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‘We’re in the Last Hour’: Democracy Itself Is on Trial in Brexit, Britons Say

Parliament’s rejection of Mrs. May’s withdrawal plan on Friday — for the third time — means the turbulence will continue.In interviews, many Britons expressed despair over the inability of the political system to produce a compromise. No one feels that the government has represented their interests. No one is satisfied. No one is hopeful.It has…

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Parliament’s rejection of Mrs. May’s withdrawal plan on Friday — for the third time — means the turbulence will continue.

In interviews, many Britons expressed despair over the inability of the political system to produce a compromise. No one feels that the government has represented their interests. No one is satisfied. No one is hopeful.

It has amounted to a hollowing out of confidence in democracy itself.

“I don’t think the central institutions of government have been discredited like this in the postwar period,” said William Davies, who teaches political economy at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics — featuring a flock of sheep, a snippet of the Sex Pistols’ music and a skit about a skydiving Queen Elizabeth — suggested a country unburdened by longing for its more orderly, homogeneous past.

It’s hard to conceive of that now. The referendum question has divided Britain into warring tribes, unable to settle on any shared vision of the future. An ancient, robust democracy is groaning under the weight of conflicting demands — on the executive, to carry out the will of the people; and on the members of Parliament, to follow their conscience and to act in what they believe to be the people’s interest.

In such a situation, the country might have united in its resentment of the European Union, which had vowed to make Britain’s withdrawal painful. But that has not happened. Britons are blaming their own leaders.

“I think people have totally lost confidence in democracy, in British democracy and the way it’s run,” said Tommy Turner, 32, a firefighter. He was perched on a stool at the Hare & Hounds, a working-class pub in Surrey, where nearly everyone voted to leave the European Union. Among his friends, he said, he sensed a profound sense of betrayal that Britain was not exiting on March 29, as promised.

“You’ve got egotistical people in politics, and they want to follow their own agenda,” he said. “They don’t want to follow what the people have voted for.” Asked how he felt about the approaching Brexit deadline, Mr. Turner said, “worried.”

“We’re in the last hour,” he said. “I’m wondering: What does more damage? Leaving without a deal? Or the total annihilation of faith in democracy?”

data released recently by NatCen Social Research, an independent agency. (Two years ago, the numbers were 41 percent negative and 29 percent positive.)

Particularly drastic, researchers said, is the souring of Leave voters in the past six months, as Mrs. May concluded her negotiations on the withdrawal agreement and shared the terms of departure with the country. Expectations that Brexit would have concrete effects — by lifting the economy or slowing immigration — have diminished sharply, the data show.

to revoke Article 50, the part of the European Union treaty that lays out the terms of Britain’s exit, reached one-quarter of the population.

But people here took an equally dismal view of the government’s performance.

Aidan Hughes, 58, who works in finance, was waiting for a cab in the back of the bar.

“What we’re seeing is that the process the government’s involved in has been effectively hijacked by an even smaller segment of the ruling government, the right-wing element of the party,” he said. He blamed the first-past-the-post voting system, which tends to increase polarization between two large parties and exaggerate geographical divides, setting up stark conflict between sections of society.

He said it was time for Britain to move toward a system of proportional representation, common to democracies that evolved later than Britain’s, which allows smaller parties to enter Parliament more easily.

“We would then have people with different views coming together to compromise, to find a way forward,” he said. “Whereas whoever wins an election now can currently push their views, irrespective of support.”

Suez crisis, the Egyptian nationalist uprising that signaled the end of the British and French empires.

“The thing has been humiliating; there is a sense of no one being in the cockpit,” Mr. Leonard added. “Britain was a different country after Suez, and that’s where we are now. I don’t think there is any way back if we go ahead with Brexit.”

In a landscape of pervasive gloom, Mr. Hughes, the finance worker, did see one reason for hope: That Britons, young and old, were passionately engaged, as never before, in the inner workings of their own government. Even if it was because they were so angry.

“This is starting to drag people into an interest in what’s actually happening,” he said. “Clearly it’s a total mess and it’s been handled appallingly by the government. Be that as it may, at least it’s gotten people animated in talking about these topics.”

 

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