I have a confession to make: I was approached by the people who brought the case in the high court over the government’s right to trigger Article 50 without a parliamentary vote. They asked me if I’d consider writing an independent opinion to be included in the dossier handed to the justices – and I declined. I can’t actually find the email I sent to them but the general tenor of my refusal was: ça suffit!
Whatever my personal views on the matter, the referendum result was unequivocal, and to attempt a judicially mandated parliamentary overthrow – or even a modulation – of Brexit-means-Brexit, would be to plunge an already fragile polity into still more turmoil. Do I feel small now the action has proved successful? Well, yes – but again: no. My suspicion is that my own confusion mirrors that of many NS readers.
For the record: I was a reluctant Remainer, voting in support of the status quo pretty much on that basis alone: we were already in choppy political waters before 23 June, and while I by no means believed all Brexiteers to be racists and bigots, I was pretty sure every racist and bigot in the land would be voting to leave. Nor was I that surprised when the vote went the other way: you’d have had to have been a very blinkered Briton indeed not to have realised how much opposition there was to mass immigration – and quite how effectively successive demagogues have linked this to the decline in real incomes and the growing gap between the cosmopolitan rich and the parochial poor.
After the result, I comforted myself with these thoughts: the European project was always predicated on the idea of “ever closer union”; and while I, personally, have never had any problem with a European state, to most Britons it has always been anathema. Moreover, the EU is looking increasingly unstable and will very likely fall apart in the next few years; under such circumstances it might well be better to be pissing on the burning tent from the outside rather than going up in flames. And finally: granted that the Social Charter and the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law has been seen as an important guarantor of freedom and tolerance, are we so sure we’re incapable of claiming these virtues for our own? Do we really believe Britons to be inherently more illiberal than the French, the Germans, or the Hungarians, for that matter?
Our constitutional settlement is suffering from a bad bout of indigestion, not only at the macro, international level but at the micro level as well. With the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland looking quite as fissiparous as it is, is it any surprise that the invisible ink of our constitution has come under close scrutiny? Judicial impartiality, the exercise of the Queen’s prerogative, the free-floating sense we have of where “our” sovereignty resides – these are all debatable at all times, but the fact does remain that the coalition government never set out the programme under which the Prime Minister now wishes to proceed: there was no explicit abrogation of parliamentary sovereignty in respect of the electorate – and no foreclosure on the possibility of a judicial review of the executive’s power to unilaterally trigger Article 50. Under such circumstances, the high court’s ruling isn’t wilful or obtuse (let alone partisan), simply logical and just. The subsequent upchuck of bilious bigotry from the black bowels of our yellow press was only to be expected.
It has been bubbling up ever since the referendum result – but it has always been there; we simply tried to airbrush it out of existence with our talk of “diversity” and “respect”. No one on a low income, with few prospects for betterment, can withstand for too long being told by those much better off to exercise the virtues they need not, except cosmetically. Really, what we left-liberals fear is precisely what John Gray so elegantly limned in last week’s issue. Whether liberals of the right, promoting a New World Order of unrestricted free trade; or those of the left, trumpeting a new world-society in which mass migrations are factored by identity politics – our “project” has hit the buffers. “History,” said Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” His interlocutor, the bigoted unionist headmaster Mr Deasy, still believes in history as progress towards Augustine’s “City on the Hill”, and in this respect we’re both Deasys and Dedaluses, smelling the astringent coffee even as we bury our heads under the pillow.
We heard this desperate mental diplopia in the statements made in the wake of the high court decision by Theresa May and her ministers. In the Commons debate on Monday, David Davis yet again refused to reveal the government’s “strategy”. Well, it’s ça suffit! in respect of that as well. If this was a government of principled conviction politicians (rather than a motley crew that includes plenty of fence-sitting greasy-pole-shinners), we might be prepared to listen – but with no clarity in respect of the Brexit negotiations, there can be no clarity about the New Britain they will bring into being.
It’s not enough for the Prime Minister to decry the abuse directed toward the judiciary while “even-handedly” trumpeting freedom of the press – nor to claim her government will do more in respect of workers’ rights than recent Labour governments ever did. All this smacks of is tactics – not strategy – and we’ve all had enough of those during this long year of mendacious manoeuvring.
The time has come for Mrs May to write her own independent opinion, setting out with crystal clarity how she sees the way ahead. The impasse Britain finds itself in has been created, in part, by the unforeseen consequences of constitutional tinkering – Blair’s devolution, Miliband’s expansion of the Labour Party membership, Cameron’s referendum – and now there’s no way back to the future.