Beyond the theatrics, and the justified outrage, three major changes now affect the next two months of British politics. First, the prorogation means the government avoids parliamentary scrutiny until October: Johnson escapes not only the pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions tomorrow, but also avoids the more forensic questioning of the Liaison Committee, to which he was due to give evidence afterwards. During prorogation, government statements on Brexit will endure only the haphazard interrogation – or adulatory stenography – of the British press.
Boris Johnson announced last week that Parliament is to be prorogued days after MPs return from their summer recess: both Houses of Parliament will stand empty for five weeks. A new session will begin on 14 October. A Queen’s Speech debate typically takes a week of parliamentary time, which leaves just over six sitting days until the Brexit deadline. Across the press, opposition politicians have described Johnson’s power grab as an affront to democracy. The speaker of the House of Commons said it was a ‘constitutional outrage’. The thousands of people protesting in cities and towns across the UK on Saturday were clearer and bolder: they called it a coup.
As the United Kingdom drifts towards a hard Brexit, the media are strangely quiet about the significance of the Common Travel Area (CTA) between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Under this longstanding arrangement, which ought to continue even if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, all British citizens who were born in the UK have the right to live, work, receive health care, access education and vote in Ireland, and Irish citizens enjoy the reciprocal rights in the UK.
Eighteen months, one government and two Brexit secretaries ago, David Davis promised that a post-Brexit Britain wouldn’t gut agricultural standards or workers’ rights: we were not entering ‘an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom, a Britain plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction’. Last Sunday, details were leaked from Operation Yellowhammer, outlining the Civil Service’s ‘base scenario’ for a No Deal Brexit: port and border chaos is expected, along with food and fuel shortages and disruption to medical supplies; there is a ‘plan to evacuate the queen’ in case of civil unrest. Priti Patel, the home secretary, has promised the immediate end of free movement on the first day of a No Deal Brexit, threatening the status of EU nationals resident in Britain and British nationals abroad, but tickling the bellies of the Tory base. Lobbying from the backbenches, Iain Duncan Smith praised thinktank proposals to raise the state pension age to 75 as ‘removing barriers’ to work.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s greatly overestimated aide, promises that however Parliament tries to constrain the prime minister, even by toppling the government, he will force through Brexit on the promised departure date. The hope is to turn Brexit into a runaway train, with Vote Leave cadres guarding any access to the driver’s cab.
Boris Johnson has mugged and gurned his way into Number Ten, through a leadership contest with a virtually preordained conclusion. It is hard to imagine how he could have lost – perhaps a hostage video with the queen in a grimy basement would have swung the needle away from him a few points – but harder still to imagine how he might govern.
Energy and optimism have been the watchwords of Johnson’s press ambassadors since his victory was announced; the man himself continues to duck press scrutiny. The stress on sunshine and optimism makes Tory politicians and hangers-on sound improbably like wide-eyed Californian acolytes of The Secret, but without any solution to the problems that felled Theresa May it is hardly surprising that his defenders fall back on voluntaristic brio.
A new edition of Boris Johnson: The Beast of Brexit is published today. The late Heathcote Williams composed his ‘study in depravity’ more than three years ago, when Johnson was still mayor of London: before the 2016 EU referendum, before Johnson’s careless talk condemned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to an Iranian jail cell, before the police were called to a domestic dispute at his girlfriend’s flat, before he said his hobby was making model buses out of old wine boxes, before he became prime minister. But Williams’s portrait is as true a likeness of its subject now as it was then.
Orbán has been described by his biographer Paul Lendvai as a ‘master tactician, gifted populist’ and ‘radical and consummate opportunist’ – remind you of someone? Anyone familiar with Boris, however (and I was a close acquaintance for 25 years), will know that the parallels are misleading. Johnson isn’t a nationalist strongman in the Orbán mould. He’s a lot more cavalier than that.
Peter Mair once observed a curious paradox in European elections: people often use their votes to express their dissatisfaction with the fundamental nature of the European Union, despite that being outside an MEP’s purview – the Union is founded on treaties signed by national governments. Conversely, national governments are often elected to pursue policies that are properly the domain of the European Parliament, and so find themselves unable to deliver on their promises – an effect especially pronounced in the Eurozone’s smaller economies.
The recent spate of milkshake protests against the far right began in Warrington on 2 May. A young Asian man was being harassed by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a. ‘Tommy Robinson’, formerly of the BNP and EDL, now Ukip). As henchmen bristled around him, he defended himself with what came to hand. Yaxley-Lennon got another dousing in Wigan the next day, and Nigel Farage caught a banana and salted caramel coating in Newcastle earlier this week. Various professional hyperventilators have decried the apparent coarsening of British politics and predicted a rapid skate down a slippery slope. But this form of grassroots censure has a long history. George Eliot wrote of Mr Brooke being ‘disagreeably anointed’ under a ‘hail of eggs’ while campaigning in Middlemarch.
Before the local elections last week, the Conservative Party had said that losing a thousand councillors would be a disaster. In the event, the collapse of the Tory vote was more than three hundred seats worse than that. The wipeout in Chelmsford left the Tory MP, Vicky Ford, in tears; at a gathering of Welsh Conservatives, the prime minister was greeted with active heckling, a rare choice for the Tory grassroots, who generally prefer to dissent in truculent silence. Andrew Mitchell, a former chief whip, was ‘surprised anyone was bothered to vote for us’. At the coming European elections, with the Brexit Party in contention, the faithful remnant may be yet further diminished.
British politics now looks more like that of Weimar Germany, postwar Italy or the France of the Third and Fourth Republics. It has become quite hard to believe that for much of the 19th and 20th centuries the properties of the elusive British constitution were a subject of sustained, serious and intense intellectual inquiry.
At a meeting on Tuesday of the Bruges Group, one of the proliferating and fissiparous Tory sectlets devoted to hatred of the European Union, Mark Francois topped off a speech of near-hallucinatory weirdness by lapsing into Poetry Voice – cod solemnity with pauses and emphases scattered at random – and sweating his way through the last few lines of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, a doughty lump of patriotic Victoriana to ginger up a senescent audience.
We expect the government to be able to retain the confidence of the Commons. If it cannot do so, that is a political problem (certainly for the government) but not a constitutional one. It is a situation that the principle of parliamentary supremacy anticipates. When push comes to shove, the constitutional position is clear: Parliament, not government, is supreme.
Madness, Nietzsche wrote, is rare in individuals, but in groups it is the norm. Britain today is like a child that has been not only abandoned but literally dropped by its parents. It has broken into two different social groups, two politics, two worldviews but also, beneath the surface, two divergent ways of reorganising what psychoanalysts call an object world.
‘Chlorinated chicken’ is pejorative. Chlorine gas doesn’t come into it. The meat isn’t bleached. Poultry carcasses are washed with dissolved antimicrobials such as sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide and trisodium phosphate. The EU banned it in 1997, not because the washes leave the meat dangerous to eat but because it might incentivise poultry producers and processors to give hygiene a lower priority. This argument was used in the 1930s by opponents of milk pasteurisation.
Brexit – silly, sappy, snappy word – is not a fact, not an event. It’s a condition. It’s the new weather. Brexitosis is what it is. One would rather just groan, or scream, or swear, or feel seasick about the whole thing. All we know is there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s in the future, and it’s in the past, it’s both something that happened yonks ago (maybe hard feelings left over from 1066, or the Field of the Cloth of Gold, or Malplaquet), and something that is promised still to happen. Hence our peculiar helplessness and strickenness. You can’t fix it in the past, and you can’t fix it in the future. It’s like coming round after an operation – when they took out the wrong organ, and then went and left some of their ironmongery in you, for good measure – and swearing, not like a trooper (I don’t think troopers even swear), but like a patient.
Jeremy Corbyn is getting a lot of stick just now – certainly on the anti-Brexit Facebook pages I subscribe to – for not coming out clearly in favour of a second referendum, and for Remain. The Guardian is especially critical: but when hasn’t it been, of this untidy bearded radical who flouts even liberal standards of political respectability? I have to say, a part of me is disappointed too. I’d have liked Labour to have taken more of a pro-European lead. But then I think again. There are three reasons for suspending judgment on Corbyn until the whole sorry affair has worked itself out.
Last Friday, Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, finished his visit to the UK. In his end-of-mission statement, he savaged the government’s performance on poverty. Key concerns included shortcomings in the functioning of universal credit, the dismantling of the broader social security net through wide-ranging cuts to services, and the disproportionate impact of fiscal austerity on socially vulnerable groups.
'Will we be safe here?' asked a German man sitting next to me in the front row. We were about to see Leave. To Remain (An Aristophanic Brexit Tale), a Fringe production modelled on Aristophanes’ Acharnians, whose protagonist, Dikaiopolis, makes a private peace treaty with Sparta while the rest of Athens remains at war. My neighbour was worried we'd be expected to take part in the show. It's set in a not too distant, post-Brexit future, where the British equivalent of Athenian direct democracy is interactive TV programmes.
I used to be a republican, but that was before Brexit. What does Britain have that the other countries of Europe will still want access to after we leave the EU? Banking will be safer away from ‘offshore London’. There are other places in the world besides Sellafield that can store spent nuclear fuel. The most expensive higher education in the world is unlikely to attract so many overseas students, its lure and decline mirroring that of Swiss finishing schools after their 1980s heyday.
On 29 March 2019, unless the European Council unanimously decides otherwise, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union and a new trading arrangement between the EU and the UK will come into effect. If no bespoke deal is approved, trading arrangements will be conducted on World Trade Organisation terms. The UK will also lose any arrangements to which it is a party through the EU: there are more than 750. This is one reason the UK’s negotiating position with the EU is asymmetrical: even if ‘no deal’ harms both sides’ trade, it will be much worse for the UK.
Ten years ago, Tewkesbury Abbey was surrounded by muddy brown flood waters. Following the wettest June on record, in which tens of thousands of buildings were flooded, from Scotland to the Midlands, an extreme weather event hit the Cotswolds on 20 July 2007. The region was already saturated, drains were overflowing and run-offs ineffective. At the confluence of the rivers Severn and Avon, Tewkesbury was swamped. Within hours it was completely cut off. The flood waters breached the Mythe waterworks, depriving 350,000 people of running water.
The Commons vote on Tuesday night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described by the shadow leader of the house as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, which expresses and enacts the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time. The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs against the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy.
Where's your dictatorship button? When is a democratic decision bad enough for you to override it, if you could, by personal fiat? Most people have such a button; those who claim not to are vulnerable to a form of the argumentum ad Hitlerum. Others are remarkably sanguine about deploying it, for example when they disagree with the result of a plebiscite about membership of a trade association. They have various button-masking props, such as citing the fact that – in an extraordinary departure from normal political practice – campaigners for the other side (and only they) were less than wholly truthful; though unlike their gullible co-electors, the button-pressers weren’t fooled.
As posturing over Brexit has given way to negotiations, the European Court of Justice is looming large. The prospects for EU citizens resident in the UK, uncertain enough to begin with, have been obscured by the government’s insistence that ECJ judges won’t be determining their rights. Even the court’s regulatory role over nuclear research is one judicial pretension too many for London: Theresa May has committed the UK to withdrawing from the European Atomic Energy Community as well as the EU, because the ECJ sorts out Euratom disputes.
As a teenager in 1965 I heard Harold Wilson making a broadcast to the white population of Southern Rhodesia, where I grew up. He was an impressive figure, articulate but plain-spoken, with an ability to recognise the fears and prejudices of his audience and address them in adult terms. The tiny settler population had in 1962 elected a Rhodesian Front government which, on 11 November 1965, soon after Wilson made his broadcast, issued the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. White settler rule came to an ignominious end some fifteen years later, on 18 April 1980. Today, a much larger British population is about to elect a government that will, it seems, give the United Kingdom its own version of UDI. There are self-evident differences between the two processes, but the similarities and parallels throw an unfavourable light on the present state of British politics. Britain’s UDI may have been a long time coming, but the country’s ability to deal with the consequences is no more powerful or sophisticated than that of the tiny settler population of Rhodesia in 1965.
At the heart of this week’s Brexit shenanigans is a fact: Britain pays more into the European Union than it gets back. This is an opinion-free fact. (They do exist.) It takes no account of the wider benefits that membership brings to Britain, the continent and the world. The fact is there whether you believe, as I do, that some form of payment is worth it, or, as those who voted Leave last June do, that any amount is a tyrannical imposition.
In politics, principle is play-dough for adversaries. Take nationality. Gibraltar is as British as the royal family, or a cup of Darjeeling. No it isn’t: it’s as Spanish as Catalonia, or the Alhambra, or flamenco.
The photographer Marc Atkins and I are working on a project called Fields of England. We go into fields we have known for a long time, and others we just know about, but have never seen: battlefields, minefields, deserted village fields, fields undersea, gathering places, burial grounds, places of execution, places where treaties have been signed – but this is a list of field-genres. If we have learned one thing, it is the limitation of genre. There are as many genres as there are fields. And almost as many Englands.
If the left didn’t find a constructive policy to tackle Britain’s economic problems at root, Leonard Woolf warned in the Political Quarterly in autumn 1931, the right would go on ‘triumphing until it has created conditions which almost inevitably result in violent revolution’. A global slump, soaring unemployment and a run on the pound had brought about the resignation of Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour Cabinet in August, swiftly followed by the formation of the emergency, cross-party National Government, which immediately pushed massive spending cuts through Parliament.
Martin McGuinness stepped down yesterday as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister. His resignation letter rapped the Democratic Unionist Party for backing austerity and blocking women’s and LGBT rights, and attacked the first minister, Arlene Foster, for refusing to stand down temporarily while an independent inquiry is conducted into a botched renewable energy scheme. The scandal, known as ‘cash for ash’, began in 2013 when a whistleblower pointed out what was happening as a result of Renewable Heat Incentive subsidies not being capped. Farms and businesses that signed up to the scheme before it was shut down last year get £1.60 from the government for every pound spent on non-fossil fuels, without limit. The more wood they burn, the more money they make. One farmer is set to net a million quid over twenty years by heating an empty shed.
The oral argument in Miller v. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union finished in the Supreme Court case yesterday. The question was whether or not the government has to consult Parliament before notifying the European Council, under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, that the UK intends to leave the EU. Last month the Divisional Court in London ruled that Parliament must be consulted; the government is appealing against that decision. Whatever the outcome of the case, the proceedings were remarkable. As with most hearings in the Supreme Court, the argument was streamed online. Unlike most, it attracted quite a few viewers. Transcripts were made available; commentators summarised the arguments. Lawyers took to Twitter to explain – or mock – the proceedings. When so little else seems to be going according to plan, this is some cause for celebration: the peaceful, public scrutiny of government actions by an open court is a rare thing.
What miserable terrain we’re stuck in, post-Brexit vote, as the free trade v. free movement argument is endlessly discussed. Round and round we go, warning that leaving the single market and slapping more controls – we already have plenty – on immigration would harm the economy, but insisting that the public wants one, or both, or neither; who really knows?
There are many similarities between the Brexit vote and Trump's win. The reliance for victory on white voters without a college education, fear of immigration, globalisation being blamed for mine and factory closures, hostility towards data-based arguments, the breakdown of the distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘conclusion’, the internet’s power to sort the grain of pleasing lies from the chaff of displeasing facts, the sense of there being a systematic programme of rules and interventions devised by a small, remote, powerful elite that polices everyday speech, destroys symbols of tradition, ignores or patronises ‘real’, ‘ordinary’ people, and has contempt for popular narratives of how the nation came to be.
John Locke, commonly seen as a founding father of liberalism, also foretokened the political thought of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. In chapter 14 of his Second Treatise, Locke turns to the notion of the prerogative: 'This power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it, is that which is called prerogative ... therefore there is a latitude left to the executive power, to do many things of choice which the laws do not prescribe.' This is Locke's version of Schmitt’s Ausnahmezustand, usually translated (no version is perfect) as ‘state of exception’, which obtains when the sovereign deems it necessary to override the law.
The British papers are at it again: a ‘loaded foreign elite’ (the Sun) have triumphed in their court challenge to the prime minister’s plan to use the royal prerogative to trigger Article 50; the judges have been declared ‘Enemies of The People’ on the front page of the Mail (the Telegraph, with venerable caution, has merely decided that the judiciary are ‘at war’ with the people). The judges’ personal lives are probed for telling details: one has an interest in European law, another – imagine the Mail journalist’s delight – is an ‘openly gay’ former Olympic fencer, practically a textbook decadent cosmopolitan. The Express, ever aware that it’s poppy season, says we are in the gravest crisis since Churchill exhorted us to fight on the beaches.
Last Friday, the Belfast High Court rejected a legal challenge to the government’s claim that it can use the royal prerogative to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Judgment in a similar case before the London High Court is due shortly. The Belfast court did not rule on matters which would be considered by the London High Court, but limited its assessment to the Northern Irish constitutional landscape: in particular, whether or not the 1998 Good Friday Agreement prevented Brexit being imposed on the people of Northern Ireland. A key assumption behind the Belfast judgment was that the triggering of Article 50 would not, in itself, alter the law of the United Kingdom; instead the judge found it was merely the beginning of a ‘process which ultimately will probably lead to changes in UK law’. That argument has effectively already been lost in London, since the government was forced to concede, for reasons of political expediency, that Article 50 is irreversible. Irreversibility has consequences which considerably weaken the government’s arguments on the scope of prerogative power.
Just over a century ago, ‘plucky little Belgium’ stood against the might of the ‘Hun’ by refusing Germany free passage to invade France. Earlier this month, the plucky and even littler Belgian region of Wallonia took a brief stand against the combined might of the EU and Canada, by blocking the CETA trade pact under the federal provisions of Belgium's constitution. Yesterday, however, Wallonia gave in, 'extremely happy that our demands have been heard'. Viewed in the blear light of Brexit, the Walloon impasse, however temporary, suggests it won't be straightforward to get any deal past the 27 EU rump nations. But it also highlights blindspots in both Brexiters' and Remainers' thinking.
When the issue of Britain joining the EEC was raised following Harold Macmillan’s opening of negotiations in July 1961, Hugh Gaitskell had no time for those who saw the issue as one of principle, whether they were passionate pro-Europeans like Roy Jenkins or passionate opponents like many on the left who saw it as ‘a kind of giant Catholic, capitalist conspiracy’. (All quotations come from Philip Williams’s magisterial 1979 biography of Gaitskell.) Everything would depend on the conditions.
Donald Trump’s instinctive response to his most recent crisis was predictable. As the tales of groping multiplied and swirled, he claimed the high ground. His accusers, he said, were ‘horrible, horrible liars’, whose attacks were being ‘orchestrated by the Clintons and their media allies’. He was willing to suffer for his ‘disfranchised’ followers, however, and they would collectively ‘take back our country’. The election, he promised, was going to be ‘our Independence Day’. As far as the US media took any notice – and many, in their mainstream way, were focusing instead on the complaints of Trump’s alleged victims – there was confusion. Was Trump drawing on the science fiction movie of the same name, wondered the New York Daily News? The 1996 film shows the White House destroyed by aliens. Worldwide havoc ensues. America’s president leads the counterattack that eliminates the intruders for ever (sequels notwithstanding). In Trump’s eyes, that's not fantasy so much as cinéma vérité. The inspiration for his speech, however, is almost certainly closer to home.
In the Telegraph last week, Andrew Roberts suggested that one of ‘the many splendid opportunities provided by the … heroic Brexit vote’ was the chance for Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to unite as a federation. Nigel Farage advised Irish radio listeners to ‘hedge their bets’ by rejoining the Commonwealth. And Liam Fox (who wants us to abandon our ‘obsession’ with Europe in favour of the Commonwealth) has started ‘scoping out the parameters’ of a free trade deal with Australia.
George Osborne, before he reinvented himself as Rambo, when he was still the 'austerity chancellor', committed Theresa May’s government to spending a huge sum to prop up the housing market. The combined total of grants, loans and guarantees devoted to helping developers and homebuyers is set to exceed £42 billion between now and 2020 (similar to the cost of building four new Trident submarines). It’s supposed to achieve two things: build a million new homes and double the number of first-time buyers. An equally important but unstated priority is ensuring that house prices continue to rise. After the EU referendum, all three targets look much tougher.
On the day of the EU referendum, a British Remain campaigner told me: ‘I’m very glad you’re here.’ I know she meant well, but her words felt exclusionary as well as inclusive – I may be welcome, but I’m still foreign. In recent years there have been increasing restrictions on who can move or settle here from outside the EU – from eliminating the post-study work visa to requiring an annual income of at least £35,000. And the person who oversaw these restrictions as home secretary is now our prime minister.