Category: Historical


Parliament cut off its own nose to spite the people’s face

Two things have been key pillars of parliamentary government’s ability to function for the past 330 years.

One is the government’s power of dissolution. Bagehot (‘The English Constitution’) explained that parliamentary supervision combined effectively with government functioning because:

“Though appointed by one parliament, it can appeal if it chooses to the next.”

The ridiculous fixed-term parliament act (passed to provide reassurance to the libdems during their 2010-2015 coalition with the conservatives) removed that pillar.

Another is its direction of the parliamentary agenda.

I am guided by and must operate within the Standing Orders of the House. (Speaker Bercow, 26 September 2014)

The Standing Orders are of course our rules, and by those rules we must all abide. (Speaker Bercow, 29 June 2017)

Those conventions and precedents are important to the collegiate operation of this House. (Speaker Bercow, 26 March 2018)

I am clear in my mind that I have taken the right course of action. (Speaker Bercow, ditching 330 years of precedent against the unanimous instruction of his law clerks on 9 January 2019 – and on several occasions thereafter, h/t the Spectator)

If parliamentary government could have functioned, it could have delivered Brexit, so, egged on by a cross-party coalition of MPs, most of whom were breaking highly-specific election pledges, and led (appropriately) by a speaker whose job exempted him from facing a contested election at all, they wrecked parliament’s ability to function rather than submit to the humiliation of obeying their promise to voters instead of their own opinions.

The result is: parliament has been non-functional for most of this year – and everyone sees it. People who think ‘parliamentary standing orders’ are how it pays the electricity company for lighting in late-night sittings see it. People who think ‘parliamentary standing orders’ are MPs’ drink preferences at the House of Commons’ subsidised bars see it. People who haven’t a clue what happened in 1689 see it. Every day in every way, this parliament is getting itself more and more despised – not the way I’d have chosen to show I belonged to an elite.

By whom is control taken back

The people after Brexit will not rule in any more sense than they ruled before. But the questions put to them may be less of a choice between various species of stinking fish.

(Conclusion of an interesting historical comparison from Sean Gabb on what the realignment might look like.)

I want a (much) less-rotted fish to vote for. I want an end to recent innovations (FTPA, supreme court) that are instruments of anti-populist control. (The old constitution has enough of these. The high court does not need a supreme court to reverse it. Parliament does need to fear surprise elections.)

Brexit didn’t have to expose this. It was always inevitable that those who loved the EU would love these things. I’m not sure it was inevitable they’d cheat so hard as to expose them for what they are to so many. In 2016, I thought they’d do what Sean says they’d have been wiser to: keep their promise (i.e. accept the result) and keep their preeminence. But our harder fight offers us a greater victory.

Righty ho, Guy

Just when the Remain side had got some traction for their line about the evils of inflammatory language with that embarrassingly crude tweet from Leave.EU that called Angela Merkel a “kraut” and invoked the two world wars, along comes this soon-to-be-viral nugget from the European Parliament’s Brexit Co-ordinator.

The Independent – not the Express, not the Telegraph, not the Mail, the extremely pro-EU Independent – reports:

Brexiteers ‘are the real traitors’, EU’s Guy Verhofstadt says.

The European Parliament’s Brexit chief has branded Brexiteers “the real traitors”, in a significant escalation of rhetoric from Brussels.

Speaking in a debate in the EU’s legislature Guy Verhofstadt accused Boris Johnson of blaming everyone but himself for the situation the UK found itself in.

“The real reason why this is happening is very simply: it’s a blame game against everybody. A blame game against the European Union, against Ireland, against Mrs Merkel, against the British judicial system, against Labour, against the Lib Dems, even against Mrs May,” he said.

“The only one who is not to be blamed is Mr Johnson himself, apparently. But all the rest are the source of our problems. That is what is happening today. All those who are not playing his game are ‘traitors’ or a ‘collaborator’, or ‘surrenderers’.

“Well in my opinion, dear colleagues the real traitor is he or she who risks bringing disaster upon his country, its economy, and its citizens, by pushing Britain out of the European Union. That is in my opinion, a traitor.”

Let us hope the Liberal Democrats invite him back soon to do some more campaigning for them, so we can see how that line goes down on the doorsteps of Britain. Even in Camden it might be a hard sell.

BBC accurate, but for the ‘but’

Jacques Chirac, the former French president who championed the EU, but whose later years were blighted by corruption scandals, has died aged 86.

This sentence from today’s BBC red-button news seems an accurate summary – except that I am puzzled why the word ‘but’ connects the descriptions of the two main interests of Monsieur Chirac. Surely ‘and’ would have been the more appropriate conjunction.

We have had enough of experts. Yes, really.

Michael Gove’s famous or infamous quote about having “had enough of experts” has often been held up as an example of anti-intellectualism. Perhaps if Faisal Islam had spent less of the next half minute in outraged repetition of the words “Had enough of experts?” he might have heard what Gove said next about the particular experts in question having been wrong before. FullFact belatedly acknowledged that the full quote about specific experts with a bad record was a good deal less incendiary than the truncated version about experts in general, when the site made this correction:

We’ve updated this piece to source the full quote from Michael Gove. Previously it read “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

But you know what? Even the simplistic, cut-off-mid-sentence version of Gove’s quote does well enough. The referendum result demonstrated that a lot of people had had enough of anything billed as expert opinion in the field of economics, and no wonder. Predictions of equal accuracy to theirs could have been obtained from expert astrologers. Matthew Goodwin has written a piece for UnHerd that talks about why the record of economic and political experts is so dismal:

How political bias blinds us: Ideological cocoons prevent experts from seeing, and engaging with, the wider world.

When the referendum arrived in 2016, another survey of nearly 600 experts delivered a remarkably clear view. Nearly 90% expected Remain to win. Just 5% felt that Brexit was the most likely outcome. Journalists were noticeably worse: 97% predicted Remain and just 3% Brexit. And most expected Remain to win by at least 10-points. There were simply too few people willing to question and challenge the herd thinking.

“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.


Phineas Phosgene

Farming and Brexit: whatever did we do before the EU?

As the saying warns, those who do not learn from the past are condemned to relive it – but sometimes, reliving the past is worth considering at least. 🙂 After all, it was in the past that we were not in the EU. How did we survive in that dim and distant time?

When Britain joined the EU (it was called the EEC in those days), many people – on both sides of the channel – pointed out that the UK’s prior method of supporting a viable farming sector had some things going for it.

– The EEC set minimum prices for agricultural products – so had butter mountains, wine lakes, etc. (Basic economics: want a surplus? – set a minimum price; want a shortage? – set a maximum price.) Food cost more, which was bad news for the poor inside the EU, and EU protectionism was especially focussed on agriculture, which was bad news for the poor in the third world. (When the UK industrialised, it let its farming sector shrink as Europe sold it food in exchange for high-tech products. Thanks to the EU, Europe’s approach to the rest of the world is the opposite.)

– The old UK system of “deficiency payments” for farmers was a negative sales tax. UK farmers sold what they could in competition with imports, and, instead of paying sales tax on it received a ‘deficiency payment’ – an annually-set sum per unit sale for farm products in the scheme. Thus food was cheap to the consumer, and a lot of it was imported, but UK farmers could budget each year to compete with third-world farmers without having to adopt a third-world living standard.

I’m not a fan of state intervention. However even Milton Friedman says that keeping enough of a local farming sector to survive e.g. another WWII can (sometimes) be a valid exception. If today’s politics tells us that Brexit’s effect on farmers will be addressed somehow then I’m prepared to discuss how best to do what will anyway be done. Joining the EU raised food prices. Why shouldn’t leaving it lower them? If the government will spend money on it anyway, then what do people think of motivating farmers to produce for the market instead of for the surplus, while helping the UK poor by lowering food prices instead of giving them yet another state handout, and allowing the poor in the third world to sell us what they can produce instead of tariffing them? It’s what we did before.

Caroline Lucas, harbinger of political death

Me in 2006:

Communism is dead! I knew I’d find some good news if I looked hard enough. There had been a few indications before now that communism might be dead, but now I know for sure. It appears that Fidel Castro handed over Cuba to his brother while he had an op. Back when Communism was alive, they may have been gut-churningly evil mass-murdering scum, but they respected the forms. A society in which anyone could say, “Here y’are, bro, take the whole country” was exactly what they were there to extirpate.

The French Revolution finally died when Napoleon took to handing out the crowns of Europe to his relatives.

Me in 2019: Older, sadder, wiser and knowing John McDonnell is the Shadow Chancellor, I would no longer say so confidently that communism is dead. One day God will send us a silver bullet, but not yet. But Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz succeeding his brother as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba in the manner of a feudal lordship was and is a sign of Communism’s senility. Karl Marx wrote that “the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” Yes, and when the the intellectual force of an idea is so visibly spent that its leading figures no longer even pretend to follow its tenets, it suggests that its material force will not last much longer.

Yesterday Caroline Lucas, former leader of the Green Party and still its only MP, took to the pages of the Guardian to say, “I’m calling for a cabinet of women to stop a disastrous no-deal Brexit”.

We need an “emergency cabinet” – not to fight a Brexit war but to work for reconciliation. And I believe this should be a cabinet of women.

Why women? Because I believe women have shown they can bring a different perspective to crises, are able to reach out to those they disagree with and cooperate to find solutions. It was two women, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, who began the Peace People movement during the worst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland; it was two women, Christiana Figueres and Ségolène Royal, who were key to the signing of the Paris climate agreement; intractable problems have found the beginning of resolution thanks to the leadership of women.

So I have reached out to 10 women colleagues from across the political spectrum at Westminster and Holyrood – Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Independent Group for Change and independent – asking that we join together to stop the dangerous pursuit of a crash-out Brexit.

This is not an attempt to replace one coup with another. A small group of us should not be deciding on Britain’s future and that is not what lies behind my initiative. But we need to find a way forward that allows the British people to decide which course they want to take.

Her proposal did not go down well. Not a few pointed out that this terrible crisis that she claims only the leadership of women can solve had arisen under the leadership of a female Prime Minister and at a time when the UK was awash with female party leaders: besides Theresa May as PM and leader of the Conservative party, Nicola Sturgeon, Arlene Foster, Ruth Davidson, Kezia Dugdale, Leanne Wood and Caroline Lucas herself all graced the political field at the head of their respective parties during the growth of the crisis. Like hens taking turns to incubate an egg, each of these ladies had a role in bringing the Great Hatching closer.

But that was a secondary issue. The main one was Caroline Lucas having dropped feminism. Dropped it like she never even knew it was a thing. Dropped it like a fashionista giving last year’s kitten heels to her maid. Out: women are held back from political power by false stereotypes of feminine docility! In: a woman’s gentle touch will soothe this troubled land.

Men were not made to feel part of the work of reconciliation by the idea of a government of national unity that had as its selling point that no nasty rough boys would be in it. The few women politically correct enough not to be repelled by the sexism were horrified to note that all the women invited were white. On this point, Comrade Lucas has now submitted to self-criticism. She should have known sooner, she now says, that her all-woman cabinet was insufficiently diverse.

Brexit punk!

The Guardian’s John Harris is a lefty, a Remainer, and a fine journalist. He saw Brexit coming, and, little though I agree with his political views, I think he sees a certain raw truth about our new Prime Minister in this piece:

“Boris Johnson is channelling a punk ethos to force through Brexit. It could work.”

Not a headline one sees every day. Mr Harris writes,

This is an increasingly familiar populist trick: encouraging a set of voters to relish taboo-busting as a kind of surrogate for a lost sense of economic agency and power. This version of taking back control is not to do with jobs, wages or houses, but the licence to say anything you want, whatever the consequences. Anyone who is offended is dismissed as a puritanical defender of joyless political correctness.

Punk spirit, cavalier style and wilful provocation will all inform the manner in which Johnson and his allies frame their greatest challenge of all: how on earth to deal with the very real crisis of Brexit and honour the Halloween deadline that the Tory party has so stupidly fetishised. And they look set to play a crucial role in gaining consent from those who have most to lose from crashing out of the EU. Faced with a set of impossible challenges, Johnson will present himself as the flamboyant, verbose, rule-breaking Englishman, positioned against the washed-out logicians of the EU machine, who were never going to help in the first place.

I heard they were going to get the bus out of mothballs, the bus, the £350-million-for-the-NHS battle bus that has caused such outrage, and drive it round the country all over again. Back in 2016, the only effect the suggestion that our departure from the EU would mean that we could pour yet more money into the black hole of “our NHS” had on me was to make me a fraction more likely to vote Remain. But upon hearing this news I still thought, yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah, please, dear Lord, let me be there when they take it through Cambridge city centre.

Oh God save history / God save your mad parade / Oh Lord God have mercy / All crimes are paid / Oh when there’s no future / How can there be sin / We’re the flowers / In the dustbin / We’re the poison / In your human machine

First time round, I wasn’t a fan. But it’s growing on me.