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How Brexit marks the end of the British story

Anti-Brexit campaigners in front of the Houses of Parliament. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA) - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

AC GRAYLING argues when the Brexit issue is resolved, as well as addressing serious inequalities and injustices in our economy and society, there is a huge clean-up operation required in our political and constitutional order.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit debacle – whether the UK leaves the EU or remains in it, or soon returns to it, or survives as ‘the UK’, or splits into two or three separate states – the debacle itself is already a mark of closure, an ending, to something that has been integral to one major stream of British self-identity.

This was the belief, lingering after the end of empire, in the superior nature of everything British: The character of the people, the institutions of the state, the contributions made to world science, thought and culture, and the globally dominant English language itself.

Britain was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, steam power, the railways; in the 19th century it was the richest and most powerful country in the world; and when it stood atop the world its navy, the global police force, operated to a ‘two-power standard’ meaning that it was bigger and stronger not just than the world’s next biggest and strongest navy, but the two next biggest and strongest navies combined.

The pride and pomp of the British in the heyday of empire did not last long. Two world wars impoverished the country and destroyed its empire. (Our ‘special relationship’ with the USA consisted in getting desperately needed aid during the Second World War in return for a promise to dismantle the empire. Even if the UK could have maintained the empire, which it could not, as proved by Suez, it in effect traded the empire for survival in the 1940s.)

In the dour 1950s, the febrile 1960s and the struggling 1970s the brutal realities were clear to more astute observers: The phrase “lost an empire and not yet found a role” was on their lips. Entry to the EEC/EU saved the country’s economy and saw it flourish, and offered a new and significant role as one of the big three states in one of the big three blocs in the emerging new post-Cold War world, alongside the USA and China.

A mature and intelligent acceptance of this new role and its great possibilities seemed to have established itself at the beginning of the new century, as expressed by the success and confidence of the London Olympics in 2012. But alas, there was still too much rot in the floorboards, and British self-congratulation in the first decade of the 21st century had given a group of people in our political order – a fifth column from the past – the feeling that now was the time to reassert what they mythologised as the spirit of Britain in Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.

They felt this because of the conjunction of two factors: First, despite the world financial crash of 2008 the British economy was in good fundamental shape, and second, the length of time we had been benefitting from EU membership was taking the country close (as, in fact, they correctly saw it) to a point of no return beyond which their dream of taking the UK out of the EU could not be realised. Their thought was: “If not now, never; and the conditions appear ripe.”

The ‘Eurosceptics’ in the Tory Party, soon and unexpectedly to be aided and abetted by the little rump of far-left Eurosceptics in the Labour Party, had been giving their own party leaders a great deal of trouble ever since the UK joined the then-EEC in 1973. Their power varied inversely with the number of Tory seats in the House of Commons. They succeeded in getting a Tory prime minister, David Cameron, leading a minority Tory party in the House of Commons and therefore in coalition, to commit to a referendum on continued EU membership.

There was no other reason for having such a referendum; it was purely an internal Tory party affair. The surprise win by the Tories in 2015 (gifted by the swing to the left of the Labour Party, away from the successful version of liberal-left social democracy created by Blair and Brown) cemented Cameron into carrying out that promise.

However, very few things have a single, simple cause. The circumstances of the 2016 referendum, its nature, and its consequences, have multiple causes that jointly led to the stupefying mess in the country and its political and constitutional order that we are now in. The Eurosceptics made good use of these other factors. They are as follows.

First, there was the policy from 2010 of austerity and the resulting large and rapid increase in inequality, which affected some areas of the country and economy much more drastically than others. This was a foolish and short-sighted policy that did not reduce national debt but caused harm to the social fabric and hardship for millions of individuals and families. Keynes had taught that you borrow and spend in a downturn, save and repay in an upturn; the Tories did the opposite.

Second, there was a series of bad mistakes and misjudgements by David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the leaders of the two main parties.

Cameron’s mistakes were to offer a referendum, to introduce and enact a poorly designed referendum bill, to make a political promise to treat the result as mandating despite the fact that no referendum can trump the sovereignty of parliament, to regard himself as a lucky chap so there was no need to make much effort in campaigning to remain, and to assume that the country would not be stupid enough to vote to leave.

Miliband’s mistake was to change the rules for Labour Party membership and for election of the leader in such a way as to make the party hostage to the least electable – and as it has proved, least effective – leadership since Foot. His changes led to an influx of entryists from the left and their choice, with the artificial power of the block vote of Len McCluskey’s Unite union, of Corbyn as leader. This has proved one of the biggest helps to the Tory Eurosceptics on the far right of politics, because Corbyn, who has learned nothing and not moved on from his apprenticeship at the feet of Peter Shore and Tony Benn half a century ago, is a Brexiter and has abetted the Brexit cause mightily, only very lately being moved – with a sound of screeching dug-in heels – by the massively Remain Labour members and voters to less of a fudge on the issue.

Third, there is the quality of MPs after decades in the EU. Membership of the EU brought a degree of general consistency and equilibrium to the economies and states of the member nations, even taking into account the misguided austerity policies after 2010 in the UK itself. This has lessened the temperature of political debate in the UK, premised as it is (unlike most other EU countries) on a deeply adversarial style of politics. Before joining the EEC the UK was a theatre of intense struggles between left and right, socialism and capitalism, managements and unions, a pervasive ‘us and them’ mentality infecting every major decision.

That moderated, with a more temperate tone entering politics in the period between the end of Thatcher and the post-2010 coalition. But as a result, politics became somewhat less attractive to energetic, clever and ambitious people, with the result that – with some extremely honourable exceptions – the general quality of MPs is not nearly what it was.

Banal careerism, the unchallenged sway of the party whips, unthinking sound-bite ideas as the staple of political discourse, the fact that literally hundreds of MPs in the Tory party can support a profoundly unfit person such as Boris Johnson in the office of prime minister – this is a mark of serious decline in quality of those elected to the legislature.

They are lobby fodder merely, expected to represent the party line far more than the interests of their country. Add to this the nature of party machines – so inflexible that in the Labour Party (for example) a deeply unpopular, ineffective, electorally toxic leader such as Corbyn can remain in the position of leader in the face of every indicator that he should be replaced – and one sees that ossification in the country’s political structures invites much blame.

Fourth, there is the innate fragility and dysfunction of the UK’s outdated and ramshackle constitutional order. The uncodified constitution – ‘a series of understandings that no-one understands’ – is very convenient for any party that commands a majority in the House of Commons, because they can do whatever they like, always getting their agenda enacted and controlling the business of the House of Commons itself.

Among many other problems, this is the result of a key fault of the UK constitution, which is that there is no separation of powers between the legislature (parliament) and executive (the government – meaning, the cabinet and prime minister). In normal circumstance the government is drawn from the majority in the House of Commons, which means that the government controls the House of Commons through the whipping system of party control. Instead of holding the government to account, therefore, parliament is in effect the creature of the government, and does what the government wants.

This situation was accurately described as “elective tyranny” by a British Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, who, although a Tory politician, had concluded that the system was unsafe: governments which control the legislature have unlimited powers to do what they like, and the fact of the Westminster parliament’s absolute sovereignty was dramatised by Sir Leslie Stephen’s remark, made as long ago as 1882, that if parliament “decided that all blue-eyed babies should be murdered, the preservation of blue-eyed babies would be illegal”.

This is as true today as it was when he wrote it. This is dangerous enough in itself; but now consider what happens when a clique – say, Eurosceptics – come to exercise power over the government in respect of crucial decisions such as EU membership, holding the government hostage to their demands. The clique controls the executive, the executive controls parliament, parliament is absolute in its powers: The clique is the tail that wags the entire dog. So long as those in office are mature, intelligent and honourable men and women, they will act with restraint, and resist the pressures to wield the absolute power they have; this is what John Stuart Mill saw as the chief means of maintaining ‘constitutional morality’ in the state. (His view is echoed by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book How Democracies Die (2018) in regard to the US constitution.) But obviously, when people of lower quality, less integrity, less intelligence and less honour populate these offices of state, danger looms. And that danger has burst upon us in the form of Brexit.

Every referendum held in the UK since the Irish unification referendum of 1972 (and referendums should not happen in a representative democracy) has been held on a different basis. Lack of clarity and consistency in important events such as these is the mark of an unstable and fragile constitution. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is very uneasily challenged by referendums: the latter raise the question – Which is the authority in the state – elected representatives with a duty to be informed and to act in the interests of all, or an opinion poll of people many of whom are casting their vote on the basis far more of emotion than information?

One of the major scandals of the 2016 referendum is that its outcome has never been debated in parliament. The question, ‘Shall we take the advice of 37% of the electorate to take an enormous, uncosted, unplanned and unpredictable step?’ has never been debated and voted upon in our sovereign state body.

And finally on this fourth point, we need to recall that our hopelessly undemocratic first past the post electoral system lies at the rotten core of these arrangements. It disenfranchises the majority of voters, turning them off politics. It puts majorities into the House of Commons on minorities of the popular vote. It entrenches two-party politics, in which elections produce one-party government by turns – with the foregoing ‘elective tyranny’ resulting. It is a mess, and reform is urgently needed.

Fifth, there is the availability of powerful new ways to practice the old tricks of spin and propaganda: Social media – which allows careful targeting of messages to identified groups which only they see, so that others cannot contest the messages and correct misinformation. This was a significant factor in the outcome of the 2016 referendum, as claimed by Dominic Cummings and Cambridge Analytica themselves. Some 37% of the electorate was persuaded by these means to vote in favour of a blank proposition with no plan, no impact assessments, no costings, no road map and no set of policies attached to it, an astonishing achievement when you think about it: A perfect con, the sale for a very high price of a tatty paper bag with an unknown thing – or no thing – in it.

Put all the foregoing together and you see that the UK is in a woeful state, and once the Brexit debacle has been cleared up – I hope and expect by being stopped – there is a huge clean-up operation required in our political and constitutional order, in addition to addressing the serious inequalities and injustices in our economy and society. The slogan we need to be shouting from the housetops is not just “STOP BREXIT” but also “REFORM”. If we are still in the EU when we do this, we can expect a double benefit – all the good of continued membership, and with it greater stability, transparency and common sense in the governance of our own state. If we are (temporarily) outside the EU, we need to get rid of the rot in the floorboards of our constitutional order in order to construct the mature, intelligent and responsible governance required to get us back on track.

We in the UK have skated on very thin political and constitutional ice for a long time; the wealth and prestige of empire, the nostalgic dream it left behind, the self-deceptions and illusions of those who could not see how good a future was developing for us as a leading nation in Europe, made us unaware of the danger. We have fallen through that ice, and the bitterly cold waters we now flounder in must at last wake us up.

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