Par­lia­ment is back. Now MPs must trust the peo­ple again

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Martin Ket­tle

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


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