Parliament is back. Now MPs must trust the people again
The three defeats that the House of Commons inflicted on the government this week are an enormous moment in the Brexit drama. They do far more than force the government to publish the attorney general’s legal advice, and ensure that MPs can stop a no-deal departure from the EU next March, important though both these things are. More than that, they toll the death knell for Theresa May’s Brexit deal, which now seems even more certain than before to be defeated next week – and they may toll the death knell for May’s premiership itself.
As ever, though, there is a tendency among politicians and the media alike to target only the low-hanging fruit in plain view. The prospect of the government’s flagship policy – its entire raison d’être – being defeated next Tuesday is high. So is the possibility that May will be gone before Christmas, with a leadership battle to follow. Yet there is fruit at the top of the tree, too. While it is tempting to focus on the immediate effects of this week’s three votes, it is also important to pay attention to why they happened, and to assess what this may portend in the longer term, far beyond the fateful decision that MPs will take next Tuesday.
Here’s a large example. Towards the end of the speech that May made to the Commons on Tuesday evening, the prime minister said something important about why she opposes a second referendum. She understood, she said – this admission of understanding was itself something of a concession from a leader who has previously refused to even contemplate the idea – that “we could give the decision back to the British people”.
But, she went on: “I ask the House to consider what that would say to those in our constituencies who put aside decades of doubt in the political process because they believed that their voice would finally be heard; what it would say about the state of our democracy if the biggest vote in our history were to be rerun because a majority in this House did not like the outcome; what it would do to that democracy; and what forces it would unleash.”
There can be no denying that May’s comment raises legitimate concerns about the potential effect of a decision to call a referendum that could reverse Brexit. Millions of people who voted leave would indeed be outraged. Many would see it as an attempt to steal Brexit, as Liam Fox put it yesterday. Many would see it as an act of elite defiance toward the popular will as expressed in 2016.
And May is surely correct to warn that ugly forces might be unleashed as a result. Look at the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) revolt against President Macron in France. Look at the lurch to the racist right within Ukip.
May, therefore, makes a serious case. Nevertheless, that does not make her right. Hers is a case that bends the knee irrevocably to Brexit, that bends the knee to referendums as a decisive model of democracy, and that bends the knee to the belief that voters’ mistrust of – and even violent hostility towards – elected politicians is ultimately legitimate. It therefore follows that those who believe that none of these things – Brexit, referendums or anti-political populism – is desirable must therefore make the alternative case. And this, I think, is part of the explanation for the cathartic triple drubbing of the May government by MPs this week.
For most of the past 20 years the British public’s steadfast and unquestioning approval of parliamentary democracy has coexisted with growing cynicism and contempt towards the politicians who populate it. The roots of that disjunctive attitude to modern democracy – we like elections but not the people we elect – lie deep. The press, which used to report parliament but then just gave up doing so, certainly contributed to it. So did New Labour, which thought parliament was boring and out of date. The expenses scandal took the contempt to a new level. In opinion polls about trust it is now standard to assume that MPs are corrupt and useless.
One consequence is that, for the last two decades, Westminster has itself become a term of abuse. To the far right, Westminster is where the elite don’t listen. To the far left, it is where treacherous centrists sell them out. Beyond London, Westminster is a self-absorbed bubble. To nationalist Scots, Westminster is where the perfidious English do Scotland down. Two immensely damaging referendums – on Scottish independence in 2014 and on Brexit two years later – were the direct consequence of that swirling alienation within British politics.
It would be reckless to argue that all that is now in the past and that the greater confidence that the House of Commons displayed this week – and is expected to display next week too – marks a decisive turning point in the reassertion of parliamentary politics. Nevertheless, something new is happening. One way of looking at this week’s three votes is that parliament has got off the ropes after being dismissed for so long, and that it has begun to fight back against the populist fatalism that May articulated on Tuesday.
For many months after the 2016 referendum, the House of Commons was docile. In most cases MPs accepted that they were politically bound to enact Brexit, even though a majority of them did not want to. Time and the outcome of the Brexit talks have changed that. The Commons has got its confidence back and MPs have remembered what was true all along – that the Westminster parliament is the sovereign law-making body in Britain. It has the right to accept or reject Brexit in whatever form it chooses. It may still do so, if the Norway-plus option gains traction.
Several paradoxes still remain, all of them proof that this analysis is highly contingent. An obvious one is that the more the Commons takes back control, as it is now doing, the more it outrages leavers who demand that parliament should do just that. A second is that, by holding the government in contempt over the attorney’s legal advice, parliament is edging towards a challenge to one of the central pillars of the 1688 constitutional doctrine – that of government by the crown and its ministers in parliament – on which the British state rests.
The most important paradox is this one: the ultimate test of parliament’s newly reinvigorated assertiveness is not whether it sets the terms for Brexit, but whether it will call a second referendum. Parliament is our greatest bulwark against the power of media-driven populism. Its weakest recent years were those when the print media, from the Murdoch Sun to the Dacre Mail, dominated debate. Yet the welcome re-emergence of parliament now depends on MPs putting the biggest decision facing 21st-century Britain back into the hands of those who ceased to trust them for so long.
Parliament is back. Now MPs must trust the people again Martin Kettle