The Brexit dance continues. And in London, a court case has just come to an end, in which lawyers have been debating whether or not Parliament should have influence over the Brexit process. We shall hear the result of that court case in the near future.
But its implications are profoundly important and the discussion belongs beyond the court of law and even beyond Brexit itself. For there is surely a constitutional issue here, and it concerns sovereignty in the UK.
But also, perhaps, religion in the UK. For, since the UK’s EU referendum, irresponsibly and incompetently conceived and disreputably conducted as it was, the phrase “The People” seems almost to have a religious ring to it when it is spoken by the present British Prime Minister and by individuals who campaigned for Brexit, for whatever their assorted reasons. “The People have spoken” they say reverentially, referring (of course) to the referendum “result” – as if the speaker has just returned from the top of Mount Sinai, carrying tablets of stone. Although the “People spoke” not with thunder, not even with a still small voice, but with a bewildered, incoherent, misinformed and choking splutter, on this subject of such vast and almost impenetrable complexity, although the result of this ridiculous charade has no validity or integrity whatsoever, we must obey it, we must dance to this tune. The People’s Splutter is our command, O Master.
It is a self-inflicted fiasco and farce, of course, with fiction now piling upon fiction. A few people appear to be profiting from it and recent editions of the Daily Mail suggest that those people are quite frantically determined that the farce should continue, this dance of communal death.
But now, let’s look at what’s going on, among all this disreputable fiction and manipulation – a real and valid dispute about Sovereignty.
Where in a Democracy does the Sovereign Power reside ? In other words, who makes the final decision ? Is it Parliament, (ie the elected representatives of all the People (or those of the People willing to vote at election-time) ? Or is it “The People” themselves (ie the Executive, sitting on the shoulders of the 52% of the electorate who voted “Leave,” many of whom have now changed their minds about Brexit, many of whom believed the lies the campaigners told them) ?
But the same issue, or question, is being struggled with elsewhere, perhaps with greater integrity. In the agonised Labour party, whose voices count most ? Its new and large membership who overwhelmingly support Corbyn ? Or its members of parliament, elected by their constituencies across the country, who must work with Corbyn, but by and large do not support him and do not see him as an adequate leader ? It is a similar issue – and carries some of the same elisions and divisions and ascribed meanings – we the People vs our own leaders and representatives, we these many here vs those few over there, we “commoners” here vs that “elite” there, we “ordinary hard-working people” here vs those “so-called experts” there.
Does sovereign power reside with the chosen leaders or with the choosing led ? And – just as important – by what means and with what integrity of information are the decisions arrived at by this sovereign power, whatever it may be ? Does correct information, or knowledge, or expertise even matter ? Or do we take Mr Gove’s advice and take no heed of the experts ? Why bovver ? Just listen to Mr Gove, the common man, one of Us – anti-elitist, anti-establishment and anti-expert. In the rushing, careless and unjust world, we can trust Mr Gove. He’ll sit with us in the bomb shelter, he’ll stand beside us at the barricade, in the welfare benefit office, in the food bank. Him and Dacre and Bo-Jo the Foreign Secretary and Crosby OBE, Murdoch from Down Under and Lord Rothermere from the Upper Crust. But don’t forget to watch your back.
Let us remember Runneymede, and the Magna Carta, when exasperated Barons confronted an unworthy King and set some limits on his power. Fast forward to the Tudors, by which time there were a representative Parliament (of a kind) and independent law courts. And in that era, wonderful and electric encounters recorded between Monarch and Commoners in the House, both sides noble and worthy of attention as they tested and explored their respective powers, duties and rights. Onto a church in Putney, London, in times of tumult and fracture across the nation, where passionate and urgent debate sought to establish to whom the vote should go and where sovereignty should lie. One speaker said that the franchise should be extended to land-owners, for – literally – these had a personal stake in the land and so their decisions would be trustworthy, their collective voice a responsible one. Then onto the nineteenth century and the belated elimination of the Rotten Boroughs and other such relics and corruptions and the enormous steps taken in that century to extend the franchise across Society.
What have those centuries of struggle to secure a functioning democracy really been about ? Surely, in essence, they have been about where the power should lie for essential freedoms and rights and justice to be established and protected, and how that power should be regulated ; in other words where the nation’s sovereign power should reside, so that tyranny and injustice can be resisted and defeated.
And what is Parliament ? It is the final court of law in the land ; it is where there is open scrutiny, examination and consideration of all measures proposed by government ; a place where the executive can be held to careful, close and expert account ; a place where new law is constructed and instituted, policy decisions made, and budgets presented and passed (or rejected). Through the centuries, Britain’s two Houses of Parliament have undergone review and evolution without cease, to catch up and keep up with Society’s developments, to refresh, renew, reform, revitalise, attune. The need for reform and revitalisation has rarely been more pressing than now.
In the last year or two, the anachronistic House of Lords has – confusingly – been excelling itself on behalf of the people, resisting inexcusable measures proposed by the Cameron-led Executive. The House of Commons, on the other hand, is in the doldrums, distrusted by and disconnected from the electorate. And in the process and in our disillusion, we the People have made ourselves more and more vulnerable – for a host of reasons – to the dishonest salesman, peddling phoney products and facile solutions, and to the demagogue, peddling hate, intolerance, fear and the hollow glorification of self. As Trump seeks to win American support for building a futile medieval wall against the world, so the Brexiteers have won British support for building a wall against the continent of which it is a part.
Democracy disintegrates without trust. But in these times of social breakdown and stampeding developments, what institutions and decision-making processes are worthy of our trust ? Where lies the true sovereignty ?
Once, it does seem that the “People,” lacking a voice, looked to Parliament to speak on its behalf. In that sense, Parliament was the People. First, it was the means by which the People could negotiate with and check Royalty ; later, it became the means by which the People could hold the Executive to open account.
But now there is disconnect of some essential sort. Too many of the People see Parliament as speaking only for itself. It is we of the People who do the speaking now and we say anything we like. But we talk only to each other, weaving magic spells and fantasies on Facebook. The Executive is delighted. It turns to the demagogues and the hooligans, the hate-pedlars, tax-dodgers and the plutocrats, the escapists and the lie. It seeks their alliance against scrutiny and care, truth and reality.
And that is why the nation’s sovereign power needs to remain in our Houses of Parliament. We cannot do without accountable experts, having time and care to examine closely and without prejudice what is best to do in these fraught times, what the Executive is proposing we do ; we cannot do without informed and honourable leadership for guidance through the huge complexities of these years and the issues they throw up. For the fantasy solutions, facile scapegoating and shrill and cheap propaganda of the demagogue and Grub Street war lord will not help us.
But Parliament and People need to connect again.
As the disgraceful Brexit dance continues, I shall end this piece with a comparison. More and more, the Brexit process reminds me of that children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen – the Emperor’s New Clothes. A vain fool of an emperor allows himself to believe some fraudulent tailors that his nakedness is actually a very fine suit of clothes. He walks out naked, glorying in his delusion. And the People roar their acclaim of the Lie, presumably seeing it as being in their best interest to do so. But then a little boy perks up, who isn’t in on the lie. “Look at his willy !” he cries. And then the story stops, to spare us the sight of the crowd turning on the little boy and lynching him.
When Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit” she might just as well have said “Lynch ‘im means Lynch ‘im.” And when a disgraceful referendum campaign full of manifest lies and fraud worthy of imprisonment ends with a result of 52/48, what have the People really said ? The People have really said that they are split essentially in two and are in a conflicted muddle – not surprisingly. And, in truth, Brexit means nothing coherent at all. It is just a significant shriek, a fume, a symptom of our trouble. And Theresa May is Prime Minister of this split nation and it behoves her not to join any lynching parties. In this case, the little boy is half the nation. And what our troubled nation has really said in its entirety is that we need some true leadership now, able to make us whole again ; and our democracy needs some rapid fumigation.