UCL Uncovering Politics

The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit

Episode Summary

This week we ask: What does the process of Brexit tell us about the role of the UK’s parliament and whether it needs reform?

Episode Notes

The last seven years in British politics have been tempestuous. The turmoil has had multiple causes: Covid, Putin’s attack on Ukraine, and Trussonomics among them. But the politics of much of the period has been dominated by Brexit: by a referendum on an ever so simple question, followed by years of wrangling over what the question meant and how the answer that voters gave to it should be interpreted and implemented. Much of that contest took place in parliament. Meaningful voters, indicative votes, the Brady amendment, the Malthouse compromise, the Cooper–Letwin Bill and the legality or otherwise of prorogation – all became the stuff of prime-time television.

So what should we make of that period? And what can we learn from it – about how parliament and our constitution work, and about how they should work?

Well a new book recently published by Oxford University Press explores all these questions and many more. It’s called The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit. And its authors join me now. They are Meg Russell (Director of the UCL Constitution Unit and Professor of British and Comparative Politics in the UCL Department of Political Science) and Lisa James (Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit).


Mentioned in this episode:

Episode Transcription


parliament, brexit, period, referendum, people, conservative party, meg, party, vote, question, happened, theresa may's, supporting, myths, politics, government, theresa may, institutions, lisa, deal


Lisa James, Meg Russell, Alan Renwick


Alan Renwick  00:06

Hello. This is UCL Uncovering Politics. And this week we ask: what does the process of Brexit tell us about the role of the UK's parliament and whether it needs reform?


Hello. My name is Alan Renwick and welcome to UCL Uncovering Politics – the podcast of the School of Public Policy and Department of Political Science at University College London. 


The last seven years in British politics have been tempestuous. The turmoil has had multiple causes: COVID, Putin's attack on Ukraine, and Trussonomics among them. But the politics of much of the period has been dominated by Brexit: by a referendum on an ever so simple question, followed by years of wrangling over what the question meant and how the answer to that question given by voters should be interpreted and implemented. And much of that contest took place in parliament. Meaningful votes, indicative votes, the Brady amendment, the Malthouse compromise, the Cooper-Letwin Bill, the legality or otherwise of prorogation – all of that and much, much more became the stuff of primetime television. 


So what should we make of that period? And what can we learn from it – about how parliament and our constitution work, and about how they should work? 


Well, a new book recently published by Oxford University Press explores all these questions and many more. It's called The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit. And its authors join me now. They are Meg Russell, director of the UCL Constitution Unit and Professor of British and Comparative Politics in the UCL Department of Political Science, and Lisa James, Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit. 


Welcome back, Meg and Lisa – great to have you on the podcast again.


We'll get into some of the lessons that we can learn from studying this period in a little bit. But let's start by diving straight into the politics of these extraordinary times. One of the things I find quite striking about the book is that you do a lot of myth busting. So do you want to give us some of the key myths about the Brexit process and what's wrong with them? Lisa, do you want to kick us off?


Lisa James  02:11

Sure. Yes, I think you're absolutely right. And that opportunity to challenge some of the myths that have grown up is one of the key reasons that we decided to write the book. And I think the biggest myth of all, and one that has been very deep rooted, is the idea that a 'Remainer Parliament' blocked Brexit and was behind the immense difficulties of sort of the 2018-19 period in particular. 


What we argued was that, in reality, what was going on was an argument in the Conservative Party. We should look at this as a case of factions within a political party fighting it out for dominance over a highly contentious political issue. The Conservative backbenchers were divided, but so was the cabinet. And so this is really a battle that plays out in Parliament, rather than – as has often been presented – a battle between the executive and Parliament as institutions. 


And I think the other key thing that feeds into this myth is the idea of who was it blocking Brexit, delaying Brexit. And when you go back to looking at the votes on Theresa May's deal, in particular the numbers here are quite important because what you see is leave support is playing a really, really important role in voting down Theresa May's deal and bringing about the circumstances in which the UK's exit from the European Union was delayed. And by the time of the third vote on the deal in March 2019 – by which time, you know, this is a very, very febrile environment, immensely politically difficult – it's the votes of leave-supporting MPs, particularly those in the European Research Group, and the Brexit-supporting DUP, that are decisive in defeating May's deal.


Meg Russell  03:54

And if I can come in. I think it's interesting to reflect upon how these myths come about. And I think that some of them actually... Some of them are genuinely because this was a very complicated process: it was a very confusing political time, a lot of people weren't following it very carefully, and there were sort of lazy assumptions made. 


But I also think that some of these myths were deliberately constructed by people within the argument. And Boris Johnson, in particular, deliberately constructed this argument, building upon some of the rhetoric of Theresa May – who had preceded him as Prime Minister – that Parliament had brought blocked Brexit. And of course, he went into the 2019 general election as a relatively new prime minister, arguing that he was the man who was going to 'get Brexit done'. 


But actually, if you look at what was going on in Parliament in the preceding months, he was also one of the men who had voted repeatedly against Brexit when put to Parliament by Theresa May. And at the time that he was doing that he was arguing that her complaints about Parliament being intransigent were quite outrageous. So he did a complete about turn after he became prime minister and pretended he was this sort of saviour of Brexit, when in fact, he and others on the sort of Brexit-supporting part of the Conservative Party had actually been blocking her deal because they thought it wasn't Brexit-y enough. 


So, Theresa May was always very keen not to blame people within her own party. She's a tremendous party loyalist. So rather than pointing out that it was people on her own backbenches in the Conservative Party who were getting in the way of this deal being agreed, she sent, she tended to point the finger at the Labour Party in particular, but the opposition parties in general, and Remainers – or so-called 'Remoaners' – for getting in the way of Brexit. And that was a sort of cover up of the fact that actually it was the Brexit-supporting backbenchers in her own party who were causing the main problem. 


And then when you get her overthrow, and her replacement with Boris Johnson, he very deliberately continues that narrative up to the 2019 general election. And it's one of the things that helps him win that election. And, you know, to an extent one could say it was actually not true.


Alan Renwick  06:20

And so I guess the question that leads me to is: why is it important to bust this myth? I mean, in a sense, it's important to bust all myths because they're untrue. And it's important not to have untrue things floating around. But I have a sense from the way you're answering there that you think that this is actually quite important that we don't misunderstand what happened here and we don't allow this particular untruth to be kind of perpetuated.


Meg Russell  06:51

I think on that I would say two things. 


One is that one of the things which was most unsettling and distressing about this period was the way in which various voices started to criticise our institutions. So criticise Parliament, criticise the courts. And I think that's really a problem in a political system because to be a democracy we require a parliament and we require courts. And I think it's rather important, if those criticisms are not justified by the facts, for people to explain that to people. And we may come to Parliament's role and to the extent to which Parliament was really just doing its job. But also, I think it's quite important in terms of understanding how Parliament works. 


And if you go back to – there's this classic writing by Anthony King in the 1970s about executive-legislative relations which points out that there's no such thing as a kind of unified executive and a unified parliament. It's not a colour clash between institutions. Actually, Parliament is a complicated place which is made up of lots of different groupings. And very often the most important relationship is the one between the government on the front bench and the government's own backbenchers, because generally the government relies on its backbenchers for a majority, and if it doesn't have their support it becomes very vulnerable. 


And although we were in a period of minority government here for a lot of the time, I think we see that dynamic played out a lot. And so you know, this is educative about the way that Parliament works and how these are not monolithic actors. Parliament is a complicated place full of lots of different people who, in this period, were fragmented not just between parties but within parties into different factions.


Alan Renwick  08:37

That's a theme that I'm sure we're going to come back to. So Lisa, you go on.


Lisa James  08:41

I think it's also important in the sense that we can see a clear line running through from the Brexit period to some of the political developments that have happened in the in the last few years. There's a sort of fundamental tension at the heart of a parliamentary system between the need for the executive to be able to act and to be able to get its policies through and achieve the things it wants to achieve, and for Parliament to be able to influence that, to scrutinise, to approve. And when we look at Parliament, a lot of the lessons that people draw from the Brexit period are about the relationship that Parliament should have with the executive. And it goes right to the heart of that question of, you know: is more parliamentary scrutiny and deliberation a good thing or does it get in the way of effective governance? 


And I think being able to disentangle what actually happened over Brexit, you know, where those difficulties came from – it was an undeniably difficult period for British politics. But to understand what actually happened with those dynamics and why things got so difficult does matter because those are conclusions that go on to influence how we should think about, you know, the role that Parliament played during the pandemic, the role that Parliament should have in looking at legislation and contentious policy areas now. So I think it really matters to understand what happened because it has lasting effects.


Alan Renwick  09:56

Great. We'll get on to these sorts of general lessons in a little bit. But let's maybe explore a bit more of the detail of the case. And there's so much rich history of a fascinating period in the book. And we can't possibly cover all of it in the time that we've got here. But maybe we should try to get into a couple of the other periods. 


And one of the most interesting periods I find is the period that comes before the referendum on Brexit and what Parliament does in the run up to the referendum and the decision to hold the referendum, which I think can essentially be summarised as Parliament pushes for this referendum but doesn't actually do any thinking about what's going to be involved in having the referendum and what would happen if people voted in favour of Brexit. 


Meg, is that a reasonable summary, and should Parliament have been doing something different at that time?


Meg Russell  10:50

I think yes and no. 


In terms of the broader story, I think it's very important to point out that Parliament had a major role before the referendum as well as afterwards. And again, that's very much a story about backbench pressure, primarily inside the Conservative Party, because there were Conservative rebels – Eurosceptic rebels – who, you know, you can trace this back decades. You know, there were Conservative rebellions over the Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s. You can trace it even back to the UK entry into what was then the EEC in the 1970s. So this is very much a theme – the divisions, particularly on the Conservative benches, which were leading up increasingly from the 1990s onto pressure for referendums of different kinds, and eventually led to the pressure for the in-out or leave-remain referendum. 


One of the things which is interesting is a little myth to be busted there is that not all of the people actually supporting the calls for a referendum wanted to leave the EU. Some of them like David Cameron, the prime minister at the time who eventually conceded the referendum, just wanted to hold the referendum in order to make the thing go away. And of course, it didn't go away. And it's because a lot of people had that attitude that this was just a way of what some people refer to as 'lancing a boil' within the Conservative Party to end this talk of leaving the EU because the opinion polls suggested that it would be a vote to remain in the EU. Consequently, they gave very little thought to what the consequences would be if there was a vote to leave. This was not really considered credible that there would be a vote to leave. 


One of the main criticisms that I have is that Parliament itself never actually had a serious debate about whether leaving or remaining was a good idea. It fixated on having a referendum, thinking that the referendum would be the end of the story. And if they had started discussing some of the ins and outs of what a leave vote would mean, we would have had some of the complexity on the table before the referendum in terms of process, Article 50, etc., and in terms of the Brexit options, which we really didn't begin talking about until after the referendum. And you could say that that was a parliamentary failure.


Alan Renwick  13:01

So Parliament didn't get very much involved in the detail before the referendum. But it did try to get involved very much after the referendum and particularly after the 2017 election when the Theresa May government lost its majority. 


And to what extent, Lisa, would you say that was due to the strategy that Theresa May adopted and failings in that strategy and parliament was trying to, kind of, fill a void? To what extent was it that Parliament was attempting to do something inappropriate? What should we make of that period?


Lisa James  13:32

So I think this is a really interesting period because, in particular, I think you can identify a shift between the post-referendum period and the post-2017 general election. 


Theresa May's strategy quite early on was to effectively attempt to make Brexit a Conservative enterprise. She was very keen to keep it within the Party. And quite early on, she comes out with what was termed a 'no running commentary' approach. And this starts to breed suspicion very early on. Effectively, the Eurosceptics in the Party were always a little suspicious of May because she had been a remain backer in the referendum, albeit to quite a low profile and quite a lukewarm remain backer. And the need to keep them on side led her to declare her red lines for the negotiations really quite early on, and at a stage when people have speculated that she may not have understood quite how much he was ruling out by doing so. That decision to draw red lines frightened the former remain backers in the Party, or those who would have preferred a softer Brexit. 


So what you start to see very early on, even before the 2017 general election, are both wings of the Conservative Party starting to get suspicious about where this might end up. And in particular, starting to think about how Parliament might be used to ensure that they have input into the negotiations and, you know, to start thinking about the requirement to approve a final deal. 


What happens after 2017 is of course that Theresa May is incredibly weakened by the election results. And that I think furthers this suspicion on both sides. Eurosceptics start to understandably feel concerned that she might be led to water down some of these commitments. There are one or two things said in major speeches where she's starting to look toward the necessity of transition periods – things like that, that start to alarm them. 


On the other side, soft Brexit backers are starting to be concerned that the need to keep the Eurosceptics on side will lead her to pursue a hard Brexit. And of course in the period after the 2017 general election there was the very real possibility that she would be ousted and replaced. That ultimately didn't happen largely, I think, because the Party couldn't quite agree on who it would be that would replace her. 


But she's in a very, very difficult position. And that leads both wings of her party to start to try to hedge their bets to think about how they can pursue the outcome they most want.


Alan Renwick  16:00

Meg, do you want to add to that?


Meg Russell  16:03

Yeah, well, I suppose I could add a bit more detail in terms of what happens, that there are a series of fronts upon which Parliament tries to assert itself. 


One is... The first one is through trying to get a say in whether there should be a triggering of Article 50. Although mostly that's fought out through the courts in the first Brexit case to reach the Supreme Court, the Miller case, which says that Parliament needs to vote on whether Article 50 should be triggered. That happens quite early on. 


But then there's a lot of pressure coming from the House of Commons for oversight of the negotiations that Theresa May is conducting, for there to be explanations from herself and the Brexit Secretary as to what exactly kind of form of Brexit they might be seeking to agree. 


And then the third thing is for there to be commitment from the government that there should be a vote on the final deal: the government shouldn't be able to use its prerogative powers to sign up to a Brexit deal, that Parliament should have a say. And the government – perhaps understandably, in a sense, because Parliament is so split and, in particular, the Conservative Party is so split – is very reluctant to concede this. For a long time there's a battle going on in Parliament over whether Parliament itself will get a say on the final deal. There's a defeat on that in the House of Commons at the hands of a Conservative backbencher. There are more defeats in the House of Lords. And then the end the government is forced, in legislation, to concede that Parliament will get a say. And it's after that – as a result of those changes which have been forced on the government by Parliament, including its own backbenchers – that we then see the so-called 'meaningful votes', which result in the repeated defeat of Theresa May's deal. The irony of that is that it was primarily those on the soft Brexit side in her party who are trying to constrain her by requiring that there should be a vote because they're concerned about the hard Brexiteers getting too much of their say, but in the end, it's the hard Brexiteers who ended up using those votes in order to defeat her.


Alan Renwick  18:07

That leads on very nicely to the next question that I was going to ask, which is moving us on to thinking about what broader lessons we learn from all of this experience. And you were talking there Meg about the kinds of influence that Parliament is able to exert. Do you want to just kind of sum that up for us? In what ways can Parliament have what sorts of effects upon the outcome here? What do we see in the Brexit case?


Meg Russell  18:33

Well, Parliament – you know, I teach about Parliament, and parliaments in general around the world, and they have many different functions. You know, they are representative institutions where many different voices are heard, including from different parts of the country, different political parties, and so on. They are deliberative institutions where important national debates are heard. They are accountability institutions and scrutiny institutions where executives are held to account on the public record for their policies and have to explain themselves. And they are also policymaking or decision-making institutions, particularly on legislation, where their support is required for the law to be changed. 


We often focus on the last one of those and in a sense that's what we've been doing by talking about these meaningful votes – the decision taken by Parliament as to whether to support to Theresa May's deal. But I think the other things are really, really important as well. And through this period, as I said with respect to the negotiations, one of the most important things that Parliament is doing is just trying to force explanations from the government as to what its intentions are, what the options are, what the likely effects – economic and otherwise – of those different options will be. So for example, what kind of assessments it's done of the likely economic impacts of different forms of Brexit, what's going to happen with the border in Northern Ireland, which is a crucial question throughout this period. So Parliament flushes out into the open a lot of the contradictions and the dilemmas over Brexit, which otherwise the government might have rather sort of brushed over behind the scenes. 


And I think Theresa May's initial instinct was as far as possible to bring a sort of ready-made Brexit to the House of Commons and say: 'Well, this is it. We've done all the negotiation. So that's okay, isn't it.' But Parliament wasn't going to be satisfied with that. Parliament wanted to keep a very close eye on her and make sure that she was doing things that it thought were defensible, which leads you to some kind of dilemmas as to the benefits of openness in decision-making. Because in a way, if Parliament hadn't got all of that out into the open, it probably would have been easier to agree a deal. And we might have even ended up with a softer form of Brexit than we got. But by bringing all of this out into the open, various kind of contradictions and difficulties were exposed that made it harder and harder to agree any form of Brexit.


Alan Renwick  21:10

So what should we think then overall? I mean, did Parliament do good here? Would things have been better had Parliament just kind of left the May government to get on with it? 


Lisa, what's your take on this?


Lisa James  21:22

I think it's a really difficult question to answer because it all hinges on what you mean by 'good'. I think what's often meant when people ask this question is: would we have had a softer Brexit? It's often asked from a particular political kind of angle. And as Meg says, had there not been a meaningful vote in particular, it probably would have been easier for the May government to get its deal through, which would have been a softer Brexit than the version we've ended up with. 


But I think also we have to look at this from a sort of angle of constitutional precedent. Brexit raised enormous questions. It had immense implications for Northern Ireland, for the economy, for citizens' rights. These are all areas where, in general, we would say as a parliamentary system with Parliament sitting at the apex of our democracy, it is right that the supreme deliberative body should have input into this. 


I think what the period shows is not so much that it's very difficult for Parliament to be involved in these things, but that it's very, very difficult for a divided Parliament to do much of anything, just as it's very difficult for divided government – which we also had for the majority of this period – to do anything. I think what we saw were the effects of very, very difficult parliamentary arithmetic playing out. It was very difficult to build a majority. Had Parliament been less involved, I think it would have been easier perhaps to disguise that fact – for the government to act, assuming the Cabinet could have been kept together, which is another big 'what if'. But it would perhaps have been easier for the government to act as though those divisions didn't necessarily exist. But actually, the fundamental problem here was that there was no political majority to be found. And that's a political problem, not an institutional problem I would say.


Meg Russell  23:12

if I might just add something there. Lisa is absolutely right. Parliament was divided, the government was divided. But it's important – coming back to my first point about the roles of Parliament – to emphasise that the country was divided. You know, we had a 48-52 referendum, opinion polls following the referendum, some people in Parliament, I think, hoped that opinion would turn against Brexit, and that ultimately there would be some legitimacy to overturning the result. But that never happened. But the country never really firmly turned to Brexit either. The country remained divided and Parliament as a representative institution was in a sense just representing the way that the country was feeling. And if your country is that divided, and consequently your parliament is that divided, it's very, very difficult to reach any kind of decision.


Alan Renwick  24:02

So one of the things that comes across very strongly in the book is that whatever you think of Brexit, and whatever kind of Brexit you might think would have been best from this process, the process itself was very messy, very conflictual, became very polarised, caused all sorts of divisions in society. And in many ways, it feels like it could have been done better. 


So in the final part of the book, you talk about ways in which potentially our politics could be reformed. Do you want to outline some of these and why you think they're needed? So, Lisa, do you want to start on that?


Lisa James  24:37

Sure. Well, why don't I kick off with the topic that we keep coming back to in the book as one of the big root causes of the problems that followed. And this has to do with how we use referendums and how we run referendums, because one of the big problems with the Brexit referendum, as we've touched on already, is the lack of planning for a leave outcome. The referendum asked a question on a simple point of principle with an immensely complicated implementation job behind it. And what happened, effectively, was that an unclear mandate was handed to Parliament for Parliament then to interpret. 


But the lack of clarity around that mandate also made it very easy for different politicians at different times to claim the will of the people for different versions of Brexit. And in the very simplest form, you can see this with two prime ministers – Theresa May and Boris Johnson both claimed to be implementing the will of the people – with two actually quite different Brexit deals. And that lack of clarity from the referendum I think really did lay the ground for a lot of what was to come, partly because it allowed some of those very thorniest questions – Northern Ireland, in particular – to lay dormant until 2017 or so when suddenly it becomes apparent just how much of a problem they're likely to cause and how insoluble they're likely to be. 


And it also, I think, allowed, as I've said, many, many different people to claim a mandate and to claim that anybody opposing their version of Brexit was attempting to frustrate the will of the people to run, to deny the referendum itself. And so it fed a very toxic political discourse.


Meg Russell  26:20

That was a very difficult point to come back from. That is the fundamental root of the problems which we got ourselves into. There was perhaps one opportunity there to try and make things a bit better after the referendum by saying, being straight with the people and saying: 'Look, you know, we've got a 48-52 result here. It's a rather unexpected result. So what we actually need is to keep talking to you about what it is you want, about how you would like us to interpret this result, and to continue the dialogue with the public.' 


But actually what happened – partly because of the change of prime minister and Theresa May's style, which was a very, very closed style – was that she then sort of took that, tried to pretend rather than being open about the fact that was complicated, tried to pretend it was very simple, and wanted, as Lisa said earlier, to deliver it purely through her political party, ideally with as little consultation with Parliament as possible. And so the public were completely shut out. 


So while I think it would have been difficult to row back from a referendum held in those circumstances, at least to admit the complexity and to continue the dialogue might have helped us to navigate it a bit better. And actually the exact opposite happened.


Alan Renwick  27:35

And could a remain-voting prime minister do that? Did it need a Brexit-voting prime minister at that point to say: 'We won, but now we have to reach out to the losing side as well'? Was it just impossible for Theresa May to do that?


Lisa James  27:51

I think it was very difficult. I think one of the big questions with Theresa May that we keep coming back to throughout the course of the book is: how far was she making mistakes and how far was she in a completely unwinnable position? 


She had a divided party. By the time the referendum vote took place on the 23rd of June this was already a highly politicised and really quite toxic debate. I think it was going to be difficult for anyone to come back from that and to bring the Party and country back together as she set out to do.


One of the big 'what ifs' obviously is: what would have happened if the Boris Johnson and Michael Gove ticket had not imploded quite so spectacularly in 2016. As people will probably remember, the intention had originally been that Johnson would run for the leadership with Gove in a key support position taking on some kind of important role within the cabinet. And Michael Gove quite unexpectedly declared that he didn't think Boris Johnson fit for office and couldn't support him. And that effectively sunk the both of them. 


And that was really deeply traumatising for the Conservative Party. One of the key ministers from Theresa May's cabinet, Amber Rudd, said in an interview publicly that the Conservative Party chose May 'like holding onto nurse's hand'. But I think also that sense of dislocation made it very, very difficult for the Party to come back together.


Alan Renwick  29:18

And I guess that fits in, Meg, with a point that you make right at the end of the book. So I asked you about reforms that might be required, and you talk about changing the role of referendums. You also talk in the book about changing the rules of leadership elections – that they have created difficulties – and also some institutional reforms within Parliament itself. 


But then you say the democratic problems of our age are more cultural than institutional. So perhaps these institutional reforms are not enough on their own. There's also much bigger questions about how politics plays out and the culture of politics that proved very difficult during this period. How would you characterise that difficulty? And what can we do about it?


Meg Russell  30:06

Well, maybe worth saying just something momentarily about those two things that you've mentioned in terms of leadership elections because we were just talking about a leadership election. 


We haven't mentioned Labour very much. And one of the biggest problems during this period beyond the Conservative Party was Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party, where he absolutely did not enjoy the confidence of his parliamentary party, which was a very strange dynamic, which made it difficult for the prime minister to build an alternative majority when her own party wasn't supporting her because she was facing a Labour leader whose party was not supporting him. And so leadership elections, where members are able to choose leaders over the heads of the party's MPs, effectively disempowers Parliament and makes the system potentially quite dysfunctional. 


And in terms of scrutiny, I think we saw during this period, for reasons which we've discussed at some length, an increasing resistance in government to subject important questions to parliamentary scrutiny for fear of defeat, for fear of rebellion. And that has continued into more recent times, particularly the COVID period, when there were lots of sort of emergency measures decided without much oversight by Parliament. One of the things that we need to do is get back to a culture of parliamentary scrutiny, which has rather been lost in these recent years. And I think, you know, that's quite an urgent priority. 


But to get to your point about culture, we very much link this up with the culture of populism, which has been discussed in many other countries around the world, and the risks of democratic backsliding. And these two... These are two things which are quite closely connected to each other, because basically populism sets out to create an apparent tension between the pure people, the people who are beyond reproach, and elites who are in some way out of touch and perhaps even corrupt. And you saw this language played out through Brexit in terms of the will off the people in the referendum and attacks on politicians for not delivering the will of the people. 


And that sort of populist rhetoric gets you quite quickly into attacks on political institutions, which are seen as part of the elite. So as we've said, we saw attacks on Parliament, we saw attacks on the judges, who at times were drawn into these arguments primarily to defend Parliament and its rights to be involved in some of the key decisions. But you begin to see anti-parliamentary rhetoric, anti-courts and -judicial rhetoric, and very much a sort of rejection of the standard process, the standard democratic processes in the UK, which became really quite worrying. 


And one of the things that goes along classically with populism is a sense of polarisation. And we very much sort of polarisation over Brexit. You know, we were divided into Leavers and Remainers, who became increasingly suspicious of each other, which is driving away the sort of standard pattern, which is that: when there are different opinions on something, you reach for a compromise, you try and see what centre ground can be found, what compromise can be reached between people who have different objectives in order that you can please the majority of people. And on Brexit it was a very polarised issue because clearly we were either in or we were out. And the referendum encouraged that kind of polarisation, as referendums tend to do, because they tend to be presented as sort of simple yes-no choices. And the difficulties after the referendum, for the reasons that we've discussed, of not being able easily to resolve how to act on the result, simply meant that that polarisation continued and increased. 


So I think in terms of culture, what we need to do is really work against polarisation now. You know, one of the worries in British politics, and in politics in many other countries around the world, is the pursuit, for example, of so-called 'culture wars'. You know, where we're endlessly looking for new elites to blame in order that the pure people are being badly done by somebody – you know, the Metropolitan elite, the elites in certain professions, and so on – rather than saying the world is complex, we don't all agree on everything, but what we need to do is learn how to live together, and we need to find some solutions that will be adequate for everyone. 


And that's what politics is there to do. Politics is about compromise. It's about negotiation. It's about finding solutions together. And that's often what Parliaments are there to facilitate. And so, you know, I think we need to rebuild trust in those kinds of classic political processes. 


Alan Renwick  34:47

Well there's a great line- 


Meg Russell  34:47

That was an absurdly long answer. I'm sorry.


Alan Renwick  34:48

It was a great answer. There's a wonderful thought to end on. 


Thank you so much, Meg and Lisa. 


We haven't remotely done justice to your book, which is full of incredibly rich analysis but also really, really readable. So I very much recommend it to everyone. 


We've been talking about The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit, written by Meg Russell and Lisa James and published last month by Oxford University Press. And if you go to the show notes for this episode, you'll find a link to the Constitution Unit website, which tells you how to buy the book at 30% off the list price. 


Next week, we'll have a special guest episode with Charles Dunst of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, exploring his new book Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman


Remember, to make sure you don't miss out on that or other future episodes of UCL Uncovering Politics, all you need to do is subscribe. You can do so on Apple, Google Podcasts or whatever podcast provider you use. And while you're there, we'd love it if you could take a moment of time to rate or review us too. 


I'm Alan Renwick. This episode was produced by Alice Hart and Eleanor Kingwell-Banham. Our theme music is written and performed by John Mann. 


This has been UCL Uncovering Politics. Thank you for listening.