The Article 50 bill has cleared parliament and awaits Royal Assent when it will ascend into law. While there is still more drama to unfold as the negotiations get underway, the triggering of Article 50 this week is likely to be one of the most dramatic constitutional changes to the UK for a generation, writes Adam Ma’anit.
‘National sovereignty’ was the Leave campaign’s hottest hit single. It was on constant rotation in Fleet Street, Sky, and Broadcasting House. Michael Gove, lead vocalist of Leave house-band The Brexiteers, belted out memorable lines like, ‘our membership of the EU stops us being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives,’ in dulcet Oxbridge falsetto. Gove, Boris and Nigel were the Three Tenors of ‘taking back control’. Or perhaps they fancy themselves as The Sopranos…
When MPs demanded that triggering Article 50 must first be put to parliament, Theresa May (became Prime Minister not via electoral contest but appointed by her Conservative chums in some pantomime papal succession) tried to bypass parliament by exercising her ‘prerogative power’. One wonders whether talk of ‘regaining sovereignty’ was confused with restoring a ‘reigning sovereign’.
‘Brexit means Brexit’ was the tautological refrain. ‘Red, white and blue Brexit’ its scatological cousin. A political discourse so vapid it leaves any hope of a well-informed public debate concussed and shivering by a barren litter-strewn lay-by.
The people stirred. A crowdfunded legal challenge ensued led by Gina Miller, Deir Dos Santos and the People’s Challenge Group. Miller explained their case thus: ‘It is about any government, any prime minister, in the future being able to take away people’s rights without consulting parliament. We cannot have a democracy like that. That isn’t a democracy, that is verging on dictatorship.’
The High Court judges agreed and ruled that parliament should have a vote on such a massive constitutional change. The Brexiteers were apoplectic. The Mail declared the judges ‘enemies of the people’ alongside photos of each of them. It alleged conflicts of interest and divided loyalties, describing one of the judges as ‘an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer’, as if that in itself was somehow an act of high treason.
The Sun cried: ‘Who do you think EU are?’ and blamed the ‘loaded foreign elite’ for ‘defying the will of the people’. It did so with no irony whatsoever that The Sun is owned by an Australian billionaire media baron or that the Leave campaign employed the data-munging, fake-news generating, social media engineering nous of a Canadian one-per center.
Miller was subject to a tsunami of racist and sexist abuse. ‘She is black and therefore a primate, so we should hunt her down,’ went one rabid Leaver. Another chillingly threatened that ‘she should be the new Jo Cox.’ She has had to restrict her travel and public appearances, and was forced to hire personal bodyguards to protect her for daring to speak up for the very parliamentary sovereignty the Brexiteers claimed they cherished above all else.
Few pro-Leave political leaders spoke out against the abuse and threats to her life. Some fanned the flames further. Nigel Farage, waved an accusatory finger at Miller and called her the ‘Chief Wrexiteer’ on live television. He threatened riots in the streets if Brexit was impeded. ‘If the people of this country think that they’re going to be cheated, they’re going to be betrayed, then we will see political anger, the likes of which none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed in this country.’ Asked if he meant ‘disturbances in the street’, he replied: ‘Yeah, I think that’s right.’ This just five months since Labour MP and Remain supporter Jo Cox was murdered in the street by a white supremacist Leave supporter shouting ‘Britain First’. Twenty-five thousand tweets on Twitter hailed her murderer a ‘hero’ and a ‘patriot’.
The government appealed in vain, as the Supreme Court upheld the High Court ruling. The judges defended parliamentary sovereignty but were nevertheless derided for it by very same people who had been telling us all along that it was the most precious thing in the world. The judges explained it thus: ‘Where, as in this case, implementation of a referendum result requires a change in the law of the land, and statute has not provided for that change, the change in the law must be made in the only way in which the UK constitution permits, namely through parliamentary legislation.’ A modest victory for democracy and an opportunity for parliament to finally grab hold of the reins.
Or so we had hoped…
Fast forward to the past few weeks’ skulduggery in parliament and it was clear that most politicians didn’t even bother to saddle up. The bill was skilfully and swiftly manoeuvred through the process straight off the gate by May & Co.’s chicanery and sheer belligerence. Their political dressage was aided by the gift of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s fatal decision to invoke a three-line party whip (despite the hypocrisy of having built his reputation on defying the whip himself over five hundred times), thereby ensuring that any potential Tory rebels would not bother risking their political futures on an inevitable outcome their feeble protest would now be powerless to stop. The horses had already bolted.
Labour MPs were even instructed to abstain on Scottish National Party, Green Party and Liberal Democratic Party amendments, including provisions to safeguard EU residents, retain access to the Single Market, and proposals for greater parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiation process. When the bill predictably sailed through the Commons unamended, Corbyn unabashedly proclaimed on Twitter that: ‘The real fight starts now!’ Many from the 67 per cent of Labour voters who voted Remain in the referendum pointed out that ‘the fight had actually been going on for quite some time,’ as one might speak to a senile relative convinced that today was fish-and-chips day at the cafeteria even though you’d just reminded him for the nth time that it was actually yesterday and that he had missed his chance and must now resign himself to eating the cold unsweetened porridge in front of him.
MPs and Lords attempted to ensure that parliament would have a say in the negotiations with the EU and/or a guarantee of a final debate and vote on the terms and content of any ensuing deal. However, Chief Brexiteer for the Government David Davis bared his teeth at the Lords and, in Trumpian fashion, commanded them to ‘do your patriotic duty’. Tory MP Suella Fernandes threatened that the House of Lords could be abolished if it obstructed the holy ‘will of the people’ (a sacred invocation cast by the Brexit priesthood in order to ward off any momentary pangs of doubt or conscience). Not enough Lords were willing to sacrifice their subsidised wine-bar privileges at Westminster to call that particular bit of bluff.
The UK first applied to join the then EEC in 1961. Years of painstaking effort, diplomacy, debate and negotiation led to the European Communities Bill being introduced in 1972. It took 300 hours of debate in parliament to pass. It took this parliament a mere 70 hours of debate to begin to take us back out. All this because David Cameron wanted to put an end to the internecine warfare between ‘eurosceptics’ and ‘europhiles’ in his own party by making it all of our problem now. #thanksdave
Meanwhile Theresa May consolidates power by pursuing a course of action she once campaigned against vociferously, because she’s more worried about the Daily Mail branding her an ‘enemy of the people’ and getting gunned down by rabid Brexiters than she is about following her own conscience or providing the visionary leadership our divided nation desperately needs. ‘Better to placate the mob than to agitate them,’ she reasons to herself as she merrily deports grandmothers and turns away children fleeing war with a nod and wink to the frothing knuckle-draggers at the Mail, Express and Sun.
And so, we have arrived at the culmination of this kakistocratic farce of a process to leave the European Union like some drunk gatecrasher that finally left the party before the police arrived. There will be more dramatic acts in this tragicomedy to be sure, and we await still its suspenseful denouement with bated breath and paracetamol. Nevertheless, this moment passing before us was our great missed opportunity to change course, or at least stop for a loo break and double-check that the GPS is working properly lest we, in our haste, wind up driving into the Thames.
Dressed in full Orwellian (or Trumpian) garb, this government’s flagrant rejection of democratic accountability and parliamentary sovereignty is apparently urgent and necessary in order to ‘take our country back’. By which they probably mean, back behind the shed.
The Brexitspeak assaults us at every turn.
We deny votes to young people, EU residents and expats in order to ‘safeguard their future’.
We refuse to give a voice to the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland – the majority of whom voted Remain – in order to treat them with ‘mutual respect’.
We will spend more to get less;
Bring prosperity through austerity;
Broker peace by waging war; and
Help children in need by turning them away.
We will strike trade deals without treaties;
Protect EU residents by bargaining with their lives;
Promote education by making it unattainable; and
Defend the NHS castle by raising the portcullis to an invading army of privateers led by a windsurfing Gordon Gecko acolyte.
We will respect ‘the will of the people’ by ignoring half of them.
We will be independent by holding hands with demagogues and introducing them to the Queen in a taxpayer-refurbished palatial monument to British plunder, conceit and arrogance.
We are taking our country back…
We took the plunge over the ledge reluctantly, hoping to hit the fluffed-up cushions of a soft-Brexit landing, only to find ourselves hurtling towards the bone-shattering asphalt of hard-Brexit inevitability. And as we lie there splayed and limp, faceplanted in the dirt, watching the lifeblood of our aspirations drain away in liquid rivulets of forgotten dreams and broken promises, I am reminded of a famous play by a treasured English playwright about two warring houses in the fair European city of Verona.
When ex-Olympic fencer Mercutio sees his miserable drip of a friend Romeo refuse to fight the bully Tybalt, he is appalled by his friend’s ‘calm, dishonourable, vile submission’ and fights the brigand himself. Romeo tries to stop them only to get in the way, enabling Tybalt to slay Mercutio and abscond. As Mercutio lay there dying, he realizes only too late that his valiant effort was for nought. The houses of Capulet and Montague, were as bad as each other. Both alike in feculence, they served no greater interest than their own petit-barbarian concerns. All else to them was just collateral damage. It is in this final realization that he curses them both in epic Shakespearean fashion.
And so I say to those who were chosen to serve in the nation’s interest – be they Commons or Lords – and who knowingly voted against their own better judgement, whether for short-term political expediency or out of fear of the baying mob at the gates:
‘A plague on both your houses!’
This article is cross posted from Medium.
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