The Brexit melodrama has had the merit of exposing how political decision-making takes place, or more accurately how it is prevented from taking place.
In an article on April 3, The Guardian highlights (in an earlier edition) not only the quandary of British Prime Minister Theresa May, but also a parallel problem for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who “will face a dilemma over whether to push for any deal to be put to a public vote through a second referendum — a key demand of many senior figures in his party and many of its members.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A situation in contemporary British politics created when one politician — looking for a shortcut to solve a problem and failing to weigh the consequences of the choice for both the nation and the politician’s own party — is subsequently put on the spot to choose between the general interest of the nation and his interest in keeping his party intact and his career secure
A political dilemma consists of having to make a choice on an issue that concerns the public. Politicians understand democracy as a process by which the people choose the politicians, who will subsequently make decisions based on what they (the politicians) judge to be advantageous, without having to define who will receive the advantage. So long as issues are quietly and routinely debated between politicians, with minimal coverage by the media, dilemmas will be avoided.
But when an issue is perceived as “existential” and draws the attention of the media, politicians realize that the people may begin judging the choices they make. For British politicians, used to the innocent pleasures of rhetorical jousting in Parliament, this is not only intolerable, it is inconvenient.
In 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron launched the Brexit referendum in the wild hope of clarifying the long-term interests of the nation, curiously not realizing that it would immediately emerge as a deeply emotional issue. When it became clear that the radically binary choice put forward did not neatly align with the standard ideology of either of the major parties, things began to go awry.
Not only did every politician in Britain suddenly face a dilemma, but the dilemma threatened the established ideal of party unity that traditionally provided a largely stable framework and comfort zone for individual politicians, allowing them to manage their careers and go about their business. The electoral system depended on the predictable rivalry of at least two semi-coherent parties whose respective unity were seen as the pillars of representative democracy. Those pillars began to show worrying cracks.
Prime Minister May of the Conservative Party continued to believe that the instinct for party unity would eventually save the day, but when it failed to appear after repeated attempts, she reached out to Labour in a gesture hinting at national rather than party unity. That had the predictable effect of further splitting her own party. But as Steve Barclay, the Brexit secretary, realistically points out, there is a “‘remorseless logic’ to reaching out for Labour votes when 35 Conservatives had refused to back the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement three times.” But logic — remorseless or otherwise — has not yet been a feature of the Brexit melodrama.
But the Conservatives are not the only ones likely to suffer from gestures across the aisle. At the same time, The Guardian points out (in an earlier edition) to the “caution on the Labour side, with some internally warning against falling for a Tory trap that ties them into voting for a damaging Brexit.”
The dilemma now boils down to two questions: Can a sufficient number of politicians feel comfortable enough to acquiesce to a proposed solution that clearly no majority will spontaneously embrace? And if they did, would they commit to the solution, aware that it might have the effect of ruining the unity of their party and, consequently, their own chances in case of a new election?
For May, everything took an unforeseen dramatic in early 2017 when she made the “rational” decision to secure a more comfortable majority by calling a snap election. While everyone expected her to win thanks to the Conservative Party’s 20% lead in the polls at the time, she not only failed to expand her majority, but she lost it altogether. Consequently, to avoid being outnumbered in Parliament or having to compose with Labour, she decided to ally with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland to ensure a numerical majority for a fragile coalition.
Western democracies appear to have stumbled into what we are tempted to call the “Age of Democratic Dilemma.” Traditionally, nations and their politicians faced important choices, such as going to war or negotiating peace, colonizing other nations, building a navy to dominate global commerce, developing nuclear capacity for war or peace, establishing a presence in space, providing a social safety net for all citizens or building walls of separation. All of these were monumental decisions on which the entire population of any nation could never fully agree, but once decided, even in the face of criticism, they would be followed through. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example.
Until now, those decisions could produce controversy, but rarely did they produce a dilemma. Instead, in most cases, the choices, even when judged wrong with hindsight, succeeded in accomplishing two political goals: They created a sense of purpose for the nation (whether ethically justified or not), and they unified the overall policy orientations shared by a majority of members of the major political parties.
In most cases, the parties would seek to define a position more or less in harmony with the national majority, critiquing but supporting the powers that be. In other cases, a party might build its internal unity around a platform directly opposed to government policy. Inside their parties, politicians felt free from the worries associated with a dilemma.
Brexit has turned out to be one vast dilemma for the nation, for its components (e.g., England vs. Scotland and Northern Ireland, but also London), its social classes and its political parties. But the UK is not alone and Brexit is not unique. In the US, Donald Trump’s nomination in 2016 split his own Republican Party, which he has managed to keep intact only because he holds the reins of executive power. Even more dramatically, his victory may have irremediably split the Democratic Party into the sclerotic establishment and the energetic young progressives, now engaged in an open power struggle.
Then there is French President Emmanuel Macron, who was elected after deftly profiting from the simultaneous implosion of the two historically dominant camps on the left and the right. The established parties are still in disarray, even though Macron has failed to show the organization or skill required to impose his own authority.
These are the kind of things that increasingly occur in the “Age of the Democratic Dilemma.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.