Category Archives: Article 50

A moment of reflection on the eve of Article 50 day

Excuse me if I afford myself a moment of quiet celebration, for tomorrow is the day that Britain triggers Article 50 and embarks upon a process of withdrawal from the European Union. It was important to pen a few words this evening as I am unavailable to do so tomorrow.

In truth, I can’t quite believe it is here. I was sure there would be yet more twists and turns before we cemented our desire to leave, be it ping-pong between our Houses or a snap General Election.

As I write, I am flooded by campaigning memories of 2016 that will be forever etched into my mind. It began just over a year ago, in early spring, with a trip down to Bournemouth with their regional Vote Leave team to take part in a day’s leafleting and street stalls.

I decided to travel (from Kent) partly because I don’t leave London enough and partly because my National Express coachcard was becoming increasingly useless. Bournemouth is lovely, thriving town, too.

The day was fun. Since the referendum wasn’t in full swing, many were either unsure or appeared disinterested in how things would go, and this did not surprise me.

What I did find a little shocking, though, was the vast numbers of people expressing solidarity with our campaign. At that time, and like many others, I believed that Remain would win the referendum. I was about as sure of Leave victory as I was of the Tories gaining a majority at the 2015 General Election.

I am glad I chose to campaign with Vote Leave. Back then, my political acumen was weaker than it is today, but if I knew one thing it was that Nigel Farage and ‘GO’ would not be able to scoop up enough mainstream, middle class or swing support for an EU exit.

As I look back, I realise that I should have made more of activism. It was more enjoyable than I gave it credit for at the time, and I now miss it profoundly.

Standing at stalls in town centres, having elderly ladies coming up to me, thanking me for my support and spending hours expressing their desire for Britain to leave the European Union to me were conversations I now cherish.

I often got the impression that pensioners were particularly grateful for the youth who backed Brexit. They remember a time in which they lived in a country that controlled its own affairs; a country that did not wait for external approval before implementing policy; a country that could stand independently in the world without isolation.

But crucially, they were also lied to in the 1970s by Edward Heath, who insisted that despite immersing ourselves within the European Economic Community, there would be no loss of parliamentary sovereignty.

And sovereignty, above anything else, is the fundamental requirement for the sorts of people who favour Britain leaving the EU. It is understandable that so many feel so disillusioned and disenfranchised, given that over the past four decades, governance has increasingly drifted from the confines of Westminster to those of Brussels.

There is something inherently liberating about taking back control (to coin a legendary phrase) of important powers from the European parliament. Doing so increases democratic accountability, empowers local communities and the added responsibility burdened onto our politicians’ shoulders will tell us an awful lot more about the kinds of people who lead us.

So, tomorrow starts the alleged two-year period. I can almost guarantee that the endeavour of leaving will not take two years to complete. I have a sneaking suspicion that it will creep on some time after that. After all, the hurdles jumped between polling day and the triggering of Article 50 truly highlights the complexity of the task ahead.

I will breathe a short sigh of relief tomorrow at 12.30, when the UK officially commences the withdrawal process. I’ll be in Maidstone spending a few days with my older sister. I’m sure I’ll open a bottle of something in order to appropriately enjoy the occasion.

After the trials and tribulations of the last few months, the legal challenges and the calls for a second referendum (they mean third, but they don’t acknowledge the first as the result went their way, despite it also not being legally binding), Leave voters will soon sleep easy.

That is, of course, not to say that the period of negotiations ahead will be easy. I am still confident that the UK will snatch a satisfactory deal for itself, but from tomorrow onwards the pressure really kicks in.

I have no idea what to expect from negotiations, particularly as hundreds of civil service jobs are yet to be filled, but I do rather expect something like regaining control over our territorial waters to be an acid test for the kind of deal we reach.

I would also urge caution to those who claim that ‘no deal is better than our current deal’. I don’t think this is true. No deal would probably shatter the confidence of businesses and heighten the worries of EU nationals unsure of whether they will be able to stay in Britain or not.

But at least we are moving in the right direction. I will spend tomorrow thinking not just about Article 50, but about the tireless street campaigners and some of my brilliant former colleagues, many of whom are the real heroes of the referendum and will never know the credit that they deserve.

 

 

 

 


What to do with the House of Lords

The following blog post is a plea to journalists, activists and politicians. The country has entered a period of intensifying debate over the future of its Upper House, and this proposal (not solely forwarded by me) must feature in the argument. If readers support the idea, then please email a link to this piece to your local MP.

I am getting tired with repeatedly seeing fresh calls for the abolition of the House of Lords, or with demands for the second chamber to be an elected one, so I want to use this blog to help push forward a proposal for real Upper House reform; the kind not being discussed by the very people who would appreciate and support it most. I will present a case against abolition of Westminster’s Upper House entirely (with particular emphasis on the dangers of a possible referendum), a case against electing the House and a case for a system of citizen juries, known more formally as sortition.

The first thing that needs to be said about this new wave of anti-Lords sentiment is that, were it not triggered by Britain’s EU withdrawal, it would not exist in such vitriolic form. Politics, as I feared post-referendum, has become a battleground entirely transformed by the Brexit vote. The public is now viewing issues from the perspective of its referendum camp, which has resulted in a skewing of objectivity. The Lords debate is not the only evidence of this, either. By-elections, too, such as that of Richmond, are being manipulated according to how voters voted in last summer’s poll, and results are being translated in the same fashion. I hope, therefore, by writing this and avoiding EU-related tribalism, I will present a reasonable case (though likely untenable at the present time) for radical reform of the Upper House.

 

Why we shouldn’t abolish the Upper House

Without meaning to condescend, I believe that much of the anger of the abolitionists is down to short delays to the Brexit process and not principled opposition to the House itself. The public were told many months ago that March 31st would be the deadline by which Article 50 was triggered. I don’t think anybody remotely sensible ever thought that this would be over quickly, given its obvious constitutional magnitude.

I also think the reactionary behaviour of Leave voters is dangerous because they fail to present us with a viable alternative or safety mechanism. They simply say: ‘Abolish the Lords!’, without proposing any legislative reform or telling us either what will come in its place, or how the Commons and its operations will adjust to being the sole source of law-making in the UK. Overzealous reformers can sometimes, as problems in our education system show, be the obstacle to positive progress. 

Those calling for the abolition of the second chamber should remember, firstly, that due to timetabling restrictions, the House of Commons often has to rely on the Lords to introduce smaller bills. Commons ‘sessions’ do not manage to get through all proposed legislation, so the second chamber plays a useful role in introducing Bills which would otherwise be forgotten about. In the 1983-87 parliament, for which we have easily accessible data, the House of Lords introduced 88 Bills[1] out of the 209 tabled in total. It may be argued, therefore, that the Upper House often speeds up the legislative process, despite popular allegations to the contrary. Readers may like to give the current table of Bills a glance. Please pay particular attention to those with [HL] in their titles. This means that the relevant Bill was introduced in the second chamber. I would put it to those calling for the Lords’ heads that, if they got their way, legislation beneficial to their interests may be slowed, ignored or not introduced to parliament at all.

Unicameralism, for good reason, is not anywhere near as common as bicameralism across international legislature[2]. Another reason why this is so could be down to harbouring appropriate scrutiny of government. Those who take a look at the map provided will quickly note that some of the most authoritarian countries in the world, such as Iran and China, opt for systems that do not allow for the executive to be held to account. I acknowledge, also, that many civilised and democratic countries appear in the list of unicameral legislatures, but thorough examination tells me that most are either rife with corruption or authoritarian in nature. Part of the reason for this could be a lack of monitoring of government operations, and so I think that Britain benefits from having strong measures of scrutiny throughout its parliamentary process. The Lords have also shown unity with public opinion on many occasions, proving their worth when voting on major changes to the law. Halting George Osborne’s tax credits plan, showing their support for same-sex marriage and voting against Blair’s anti-terrorism legislation are three such examples. As James Forsyth wrote in ‘The Spectator’ recently, “the House of Lords has a strong self-preservation instinct: it knows its limits.”

 

The absurdity of a referendum

If readers recall, the last time we held a referendum on substantial change to Britain’s constitution, we found ourselves stuck in the position we are currently in. Delays, anger and confusion have become the three pillars of British politics. Referendums require Bills, and Bills require filtration and inspection, so I doubt that those sitting in the Upper House would be convinced that a simple national poll is provision enough for major constitutional change.

Referendums are a fun exercise of direct democracy (not because people vote, but because they get to decide themselves on an issue rather than hoping somebody else will), but they aren’t usually congruent with the constitution, as the incessant delays and stoppages attached to Britain’s departure from the European Union illustrate. Referendums are, by their very nature, simplistic and often binary. In their make-up, they ignore the nuances that become apparent after votes for change are cast.

 

Why we shouldn’t elect the Upper House, either

I hear constantly the term ‘unelected’ being used pejoratively. This is primarily because the public has been conditioned, after many years of propaganda by politicians and parties, to conflate ‘democracy’ with ‘elections’. I will delve further into this at some point in the future, but democracy, firstly, predates elections, and secondly, most democratisation has absolutely nothing to do with government (see, for instance, the introduction of the daily newspaper in the early to mid 19th century).

There are three main reasons why electing members of the Upper House is a bad idea. The first concerns general voting patterns, marginalisation and plummeting turnouts. I would at this point ask the reader to consider, hypothetically, that the UK is about to hold a national Upper House election. What do you think voter turnout would be? European elections in Britain have historically produced very poor turnouts[3]. Turnouts at General Elections have for very many decades been on the decline[4]. What makes anybody think that voter turnouts would be anything other than miserable? I don’t, myself, see a scenario in which voter turnout for Upper House elections reaches even 30%. Low turnout is important because we are told that the purpose of elections is to provide those in power with a mandate.

My suspicion is that, given immense electoral fatigue – thanks largely to the digital age and the information saturation that comes with it – and widespread public disengagement from politics (that voter turnouts highlight), most British people would not care enough to venture to their nearest polling station and vote for members of the second chamber. Increasingly, we don’t bother to vote at General Elections, so electing a senate would prove no less purposeless.

Secondly, electing the Upper House would transform it into a mirror-image of the Commons. One of the great features of the House of Peers was that it was supposed to act as an objective, politically-unaligned chamber more able to provide the executive with appropriate scrutiny and amendments. In a scenario where members are elected, they are more easily forced to think along party lines, as they are constrained by campaign promises, manifesto commitments and may view legislation more tribally and ideologically, perhaps reducing space for independent thought and concern for others. I also think it could be the case that Peers may see their democratic mandate (however small) as not subservient to the Commons, but as equal in its validity. This could create a situation in which there is unnecessary competition between chambers, and long periods of ‘ping-pong’.

A third issue with Upper House elections is that they will consume unnecessary resources and eat into time and budgets. The legislative process is long, drawn out and requires a lot of thorough examination and re-examination. Taking a couple of months out of a parliamentary session to focus on being re-elected would seem to me to hamper the ability of Peers to carry out their primary function: scrutiny of government. Election campaigns are expensive and have a noticeable draining effect on both the public and those involved in them. They also, crucially, subvert attention away from getting on with the job. We begin to focus more on people and less on issues.

 

Proposal: Replace the Lords with citizen juries

Most people are not familiar with the meaning of the word ‘sortition’. It is a political structure that has proven successful in British life, most notably in our courts, where juries of randomly selected citizens come together to decide upon the fate of another person. Juries were first constructed shortly after the Norman Conquest more than 1,000 years ago, but have undergone several reformations since. Sortition is the process of allocating to office or duty a jury of citizens selected at random. I mention our courts because, before we proceed, it is important that we respect both the liberty the system has given us and its use in Britain’s criminal justice system. Most people report high levels of trust in criminal juries, despite the lack of legal experience of those sitting on them, and consider taking part an ‘important civic duty’[5].

It is my belief that an Upper House comprised of a jury of citizens, cycled on periods lasting a few weeks, with those from afar allowed to expense either travel or accommodation expenses, would be a much more democratic and fairer alternative to its current formation. By bringing together randomly-selected, representative members of the public (on a scale closer much closer to 600 than 800) to scrutinise Bills presented by the House of Commons, vote on legislation and contribute to committees and initiatives that they care about, Westminster will be enriched by more cognitive diversity, democracy will be enhanced through the introduction of more people into the legislative sphere and we will have an excuse to end the slow, painful suffering of the peerage.

I mentioned earlier that scrutiny is perhaps best provided by a chamber that is objective and non-partisan. It is also true that most people think in terms of issues and not in terms of ideology. To propose, therefore, an Upper House comprising of randomly-drafted members of the public is to join together these two premises. And I think ordinary people will jump at the chance, too. The House of Lords is an exotic place, especially for those living in distant, forgotten parts of the UK. Introducing jury service may also act as a way for Westminster to reach out to forgotten communities and perhaps ease some of the discontent and mistrust that has grown substantially in the modern political climate.

There is also no technocratic argument against this proposal. Members of the public have skills, knowledge, expertise and common sense, and are able to think rationally about the effects that Bills will have upon individuals. They will also, upon initiation, be aided by secretaries, parliamentary assistants and researchers with experience of the inner workings of the Upper House and legislative procedure. We trust our fellow man to make important decisions over matters of justice, so we can do the same in other aspects of public life. I am not saying that jury service in court is logistically identical to service in the Upper House, but as research shows[6], people approach civic duty in a conscientious and serious manner. I do not think this would change under this proposal. 

 

The suffering of the peerage

Back in November, Jacob Rees-Mogg instructed the Prime Minister to create 1,000 new sunset peers in order to help speed up the Brexit process. This may sound like a good idea for those who support Britain’s departure from the EU, but this sort of political puppeteering has profound consequences for the legitimacy and value of the peerage; one of the oldest – and now most devalued – honours anywhere in the world. One of the main causes of the suffering of the peerage has been the temptation displayed by governments (often acted upon) to give peerages to party representatives, usually donors or political advisers behind the scenes, purely for the purpose of aiding legislative efforts in the Upper House.  Tactical posturing on the part of parties is cynical and undermines the importance law-making. It is, after all, about what is best for the country, not what is best for preserving electability.

 

Final comments

I invite readers (whom I thank sincerely for reading what has turned out to be a necessarily long post) to leave their feedback in the comments below. As I said in my opening remarks, this idea is not unique to me. In 2008, The Athenian Option: radical reform for the House of Lords was published by Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty. The argument about the future of the Lords cannot be a binary one. If a perfectly reasonable suggestion such as this exists, we must not frame this debate merely in terms of abolition or election. The political potential of sortition has been an interest of mine ever since I became familiar with the pitfalls of electoral representative democracy. I think it should interest you too.

 

Notes:

[1] See third table (section 3): http://www.leeds.ac.uk/law/teaching/law6cw/hc-3.htm

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicameralism#/media/File:Unibicameral_Map.svg

[3] http://www.ukpolitical.info/european-parliament-election-turnout.htm

[4] http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm

[5] See table 3.1: http://www.icpr.org.uk/media/10381/Juries%20MOJ%20report.pdf

[6] See page 2: http://www.britsoccrim.org/volume4/004.pdf

 


Brexit: the House of Lords has not let anybody down tonight

And still we are yet to trigger Article 50. This time thanks to what is actually quite a reasonable intervention from the House of Lords, who have attracted the wrath of Leave voters now agitated to get the exit process under way. Being one of them, I understand their frustrations, but tonight’s government defeat was actually an example of the Upper House at its most useful, not at its most destructive or contemptuous of democratic procedure.

The amendment, which proposed that the government commits to protecting the rights of EU citizens living in Britain within three months of triggering Article 50, defeated Mrs May’s Brexit bill by 358 votes to 256 earlier this evening. At first I sighed at what I thought would be yet another bump in the road to leaving the European Union, but then I took the time to consider a couple of things.

Firstly, the amendment (despite its lack of concern for British citizens living within the EU) is a sensible one. Being the leaving party, it is down to Britain to set the negotiating standard and settle the nerves of other member states who are concerned about damage to diplomatic ties. By enshrining in law protection for the rights of those who came to the UK legally throughout our membership, we lay the groundwork for productive talks and calm EU-born immigrants living in Britain, who in many cases will be uneasy about committing to long-term projects, like finding a mortgage or setting up a business.

Certainty, after all, was exactly what was promised in the government’s White Paper a few weeks ago. It seems to me to be reasonable, as the responsibility for this entire process lies first and foremost with us, that we take the moral high ground on this particular issue. If EU departure is organised poorly and in slapdash fashion, then Britain is the party most liable to political and economic damage. Even Nigel Farage, not known for his humility towards Brussels, agreed with me on his LBC radio show a few moments ago (or, rather, I agree with him).

Since immigration was a major factor in helping to determine the outcome of last year’s referendum, I think foreign-born citizens living in the UK will appreciate a vote of confidence in their worth to the country and support for their stay, especially given the noted rise in levels of hate crime and lingering anti-migrant sentiment after almost two decades of mass immigration from the continent. I also think that other EU member states will be more willing to engage constructively with the UK during negotiations, knowing that their citizens’ rights are to be respected.

Another cause for concern tonight has been the emotional outrage from Leave voters who have emerged in their droves to try to undermine Westminster’s second chamber in calling for its abolition. This is odd, given that most Brexit supporters self-identify as political conservatives (that’s small ‘c’). I can only deduce that they are not thinking rationally whilst their unjustifiable anger consumes them. They only tend to make noise when our Peers behave in ways that they do not personally approve of, and not usually at any other time.

The main problem with a unicameral legislature is that, due to timetabling constraints, the House of Commons simply isn’t able to oversee all legislation put before it. It must, from to time, rely on the Upper House to vote on and scrutinise bills; perhaps one of its more crucial and underappreciated functions. My suspicion is that a unicameral legislature would struggle to get to grips with the sheer wealth of legislation it would have to deal with. And to simply say: “Well, let’s pass fewer laws” seems on the face of things a little naive. It is not possible to predict the country’s future political challenges – especially after substantial constitutional change.

Secondly, as we have seen this evening, the House of Lords has consistently proved itself able to scrutinise government intelligently, reminding them of where they are going wrong and proposing amendments where necessary. This process cannot be understated. It is likely the main reason why the Upper House has remained a fixture at Westminster for such a long time, and while I disagree with the composition of Peers and the manner of their selection, I acknowledge the importance of holding the executive to account.

Those who voted for Brexit may, therefore, want to save their strength. This is not a battle worth fighting, and given the circumstances, it is hard to tell what challenges lie just around the corner.

 


Yes, some peers are useless, but so too are elections!

Once again, the House of Lords finds itself squirming in the spotlight of British politics , this time as our peers attempt to weigh in on the triggering of Article 50. I do not think they will try to block Brexit. The House of Lords has shown that if it cares about anything, it is its own preservation.

For all the scandals, trials and tribulations that have rocked the second chamber over the years, the way in which the Lords remain relatively unscathed really does amaze me. And they know it too. Even Baroness D’Souza, a former speaker in the Upper House, believes that there are peers who offer nothing and get away with the bare minimum. 

She has told the BBC ahead of next Monday evening’s documentary on the Upper House that “many, many peers contribute absolutely nothing, despite receiving the full allowance.” Lords are allowed to claim a daily attendance allowance of up to £300 – but do not receive official salaries. If it wasn’t for absurdly generous allowances, I doubt many peers would bother with the parliamentary process at all.

Most are uncomfortably rich, often businessman or career politicians and do not need to claim hundreds of pounds every day. I don’t usually have any qualms with politicians accruing travel and accommodation expenses, as time taken out of the day to travel between home and Westminster can eat into casework, committee or legislative obligations, but attendance allowances (like those offered to Members of the European Parliament) are nonsensical.

But whatever dissatisfaction with peers lingers, I would reject calls for members to be elected to their posts. Some months ago I wrote an article for ‘Reaction’, which you can read here, on the political and practical potential of sortition (randomly selected citizen juries) in the arranging of Westminster’s Upper House. The article still highlights my position today, but like most of my work, it went largely ignored.

I do not think the Upper House should be an elected chamber. This is primarily because I believe that the British electorate simply doesn’t have the energy or the care to bother with voting for them. European elections consistently attracted embarrassingly low turnouts and even General Elections have revealed the same trend over the past seven decades.[1]

Many do not fully – or even partially – understand the role played by the Lords, and any Upper House elections would struggle to draw in even 20% of those eligible to vote. This would be in part due to electoral fever (made worse by social media) and in part due to a lack of understanding and emotional investment. Peers, after all, are not policy makers and need not produce enticing manifestos.

Another reason for avoiding the electing of peers is that it would help to transform the second chamber into a mirror image of the Commons. At present, Lords do not have to worry about toeing party line in order to keep their jobs. This is good, as it allows them to scrutinise government on a level playing field and operate according to their beliefs and consciences. The entire purpose of the second chamber, after all, is to hold the executive to account; an apolitical obligation almost on its own terms.

Juries of randomly selected citizens in the House of Lords would revitalise, or at least strengthen, the public’s enthusiasm for politics, introduce more cognitive diversity into the second chamber and would allow for more individuals to play a role in the legislative process. There is certainly no technocratic argument against it. Ordinary people have expertise, would be aided by researchers, secretaries and assistants, and we’d have the opportunity to do away with a stale honours system.

Peerages have become disgraced relics, handed out for political, rather than meritocratic purposes. Incumbent governments have been known to add party-political individuals to the Upper House in order to assist their efforts to have legislation passed through. This kind of tribal posturing is exactly what has led to the devaluing of honours and general mistrust in the House.

Committees do not have to be set up by former chancellors or founders of beer companies. Travel and accommodation expenses would indeed be paid to members of the public, just as they are today. The public can read, vote on bills and scrutinise serious issues, as proven by the unmistakeable success of court juries and a plethora of sortition-based research experiments.

Why, then, do we clamour for an elected system that we know perfectly well we wouldn’t care for?

 

Sources:

[1] http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm


Article 50: 498-114 doesn’t tell the whole story

I find myself wondering what the result of yesterday’s parliamentary vote would have been had it been conducted on the basis of conscience or private opinion. Most certainly not 498-114, and there would not have been so many abstentions, either. Thankfully, the rare occasions on which we exercise direct democracy, which more easily illustrate the national mood, (the kind provided more easily by referenda than by elections) anchor our representatives more forcefully to respecting public judgement.

I usually like the debates surrounding big issues in the House of Commons. They tend to bring out the best and the passion in MPs, who by and large do care about things. One only has to go back and watch the day of the gay marriage bill to gain an understanding of the best of British politics, and I’m not referring necessarily to the result. But yesterday’s affair didn’t have the same sort of feel to it.

Parliament appeared tense, symbolised poignantly by row after row of gritted teeth and furrowed brows. MPs on both sides of the Commons, bitter in the fallout from a shocking referendum defeat, struggled to tap into any optimism, preferring instead to talk submissively about the importance of standing up for the democratic vote. George Osborne, arguably the biggest loser of last year’s EU vote, spoke of ‘provoking a constitutional crisis’ in the event of voting against the triggering of Article 50.

It is true that politicians ought to stick up for the values of democracy in times such as these, but what I found most peculiar about some of the speeches was the lack of enthusiasm for the new direction that the country has opted to head in. The chamber looked almost condescendingly anxious, with many of the MPs making up the 498 clearly too reluctant to praise the decision made by the electorate, or to welcome an exciting opportunity to re-establish Britain’s role in the world.

For the 114, it was the same old story. Nick Clegg tried his best not to take things personally,  channelling his blatant frustration into an irrelevant defence of the preferences of the majority of 18-24 year olds; the tiring implication being that elder generations stole the futures of the youth. I do not recognise this idea to be true, partially because I got to know many passionate youngsters who campaigned for Brexit during the referendum and partially because youth turnout is always notably low, or at least lower than it is among other age groups. Alex Salmond went as far as to call the triggering of Article 50 an ‘act of madness’, which, given his obsession with sovereignty, I couldn’t take all that seriously. A painstaking resentment was briefly interrupted by jibes aimed at Remain supporting MPs by an understandably jolly John Redwood, but for the most part, the debate lacked the energy that Westminster is renowned for.

But it was not just angst and disdain that characterised last night’s vote. It was also an opportunity to see quite clearly the depressing void that lies within Her Majesty’s opposition: a Labour Party still being eaten away at from the inside by Blairite residue and trying to decide whether it should stand by 70% of its constituencies and press ahead with European Union withdrawal. You would think that during such a significant period in British political history a major party would be able to pull itself together. It still amazes me that 94% of the parliamentary party backed Remain, despite profound differences now obvious with large swathes of its voter base.

Only the SNP, so hilariously brazen in their hypocrisy, managed to match Labour’s embarrassment. They defend Scottish independence and sovereignty in Westminster, they deride it in Brussels. They claim that, based on cross-border cooperation and commerce, it is in the national interest to work with other European Union member states, but they fail to apply the same argumentation to the issue of British union.  My gut instinct is that come the 2020 General Election (providing one isn’t called sooner), they will cease to be a serious political force. Even in the eyes of Scottish swing voters. In fact, more substantive change could take place in three years’ time than that. 114 MPs, at least open and honest in their disapproval of the public, rebelled against the national vote. Time will tell whether or not they are able to retain their constituency seats.

More than one hundred of Britain’s political representatives decided to ignore the legitimacy of the majority verdict in last night’s House of Commons vote. What truly shocks me is not the number of MPs who did this, but the number of MPs who didn’t.


Brexit: where the hell are we?

So much Brexit-related news has been whirring around in recent weeks that I’ve barely had the chance to take it all in, let alone write thoughtfully about it. Maybe this is a deliberate policy: confuse and mystify the population into lethargy so as to calm down the waves of anger which bubbled to the surface after last year’s referendum result. First we had the government’s initial and expected defeat at the Supreme Court concerning the extent to which parliament should be consulted before the Brexit process was fully underway. Then we had Theresa May’s outline in broad terms of what the government’s negotiating plan was upon the invoking of Article 50. I still think we shall miss the proposed deadline of March 31st.

Amongst all this we have a Labour Party trying to figure out what its policy will be on Britain’s access to the single market and a campaign of attrition being fought by senior Remain figures in an attempt to delay and frustrate the Brexit process. Earlier today, the government’s unsuccessful appeal in the Supreme Court was lauded by those who for 40 years simply ignored the diminished role of Westminster’s parliament as a victory for parliamentary sovereignty.

Their newfound insistence that parliament must be at the front and centre of decision making is a mere smokescreen; a fake designed to give off the impression that they are providing our EU withdrawal with ‘scrutiny’, while they conveniently ignore the fact that in 2015, parliament itself voted to sanction a national referendum, thus circumventing the decision and passing responsibility onto the electorate. Despite the constitutional problems we are currently weathering, the decision to hold a referendum was, I think, the best possible way to address the issue, given its magnitude and relevance to an increasing proportion of British public policy.

So here we are. Somewhere between a rock and a hard place, trying to figure out when and how best to orchestrate our way out of four decades of intricate political and economic integration. The distractions certainly aren’t helping anybody, but at least both the House of Commons and Peers look set to approve invoking Article 50, even if they can’t stand its implications. As for the public? Confusion and anger so effortlessly stirred up by the mass media have taken their toll on a country sitting in a uniquely perplexing situation. Nobody knows or understands anything; the perfect setting for a government about to embark upon a mission it doesn’t look remotely prepared for.

I am no exception. I have more holes in my knowledge than I would care to admit, and like almost everybody I am susceptible to falling into the traps of fake news and misleading information. Where and when I can I try to consult experts – who, I notice, are always politically independent and left depressingly adrift from the mainstream narrative – like Pete North, whose blog (which can be read here) has proved a useful tool for strengthening my understanding of the current political climate. Likewise, the ‘Independent Britain’ and ‘EUReferendum’ blogs are invaluable if facts, and not tribal spin, are your cup of tea.

For the last year I tried to be an independent and reliable source of information, but there were a few obstacles that prevented me from being so. I was, of course, closely attached to Vote Leave, and so owing to the PR industry’s stronghold on political discourse, I too frequently confused what made for effective campaigning with what represented either a credible plan for a British EU withdrawal or with what was undisputable fact. On top of this, I need time to delve more extensively into the subject matter at hand. I do not have any real expertise in areas like European law or trade, so remain committed to following only those who do. If only more ‘professional Brexiteers’ owned up to the glaring craters in their knowledge, the public might more aptly be able to distinguish between those who know their content and those who do not.

If playing a privileged part in an historic referendum taught me one thing, it is that researchers are indeed the experts, and not those who pose as authoritative figures whilst away from the cameras lacking any real grasp of their subject matter – and yes, I’m looking at you, Dan Hannan. I have deliberately avoided writing about the kind of Brexit I’d want for Britain so as not to flood the information swamp with yet more swampland. I cite the aforementioned websites as a gesture of gratitude more so than an inauguration into the infamous Flexcit club; a group of people unfairly demonised by fellow Leavers, including myself in the past, for not adequately prioritising issues like sovereignty and immigration. If only I and others had known that it wasn’t as simple as this.

I would much rather go away and find out about the ins and outs of leaving the single market before I begin bellowing into the winds about trade, controlling immigration, leaving the ECJ and what a Customs Union exit would mean for imports. I say this not to belittle myself (I pride myself on my ability to learn quickly), but to ensure that I don’t become part of the circus of ill-informed puppeteers dominating the Brexit agenda and spreading unhelpful fantasies. If I am not well informed on an issue or have nothing fresh to contribute, I will avoid it.

We need clarity. Clarity that wasn’t provided by the Prime Minister’s vague, recycled speech last week. By far the most worrying part of her speech came, rather ironically, in the section concerning certainty. It said:

“And when it comes to Parliament, there is one other way in which I would like to provide certainty. I can confirm today that the Government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.”[1]

It was at this point that the pound regained some of its lost value against major currencies. This is hardly surprising when one considers what it means for the process of leaving. Since common sense and the UK’s budgetary contributions to the European Union both suggest that EU leaders will try as hard as they can to make an example out of Britain so as to dissuade other member states (particularly France, as an election looms) from leaving, a deal reached by the UK and European Council is likely to be arched in favour of the latter, increasing the probability that parliament will vote to reject an agreement that the UK’s negotiating team come back with. Remember, May wants to take Britain out of the single market. This means that pursuing what is known as the EEA option (the blogs I provided links to above have great material on this theme) and thus arranging a simpler, more orderly exit is out of the question.

So when you read the following excerpt from the EU’s briefing on state withdrawal:

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.”[2]

…you begin to see why that particular paragraph in the government’s plan creates exactly the kind of complication and uncertainty that we do not need. In trying to provide clarity, the Prime Minister played right into the hands of the European Union’s negotiating team. As a time limit of two years sits firmly in place (an agreed extension seems unlikely with other pressing issues on the EU’s plate), Britain’s chances of making a success of withdrawal get ever slimmer. And only an idiot would believe that leaving with no deal would be better than our current relationship.

So where the hell are we with Brexit? Will we ever get what more than 17 million of us voted for? I’m starting to think that Peter Hitchens was right about this whole thing: we may be able to check out, but we may never leave.

 

Footnotes

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech

[2] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/577971/EPRS_BRI(2016)577971_EN.pdf