As the House of Lords agrees to pass a bill blocking a ‘no deal’ Brexit by the end of the week, Stephen Colegrave speaks to crossbench peer Lord Victor Adebowale about how our democracy is dangerously teetering on the edge of a cliff.
Lord Victor Adebowale is concerned about the current political crisis but he is far more worried about the implications for democracy in general.
“I believe democracy is a process not an act,” he says. “In a democracy, people can change their minds, otherwise it is a dictatorship not a democracy.”
Like the rest of us, Lord Adebowale has been following the media avidly – especially the radio – and is worried that discussion and debate is being debased by the Government as it falsely fits its political agenda into the conversation. Often this is not countered by the media, but there are times when the cracks begin to show.
He cites, for example, a recent interview of International Trade Secretary Liz Truss by Eddie Mair in which, after she reiterated that the “one time” voice of the people had to be respected, he calmly asked her why she had changed her mind over a hard Brexit. She was confounded and did not know what to say.
This, Lord Adebowale feels, is indicative of the false premise that we are not allowed to change our minds about Brexit as we find out more about its implications. This is not just rhetoric or a political debate, the peer says. It is about people getting their medicines on time or the food they want from the shops and even keeping their jobs.
He is astounded by the extent of the Government’s divisiveness in pretending these are not real concerns, as seen in Michael Gove’s continued belittlement of experts with his confident assertions that none of this is a problem – even though the Road Haulage Association and the British Retail Consortium beg to differ.
“If it’s a question of who to believe, this Government or the Road Haulage Association, I am going with the Road Haulage Association,” he says.
To Lord Adebowale, this is all just part of a much bigger, endemic problem. There is a fundamental issue of concern, he believes, in the widespread lack of transparency around the latest forecasts of the impact of Brexit. The Government’s cavalier attitude and its apparent suppression of the leaked Yellowhammer Report means that any semblance of openness is gone.
The consequences of this determination to disregard truth and evidence to the supposed greater good of snatching a deal from the EU are potentially far-reaching. Lord Adebowale sees this as a failure of leadership, not just political posturing.
“Just as a fish rots from the head, if the leadership [of the Government] behaves in a certain way, then this behaviour becomes acceptable to wide sections of society,” he says.
There is no attempt to use facts and evidence, or even argue them rationally. Instead, he says, people are divided and pitted against each other – and it is this which risks violence and disorder, not delivering a vote three years ago that has been set in aspic.
Interestingly, for all his criticisms, Lord Adebowale still hopes that the Government can get a deal with the EU as this would be best for the country: “Of course, I do dearly hope they get a deal from the EU and, unlike many, I still hold on to the hope they might. But, this is not the way to go about it and not the way to bring the country together.”
Looking at the future, Lord Adebowale feels that this political turmoil has uncovered more than just the impotence of our convention-based constitution – it has also exposed the best and worst motives and behaviours of politicians themselves and perhaps we should rethink what we want and expect from them as our servants and representatives.
He noted two very different types of politician: those who see politics as something to game and exercise power through, and another group who see politics as an expression of their values. The 21 Conservative rebels expelled from the party by Boris Johnson are a really good example of the latter and it was heartening to see traditional Tories like Nicolas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, standing up for their principles. Indeed, this gives hope that there is the opportunity to return to a better type of politics after this divisive episode is over.
Lord Adebowale is keen to ensure that, as well as doing everything we can to oppose the way the Government is behaving, we should also be thinking about what has brought us to this point. Unless we can identify the underlying causes, we will never be able to strengthen our democracy so it can never be gamed so easily again.
“More than anything, it has exposed that if you don’t create the conditions for a healthy debate you can’t have a true democracy,” he says.
He is convinced that we have arrived here because the media has not provided the information and the opportunity for a proper debate. Until we can rebuild this and properly engage everyone in an informed and reasonable discussion, we will never regain the reasonable and liberal values that we have all taken for granted.
Lord Adebowale encapsulates this in a final thought: that democracy dies when fact and information is denied.