The language of politics is now so exaggerated it misleads. It is not true that those who denounce prorogation are “hysterical”; they are shocked, worried and angry. That would describe Tory grandee, Chris Patten, who wondered recently if many Leavers in the country might be “willing victims” of self-delusion and mendacity. Boris Johnson and those who dreamt up the proroguing strategy to thwart Parliament ruling out No Deal have not staged a “coup”, they have unacceptably, but skilfully, manipulated parliamentary procedure.
We in Britain are now being ruled by a coterie of clever rogues. Above the fray, the Queen was nonetheless bound by constitutional convention to take her Prime Minister’s advice and prorogue. The outcome, as a Daily Mirror headline told it, was clearly Pro-Rogue. Anti-Brexiteers are left with very few procedural devices to wrest control from a trickster Prime Minister and his advisers before the 31 October deadline.
Some say we are reliving the Weimar Republic. We are not, though, we are experiencing considerable erosion in the conduct of our political life. Were classes on curtailing parliamentary democracy taught at Eton, you wonder, in the late 1970s?
In Christian thinking the word used for a moment such as this is the Greek Kairos, a time when opportunity and danger are significantly intensified by contemporary events. A democratic culture thrives on civility and creative, participatory modes of decision-making, an informed electorate, not on a diet of misinformation and rule by an unaccountable clique. The Archbishop of Canterbury has reacted and taken the opportunity to chair a Citizens’ Assembly at the request of senior members of Parliament, a national consultation involving a hundred people with diverse viewpoints. He wishes to do something about the divisions and discord which have come to the surface and intensified during BREXIT negotiations. The hope is that some positive, consensual recommendations for a way forward will emerge. It is late in the day and a Citizen’s Assembly will struggle to make any impact.
25 Anglican diocesan bishops came together last week and defined the danger we are in. They spoke of the “ease with which lies can be told and misrepresentation encouraged” and asked that “leaders must be honest about the costs of political choices, especially for those most vulnerable”. They will doubtless be castigated in social media. All evidence indicates that the poor will disproportionately suffer from No Deal’s economic consequences. The British Churches have formerly been reluctant to enter a highly contested political arena in which the tired refrain of “meddling in politics” would rapidly become the dominant story.
The legacy of Tory leadership to date has been to further split the country, describing one side in highly emotive language as “the people”, 17.4 million voters who wanted some form of BREXIT, thereby turning the other side who voted REMAIN, just 3% fewer, into “non-people”. The will of the 12 million who didn’t use their vote in the Referendum, and the 18 million not on the electoral rolls is unknown. Thus it turns out “the people” are a remarkably small proportion of the people.
The public was misled and misinformed about the consequences of BREXIT prior to the referendum. Those primarily responsible for this misinformation are now in power, claiming that Parliament consented to a No Deal arrangement when they passed the Withdrawal Bill in early 2017 invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and pretending that “the people” did the same in 2016. They did no such thing. Nor did government ever suggest No Deal was the likely result of BREXIT negotiations with the EU. Deception again, lack of accountability and untruth.
Throughout negotiations government has insisted that “keeping No Deal on the table” was/is a vital negotiating ploy. If the EU thought we would crash out, come the hour, they would abandon the fixed positions demanded by the European Union’s basic principles, the four freedoms, notably ensuring the protection of free movement across the British border in Ireland, and protecting an International Treaty lodged with the UN, the Good Friday Agreement.
The hour is not far off. The EU is showing no signs of blinking first. Why would they? Quite apart from wishing to discourage other member States from leaving the EU, the negotiators were/are not about to abandon the Republic of Ireland’s interests, a fellow member State, nor threaten the interests of whole island of Ireland. They have repeatedly said so. It is, and has been, implausible that they would, or will, blink at the last moment.
Do those clever tacticians in 10 Downing Street really believe that at the last minute, through fear of a No Deal, the EU will suddenly go back on three years of holding firm on its “red lines”, unanimously supported by 26 European countries? Do they believe that, like themselves, the EU and its negotiators are deceivers, playing games. Isn’t this like the proverbial threat to “shoot yourself in the foot” if the EU doesn’t back off, then accusing those who try to wrest control of the gun of being undemocratic, treachery and betraying their country? There can be no doubt that the damage to the UK of pulling the trigger is far, far greater than the consequences for the EU, though those are not negligible.
Finally, in the last few weeks, we have entered further into fantasy land with more fantastic claims. All this supposedly clever negotiating strategy is sold to the public through slogans, “let’s get it done”, “let’s get on with the people’s agenda”, by circumventing the parliamentary log-jam which, of course, they in large measure created. Clever because the focus groups and private polling will have shown just how sick people are of the issue. Farage is selling No Deal as “a clean break BREXIT”. But, in reality, No Deal will merely open up a lengthy new chapter of negotiations in trade and other talks with the EU, conducted in a far more negative environment. The Chancellor, Sajid Javid, has suffered the humiliation, of having a close adviser sacked without even being informed, by Boris Johnson’s de facto chief of staff, Dominic Cummings. The Chancellor described his relationship with the Prime Minister as “fantastic”. It is certainly based on the founding fantasy of this government: that the EU will give way at the last minute and, if it doesn’t, adequate preparations have been made and all will be well, in other words every reputable economic commentator and practitioner is wrong.
We are now in election mode. But what future for our politics if you can’t believe a word government says, ministers won’t appear on radio and television, and if they do, avoid answering questions while the rogues prorogue our established institutions of government accountability, the two Houses of Parliament, at a critical moment?
Words fail. Hysteria? No. Just a dull foreboding and anxiety about the future of children and grand-children as mendacity and self-delusion seem to be winning the day.
See also TheArticle 02/09/2019