This can still be a good cri­sis

The old heirar­chies are fall­ing apart be­fore our eyes and ex­pos­ing the fail­ings of our democ­racy, says Les­ley Rid­doch

The Scotsman - - Scottish Perspective -

The end of Theresa May’s lam­en­ta­ble Brexit deal is fi­nally in sight, but more than her fu­ture as Tory leader is now in the bal­ance.

We are wit­ness­ing the melt­down of Bri­tain’s ar­chaic and schlerotic demo­cratic sys­tem. Par­lia­ment is ap­par­ently set to take con­trol from the ex­ec­u­tive, with ru­mours that MPS plan to ta­ble an amend­ment giv­ing mo­tions pro­posed by back­benchers pri­or­ity over those put for­ward by the gov­ern­ment, if its Brexit plan is de­feated to­mor­row. This rad­i­cal de­par­ture from busi­ness as usual could see laws passed that ef­fec­tively pre­vent a hard-brexit, or in­deed any de­par­ture from the EU, since a ma­jor­ity of MPS op­pose quit­ting with­out a deal. And fol­low­ing the Speaker’s de­ci­sion to al­low amend­ments to a gov­ern­ment mo­tion last week, the rebel MPS, thought to in­clude for­mer gov­ern­ment min­is­ters, can ex­pect a sym­pa­thetic hear­ing.

This takes us into en­tirely new demo­cratic ter­ri­tory. Al­though a Com­mons in­ter­ven­tion in the face of Prime Min­is­te­rial in­tran­si­gence may be nec­es­sary, it’s not a demo­cratic so­lu­tion for more than a short time and a spec­i­fied rea­son. It’s easy for Re­main cam­paign­ers to snort with de­ri­sion at the Prime Min­is­ter’s in­sis­tence this week­end that there will be a “cat­a­strophic and un­for­give­able breach of trust” in British democ­racy, if the UK re­mains in the EU.

Last week, FT blog­ger David Allen Green listed the mul­ti­tude of ways in which the Prime Min­is­ter has al­ready breached that trust, in­clud­ing brib­ing the DUP, adopt­ing Henry VIII pow­ers, trash­ing the de­vo­lu­tion set­tle­ment and mis­lead­ing the House over the ex­is­tence of Brexit re­ports.

He con­cludes: “Each of the ex­am­ples cited are greater or lesser con­sti­tu­tional tres­passes. But not one prompted the syn­thetic up­roar [that greeted] the John Ber­cow de­ci­sion,” which means MPS con­trol the busi­ness of the Com­mons.

That’s all true. But Leave vot­ers must have the chance to pre­vail in an­other vote – cum­ber­some and drawn-out though that process may be. Many work­ing class vot­ers in the Mid­lands and north of Eng­land are per­suaded that the es­tab­lish­ment mak­ing their lives mis­er­able is the Euro­pean Union, not West­min­ster. They point im­me­di­ately to the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion as an un­elected, dis­tant mas­ter in­stead of the House of Lords and be­lieve aus­ter­ity was im­posed by Brus­sels, not Lon­don.

There are deep-seated dy­nam­ics at work here that will not be quickly or eas­ily un­der­stood or un­done. And yet to avoid a hard Brexit, time is of the essence – thanks to the Labour and Tory lead­ers pre­fer­ring to game rather than face up to these dif­fi­cult re­al­i­ties till the very last minute.

That’s why a vote to re­voke Ar­ti­cle 50 would be un­wise and Joanna Cherry’s sug­ges­tion of an emer­gency ex­ec­u­tive or gov­ern­ment of unity to for­malise a short­term

plan for a sus­pen­sion be­fore a se­cond ref­er­en­dum and gen­eral elec­tion is bet­ter. Talk of a one-year de­lay to ac­com­plish all of this is talk of the Steamie in Lon­don.

The EU has made it clear that it re­gards the ne­go­ti­a­tion process on British with­drawal as com­plete and will only coun­te­nance a de­lay for some proper demo­cratic process to take place like a se­cond vote or a gen­eral elec­tion. Since Jeremy Cor­byn is in­tent on try­ing to rene­go­ti­ate, a gen­eral elec­tion can only de­liver a gov­ern­ment with much the same cloth-eared ap­proach to Brexit as the cur­rent one.

This is why MPS in the two main par­ties have been forced to act – tak­ing over from out-of-touch lead­ers who have been put be­yond real chal­lenge by au­to­cratic party struc­tures al­lowed to de­velop over decades. MPS are work­ing across party di­vides to hatch a vi­able plan, dis­re­gard­ing lead­er­ship po­si­tions and act­ing like mini­par­ties con­tained within the large group­ings they in­habit be­cause of the con­form­ity im­posed by first past the post vot­ing.

This raises big ques­tions about Cor­byn’s abil­ity to sur­vive if he con­tin­ues to ig­nore the vast ma­jor­ity of his mem­bers clam­our­ing for a Peo­ple’s Vote.

In his Sun­day Marr in­ter­view, Cor­byn once again flew kites sug­gest­ing it would some­how be pos­si­ble to push the EU into a Nor­way style deal with­out free­dom of move­ment. Un­be­liev­able.

Cham­pi­oning so­lu­tions that will not fly has brought calamity to the Tories. That fate now awaits the op­po­si­tion. No un­com­mit­ted voter in this coun­try and few within the Labour party be­lieve Cor­byn can ne­go­ti­ate a bet­ter deal. Cor­byn wants a gen­eral elec­tion, but his vot­ers want the peo­ple to de­cide.

This dys­func­tion­al­ity has also af­fected the Peo­ple’s Vote cam­paign. Many sup­port­ers are up­set at the pres­ence of New Labour fig­ures like Alas­tair Camp­bell at its helm, fear­ing the drive for a se­cond vote is a front for top­pling Cor­byn. Yet they de­spair of Cor­byn’s stance too.

At an emer­gency con­ven­tion held in Lon­don last week, a rather dif­fer­ent con­stel­la­tion of forces was as­sem­bled by the Open Democ­racy cam­paign and show­cased the con­sen­sual and clear think­ing Green MP Caro­line Lu­cas. Three in­de­pen­dence sup­port­ers spoke – in­clud­ing Alyn Smith, Joanna Cherry and my­self – prompt­ing the un­usual sight of 700 pro­gres­sive (mostly) English ac­tivists ap­plaud­ing the idea that Scot­land and Eng­land will once again hap­pily co-ex­ist in a union – as two sov­er­eign mem­bers of the Euro­pean Union.

At long last, English ac­tivists and cit­i­zens have be­gun to stir. Be­yond mis­fir­ing West­min­ster, pro­gres­sive union­ists are mak­ing com­mon cause with sup­port­ers of Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence in a way that may alarm SNP vot­ers but may help gain a Sec­tion 30 for indyref2 and soften the hard ne­go­ti­at­ing lines that char­ac­terised the last in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum.

In short, the old hi­er­ar­chies pro­tect­ing the British po­lit­i­cal sys­tem are in melt­down. Deals are be­ing struck, new al­le­giances cre­ated, and lead­ers side­lined.

If the Brexit cri­sis is some­how averted, MPS can­not let up un­til there’s agree­ment on a pro­gramme to trans­form British democ­racy and re­solve its un­der­ly­ing demo­cratic fail­ings. This can still be a good cri­sis, but if that isn’t pos­si­ble, more than just this gov­ern­ment will fall.

0 The Speaker John Ber­cow prompted up­roar, but his de­ci­sion means MPS con­trol the busi­ness of the Com­mons.

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