“lt will take time for full realisation of this to sink into party headquarters…”

“lt will take time for full realisation of this to sink into party headquarters…”

The Spectator, 21 July 1973

“The full realisation of what?” I hear you ask. Here is the context:

The Government managed to get its wretched little European Communities Bill — under which this monstrous regimen of bureaucratic Brusselsdom was statutorily but unconstitutionally allowed to assume sovereignty over us — through Parliament by arguing that the fears expressed by anti-Market MPs were groundless, and that in practical terms Britain’s entry into Europe would increase rather than decrease British control over Britain’s future. We were not, according to this glib and ignorant hypothesis, so much losing sovereignty as gaining power. Daily, the disproofs of the daft hypothesis mount.

The public knows this already. It never liked the Common Market, and now it realises that the experiment is a disastrous flop. lt will take time for full realisation of this to sink into party headquarters; it will take it even longer to sink into our most Eurofanatical MPs; it may never sink into this particular Government. But sooner or later there will be a government and a House of Commons united in their determination to restore to themselves (and thus to the people), the powers of decision foolishly and ignorantly ceded by this Government and this Parliament. The sooner such a government is in power the better, for the less difficult will be the unscrambling process. it is not, as the Labour leadership still seeks to pretend, a question of renegotiation. It is a matter of repudiation; and the first party which appeals to the country on a clear policy of repudiating the Treaty of Rome will be rewarded with office by the public whose voice will have at length been heard and heeded.

That realisation took longer – one suspects – than even The Spectator had anticipated.

Interesting that mention of “power”. That was precisely what Lord Heseltine said in an interview with Michael Portillo for a Channel 5 documentary on the EU just a few weeks ago. Did we ever get any?

Also interesting is the talk of “repudiation”. Repudiating a treaty is a big deal but it is not difficult to foresee the circumstances in which a British government might do precisely that.

Yours,

Phineas Phosgene

The David Starkey Interview

The historian David Starkey was interviewed by Brendan O’Neill of Spiked. He compares recent events in Parliament with events in the 17th century:

We’re going through the events of the 17th century as farce. What those people were doing, that noble gentleman I think he was a Scot Nat who fell across the speaker, he was trying to re-enact the role of the Commons in 1629 when the speaker was held down to prevent the proroguing of Parliament at the will of Charles I.

Rather than being suddenly silenced with desperate amounts of business waiting to be dealt with, they have sat for the longest single session since the long Parliament. It was 810 days. It cost one and a half billion Pounds, and they did bugger all. They did worse than bugger all: they buggered things up. What happened? It’s very clear. No legislation of any significance was passed in three years. Not only that, they stopped any decisions being taken. We are in a nightmare. We are in this sealed world that you can’t get out of because we’re bound into it by another catastrophic peice of legislation, the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which looks directly back to the Civil War.

Parliament in 1641 passed an act that it couldn’t be dissolved without its own consent. It then turns into a vicious oligarchy that sits until 1653 when it has to be chased out at the point of a bayonet by Cromwell. That’s where we are.

I think the best feature of all this is that no legislation has passed. Other than that this seems about right. Starkey goes on to discuss the role of MPs, the speaker, and the government.

In legal theory, the members of the Commons are representatives and they have the role that was enunciated in the famous letter to the electors of Bristol by Edmund Burke. “I owe you my discretion; I don’t merely owe you my vote.” That was nearly 250 years ago when there was no democracy and politics was run by a handful of families like the Marquess of Rockingham to whom he was the paid lackey (and by the way the electors of Bristol threw him out). There is a very vague relationship between Parliament and democracy. We have had Parliament for 800 years. We’ve had democracy for less than a century. And the great issue was: how do you reconcile the previous tradition of representative in a non-democratic Parliament with the position of delegate in a democratic Parliament. And the way it was dealt with — this is what all the fuss, all the things that we are talking about: Erskine May, A V Dicey, they all appear at a particular moment of time. They appear in the middle of the 1880s because it’s the 1884 reform act that introduces something like democracy.

But you see we’ve never worked out the relationship between the fact that we’ve got two sovereigns. There is the legal sovereign which is the Crown in Parliament and there is the real, political sovereign which is the sovereign people behind them. But what we did, and this is why Bercow’s behaviour is so disastrous; it’s why Theresa May’s behaviour has been so catastrophic: what we developed thanks to Erskine May and the Parliamentary Handbook and endorsed by Dicey, we developed a whole series of devices. They were conventions that turned MPs from more or less representatives into more or less delgates. And what are these things? They’re party affiliation. They are manifestos. They’re standing on a ticket and they’re being whipped when they’re in the house. That is the thing that binds them to the popular vote. No MP; Dominic Grieve was not elected in a personal capacity. He was elected because he stood as a Tory on a Tory manifesto which promised Brexit. That man did not dissent at the time. His claims to dignity, his claims to acting honourably, are totally false.

There are other rules in Erskine May about the procedures of Commons business which gives the government the basic control of the parliamentary timetable. Otherwise what happens is the house just dissolves into a talking shop. Becuase MPs have refused to vote for any deal: they’re strong in the negative but they’re hopelessly weak in the positive. They can’t agree on anything. We developed a series of conventions in the 1880s that turn MPs into something like the representatives of the people and what has sytematically happened in this Parliament: we have broken those conventions.

Theresa May’s loss of the election and her absurd notion that you can keep people with completely contradictory opinions on a main platform of government policy in the same party broke down the whipping system. Bercow broke down the government’s control of legislation. And you’re left with this chaotic mess.

Later there is discussion of the validity of the referendum result:

All the referendum act does: it specifies the question and it specifies the day on which it will be put. In other words, no protections were built into it at all because George Osborne said, “easy peasy we’re going to win this”. In theory, yes the referendum is advisory because of the sovereignty of Parliament. But that’s the legal sphere. The political sphere was that Cameron said publicly and repeatedly: we will honour the results of the referendum. And the leaflet went to every house in the country. That is political. At the moment the legal sovereign refers itself directly to the political sovereign on a key issue on a binary vote, only a fool would challenge that. And the argument that because it was a narrow vote it doesn’t count: every single general election is a vote of a few percent. The landslides of Blair were all secured with a fraction of the number of voters for leave.

We’ve got degrees of deceit, of chicanery, of double-talk because simply: they did not like the result. They saw it as an act of rebellion.

This all seems like useful context for understanding the impending realignment.

No pact needed

Brian Micklethwait argues that no (overt) pact is needed between the Brexit Party and the Conservatives in order to get a Parliament of leavers. The Brexit Party can make the pact unilaterally:

all Brexit voters need to know who to vote for in their particular constituency, come the day, to ensure Brexit. So, the Brexit Party just needs to tell them. If the Brexit Party campaigns for Conservative Brexiters who’ll win, but for its own candidates when they are more likely to win, the Brexit Party will get its deal.

Meanwhile Boris might do well to avoid a pact:

in the event of such public collaboration, there was and is a crucial slice of Conservative but only Leave-ish voters in the affluent south who would have been put off voting Leave, and would who would now be put off voting Conservative and would switch to the LibDems

It might just work.

Are remainers leaving remoaners?

Living in Scotland, I inevitably know plenty of people who voted remain in 2016 (and who believed every story against Boris – “He has the attention span of a gnat” and suchlike). Working in the media, Rod Liddle likewise has an extensive remain-supporting acquaintance (and I daresay many had similar opinions of Boris)

Recently, I’ve noticed a change. “It’s no longer the issue – it’s the principle of the thing”, is said by remainers who think the Scottish court ruling absurd and feel we have to have an election and have to have Brexit – not because they all now think it’s a great idea (though I sense “Project Fear”-exhaustion in them) but because they see what we all see: parliament is destroying its credibility – and its legitimacy.

I was already planning this post when I noticed Rod Liddle’s article in the Sunday Times today. Two-thirds of his remainer friends now just want Brexit to happen.

So the remoaning political class is talking only to itself – and only talking at us. Except that the issue is stopping Brexit, not one of its other pet projects, what’s new, you might say? What is new is: even remainers are noticing. And it seems there’s a difference between remainers and remoaners; winning isn’t everything to some remainers I know – or, it would seem, some Rod Liddle knows.

Two swallows don’t make a summer. What do you see and hear?

Wise in their own sight (but not so wise in ours)

It doubtless seemed clever to challenge prorogation in Scotland; Scots law differs much from English and their chance of victory was higher. However I can think of two audiences in Scotland who may be unimpressed.

(South of the border there is a huge third audience whom I expect to be very unimpressed, but that is another matter.)

Firstly, a Scot does not need to be unusually honest or unusually lacking in nationalism to wonder how exactly to defend the Scottish supreme court’s ruling on the United Kingdom’s parliament. Every Scot can defend Scotland’s supreme court bullying the MSP’s who sit in the 11-times-over-budget building at the end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, but I’m not the only Scot who “couldna juist charge his memory” over why the propriety of a Westminster-affecting act is being ruled on by a provincial court. (There will be some justification, of course – but, in the words of “1066 and all that”, it will not be memorable.)

Secondly, her majesty is in Scotland for the summer, as usual. Also as usual, she has prorogued parliament. It is something she’s accustomed to doing every year at roughly this time for roughly this length of time – but which May did not advise her to do last year during a session whose length was unprecedented in three centuries.

Many a PM has noted how their meetings with the Queen, unlike their meetings with their loyal cabinet colleagues, do not leak. I have no idea whether, after Boris performed his constitutional duty to inform and advise her majesty of prorogation, she chose her constitutional duty of ‘warn’ instead of her constitutional duty of ‘advise’ – but it seems at first glance unlikely she ‘warned’ against something whose unprecedented feature was how long it had been since she’d last done it.

I therefore conjecture that her majesty may think the Scottish supreme court’s action ill-advised rather than her own.

As this ruling is mere PR skirmishing before the UK’s supreme court rules (IIUC, it has no actual effect in itself), it seems to me that the remoaners are again paying a high PR price for a stunt that will play well with themselves but with not so many beyond. The court that travestied historical custom to rule for Gina Miller in 2016 is not the strongest oak for leavers to lean against, but it is being said the case has “no hope” in English law. I hope that’s true, but I anyway think that remoaner lawfare victories have a cost they underestimate.

Et tu quoque?

Parliament demands to see all the private messages sent between nine advisers since 23 July relating to the prorogation of parliament (or to Yellowhammer), claiming there might be constitutional issues.

Suppose Boris demands to see all private messages sent between remoaners and the EU, under a similar claim?

Of course, it may not matter in either direction.

– On the one hand, even May only yielded to a similar demand after parliament, in a second vote, held her in contempt (one of the few sentiments I share with them). In Boris’ case, such a vote cannot now happen for weeks – and if it finally does, he might ignore it anyway. Meanwhile, he may exploit the humour of insisting that EU law (GDPR and/or similar) means he cannot comply. It makes an obvious introduction to a speech echoing Churchill on how the 1930s parliaments were

“adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent”

– On the other hand, Boris may already know whatever a counter-demand could tell him. In the days before Corbyn became its leader, instead of the kind of backbencher that worried its leaders, the Labour establishment, whenever it won an election, was delighted to discover that the UK security services were keeping an eye on their wilder backbenchers (whom they could then head off from their wilder antics before public embarrassment ensued). I don’t see Barnier and friends as the men to keep secrets, despite their passionate belief that there are many things the masses do not need to know, still less decide on.

So I’m more interested in the ‘why’. Mostly, I’m assuming (and hoping) that it’s just a standard insolent PC establishment fishing expedition.

“Perhaps the outrage over the fact that Parliament is to be prorogued – something that normally happens at about this time each year – tells us more about the Remainiac establishment’s state of mind coming to terms with Brexit, than it does about our constitution?” Douglas Carswell

If you want to insist that something that “normally happens at about this time each year” (and is now, abnormally, a year overdue) is an unconstitutional outrage then you need to gather a lot of material to have a chance of finding something you can misrepresent.

However – although I would be glad to think otherwise – it is just possible that the people who are so sure they are the clever ones found themselves on Monday feeling the need of some intelligence. Last week, 102 amendments were tabled to help time out the wrecking act in the Lords – standard parliamentary tactics which the remoaners well understood. But then No. 10 said, “Don’t bother – go get a good night’s sleep”. (Other ways of timing it out or delaying it were likewise left unexplored.)

As regards public opinion, I can see the benefits.

– Now, not just the remoaners but Labour – and Corbyn personally – are incredibly on record: no letting the public decide, no election, and in Corbyn’s case, no more plausible pretence of being different, still less of being brave, but just doing what Tony Blair and the spin doctors tell him like a good party hack.

– Boris, by contrast, now has the perfect out for the negotiations. If he’d negotiated for 5 weeks without the EU-advised act shouting “ignore him” to the EU negotiators, then failure to present a Canada++ deal on October the 14th would be something he’d have to explain. Now, he can throw it in parliament’s face (which won’t bother them but will destroy any traction they might otherwise have had with the public). If he already felt sure the EU’s stubborness meant we’d have to leave before they’d negotiate for real, it was very much in his interest to have the act to blame. And if he already felt sure he’d have to leave on absolute no-deal to reel in the Brexit voters or ally with The Brexit Party, it was wise to make that parliament’s fault, not his choice in rejecting some no-backstop-but-still-smells-fishy deal.

Remoaners and Corbynites may not realise just how big a political price they have paid, but they surely know they need their procedural win to be a real win on October 31st to make it worth it. I hope they feel lazily sure they have Brexit boxed in and it’s all over bar the shouting – that’s their rhetoric – but is it possible that, as Monday progressed, they found themselves really wanting to know what the despised Dominic thought and why Boris didn’t sound more panicked?

(Of course, they’re not alone in that. 🙂 )

What value parties?

Almost 50 MPs (almost 8% of the house of commons) have changed party since the June 2017 election. (Some have changed several times, so there have been 73 switches of party overall – like divorce, party infidelity rates can seem higher if one forgets that a smallish number of people contribute a lot of the statistics.)

For better and (often) for worse, parties, not personalities, have been how we vote for three centuries. Burke wrote that he

was quite sure he rested wholly on the Whig interest and would not obtain a single Tory vote (in point of fact he did obtain but one)

in Bristol in 1774 – and few MPs have done better. Manifestos, not our local MP’s opinions, are most of what we vote for. Party leaders, not local MPs, are most of whom we vote for. And parties are how MPs are disciplined to pay attention to these things – and therefore to our votes, and therefore to us. It doesn’t work at all well – but the alternative is relying on MPs’ consciences. That works well sometimes – but fails often.

One of Churchill’s reasons for praising the oblong shape of the house of commons was that when you changed party in Britain you “crossed the floor” (something he did twice but, as with other aspects of his career, that was unusual). Everyone saw Churchill cross the floor – and Churchill was very aware of himself doing it. In the continent’s universal semi-circle, representatives could gradually move their sitting positions leftwards (or rightwards) without ever facing such a moment of public admission.

However when “everybody’s doing it” and SW1 approves, the effect is weakened.

That the great realignment sees a breakdown of the old party structures is hardly something to complain about. But until we can get something better – until we can get not just a few who are better but 632 who are better – I fear we need either a new party or a purged one with the same discipline – or both. If the current crop of Tory MPs are purged to the point that we can safely rely on MPs’ consciences to deliver Brexit, not party discipline, then well under half will be in the next parliament.

Failing, flailing, and doing surprisingly well in the polls

I read everywhere that Boris Johnson’s government is flailing and failing. They have been soundly defeated in the Commons. It looks like Boris will be forced to ask the EU for another extension, and according to the Times it has been pre-approved:

Rebel Tory MPs and opposition leaders received private assurances from European leaders that a request by parliament for a three-month Brexit extension would be granted in one last attempt to break the deadlock.

The Times understands that senior figures behind the bill to force an extension on Boris Johnson cleared their plan with EU capitals before it was published this week. They received reassurances that the European Council, which is made up of EU leaders, would not stand in the way of one final extension if it was approved by parliament.

Amber Rudd is but the latest high-profile Tory to resign the Conservative whip, to the delight of her brother Roland Rudd, the chairman of the People’s Vote campaign.

Yet…

“If Parliament is unable to decide on Brexit it would be better to have a snap General Election”

Agree: 50%
Disagree: 18%

-Tweet from the “Britain Elects”, quoting a poll by ComRes carried out from the 4th-6th September. It is not the only such result. The Independent‘s John Rentoul has observed,

Average of 3 polls this weekend (Survation, Opinium, YouGov)

Con 33%

Lab 23%

Lib Dem 18%

Brexit 14%