Time for a Zemsky Sobor?

British politics are at a total impasse. Having earlier this week rejected 8 alternative solutions to the problem of Brexit, the House of Commons has now for a third time also rejected the withdrawal agreement signed by the British government and the European Union (EU) to allow the United Kingdom to leave the EU. At this point, many Brits are unsurprisingly fed up with the whole affair, and just want a decision, however rotten it might be, just to get it done. The House of Commons, however, has proven what I said earlier in the week – that it is utterly incapable of reaching a decision, any decision. So how can Britain get out of this mess?

The most obvious solution at this point is a general election. Since the current complement of the Commons can’t agree on anything, it’s clear that the makeup of the Commons has to change. That means an election.

As an election would mean putting off a decision on Brexit for some time, a prerequisite is a long Brexit delay. Under the terms of the failed withdrawal agreement, a final settlement on the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship was to be signed by 31 December 2020. It would therefore make sense to postpone Brexit to that date and work on agreeing not just the withdrawal terms but also the final settlement by that time.

Step one, therefore, needs to be a long postponement. Step two needs to be a general election.

The problem with this solution is that it assumes that a new House of Commons would be better able to reach a decision than the current one. It’s certainly obvious that it can’t be any worse in that regard, so this solution is worth a try, but it’s far from a dead cert. Given that public opinion in the UK is almost equally split on the Brexit issue, an election may just end up reproducing the existing balance of forces in the Commons. This is especially likely because the two main political parties – Conservatives and Labour – are themselves split and not capable of giving voters a clear choice vis-à-vis Brexit options. For voters to have that choice, the existing party system would have to be destroyed and the election fought between entirely new forces. That isn’t going to happen.

So this option should be tried, but I’m not confident that it will work. If it doesn’t, what then?

At that point, I think, the only way forward will be to seek a way of forcing the Commons to accept some solution – whatever it may be – by going over its head to the British people. But commentators who propose this seem stuck on the model of a referendum. This isn’t a good method. A referendum requires a clear question on a limited number of options, ideally just one. But solving Brexit requires discussion of multiple, complex options; and not a simple ‘yes, no’ answer, but a degree of compromise between solutions. A referendum can’t provide this.

A different method of providing a ‘people’s vote’ may therefore have to be found. One possibility would be some form of constitutional convention. And here perhaps the ancient Russian model of the Zemsky Sobor comes in useful. A Zemsky Sobor traditionally represented all estates of the Russian people. Political parties were not involved in the process (a necessary requisite for success in the Brexit instance, I suspect). And though the Zemsky Sobor was purely consultative, and had no official political authority, its legitimacy was such as to give its recommendations great power.

Such a consultative assembly would, of course, be entirely outside British constitutional convention. But it seems to me that at this point Her Majesty the Queen might be entitled to conclude that the people’s representatives have failed both her and the people, and therefore feel entitled also to find a different way of making the people’s wishes known to her in a manner which bypasses the existing power structures.

Would it work? I have no idea. But as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures.

8 thoughts on “Time for a Zemsky Sobor?”

  1. Hmm…

    Consulting with the people raises the question of how would you reach a cross section of the public / representative of the views

    The referendum was supposed to have done that, it had high participation 32 million voted

    A general election will not solve anything as the EU agreed the Withdrawal Agreement. That’s the deal that suits them – why should they change their mind?

    The UK at the point should be forced out.
    The delay is beyond ridiculous

    The vast majority of the MPs don’t want Brexit – the vast majority of them are neo liberals.

    They are in seats where it’s impossible to get them out. So nothing will change.


    1. ‘The vast majority of the MPs don’t want Brexit –… They are in seats where it’s impossible to get them out. So nothing will change.’

      Thus my suggestion that it may be necessary to get around them somehow.


      1. Extinction Rebellion in UK has an idea about that. Citizens Assemblies where people are chosen at random, like U.S. juries. They gather evidence from knowledgeable sources for the various viewpoints and suggest the needed resolutions. The term for this is sortition. Can’t be worse than what is happening and has a great chance of being better.


  2. I have to confess, I am starting to get sucked into the drama of Brexit, even though I have no reason to be. I definitely feel for you, it looks infuriating and also like it will never end.

    FWIW, both referendum and customs-union came pretty close, in that less than 50% MP’s opposed and several dozen abstained. Customs union was within 8, which is actually pretty surprising, since it’s a potentially “harder” option than the WA. Any thoughts on that?


    1. I kind of think that if you’re going to remain in the customs union, you might as well just stay in the EU, but I am Remainer so I’m biased that way. The problem in any case is that even if you go for the customs union option, you still need to sign a withdrawal agreement, so customs union isn’t actually an alternative to the WA.


  3. It seems to me that any kind of ‘consultative assembly’ or ‘constitutional convention’ would favor the educated segment.

    It just doesn’t seem realistic that the lower orders would be proportionally represented, and even if (in some sense) they were, it seems doubtful that they would be able to assert their position, defend their interests.

    It seems to me, any kind of parliamentarism is the upper-class game. It’s counteracted by (dreaded) populism, and the outcome can only be revealed in a referendum, imo. That’s why referendum is such a dangerous, loathed by the upper class mechanism.


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