fact that the “people’s will” was only partially conclusive; 52% said they wanted out, without specifying how or on what terms. 

At the same time, the bulk of the House of Commons worked to re-establish the claim that parliament was sovereign. This was most prominently expressed through the Grieve amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which required minsters to seek parliamentary approval for the final Brexit deal, and led to three Meaningful Votes and three government defeats. Yet just as the referendum result lacked constructive clarity, parliamentary legitimacy was undermined by its inability to translate its authority into a positive case for action. The House successfully marshalled votes against the prospect of no deal. But failed in eight Indicative Votes to arrive at a majority position in favour of any other deal or post-Brexit arrangement.

Finally, at the centre of it all, the government claimed to be representing and channelling what it took to be the popular will. Theresa May tried to trigger Article 50 using executive prerogative, only to be told by the Supreme Court she needed statutory approval. The government then spent two years negotiating a Brexit deal that it failed to sell to parliament. And the rift between the executive and the legislature got worse when, having replaced May as prime minister, Boris Johnson prorogued parliament to stop it blocking a no-deal, and then – when the Supreme Court struck down the prorogation – ran an election campaign framed as the people (and Johnson) vs parliament and the courts.

The entire process was a mess. A mess, it turned out, that only a new parliament could fix. The parliamentary shakeup didn’t resolve the outstanding disagreements about the validity or meaning of leaving the EU. But it dealt with the problem underlying those disagreements – that the UK’s decision-making authority (or authorities) were in paralysis. Before the 2019 election, the institutions that conferred and held sovereignty couldn’t function because they were in tension. Afterwards – having installed a Conservative majority headed by a Leaver – they were aligned. At which point, action became possible. 

Until it was resolved, however, the UK’s legitimacy crisis was exacerbated, or at least not improved, by incompetent political actors. Competency isn’t a moral virtue, like generosity or honesty; it’s a political quality signalling something like sound judgment and prudence. It’s circumstantial, not absolute. And it refers to how well someone operates within a particular political office; whether they understand its scope; are alert to their limitations; and engage carefully with options and trade-offs. It’s about the effective use of authority.

Judged against these criteria, May was not a good prime minister. Her inflexibility had served her well as home secretary, but it was hindrance when, as leader, she needed to make deals or concessions in parliament. Instead, she built a Brexit strategy around the vague but intransigent proposition, ‘Brexit means Brexit’. And sabotaged the possibility of a cross-party settlement by committing to ‘red lines’ on the Single Market and Customs Union. The 2017 election exposed her communicative and retail failings and cost her party its parliamentary majority. And she ran a minority government – conventionally given to collegiality and conciliation – that spurned parliament and placed her at the mercy of the Tory Brexit ultras.

In short, her personal style of governing, as well as her misjudgements about her party, parliament and the national mood, diminished the executive’s authority and made it harder for government and parliament to reach compromises or shut out disruptive minorities. She neither caused Brexit, nor wished to delay once the referendum was over. But by dividing and disempowering the branches of government and emboldening marginal backbenchers, her blunders help explain why Brexit was for so long unresolvable.

The UK remains a polarised society, and Brexit continues to arouse devotion and indignation. In many respects, this is understandable. Moral disagreement is a normal, often unresolvable, aspect of plural societies. If there’s a problem, it’s that moral contestation can blind us to important disputes taking place elsewhere; over legitimate or illegitimate sources of power and the competent or incompetent uses of it. Brexit provides evidence that these are often, if not always, the political qualities or conditions that really matter. And if we want politics to function, political legitimacy, and institutional safeguards against incompetence, must come before the realisation of this or that value.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s).

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