Our political and constitutional order is ripe for a reckoningby Tom Clark / March 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
Barrels of ink have been spilled on what Brexit could mean for the UK economy, and Britain’s place in the world. Less thought, however, has been given to the equally profound way in which it is already transforming the way we conduct our politics at home. By that I don’t mean the well-trodden ground about whether the latest delay has bought Theresa May another fortnight, or the latest obfuscation done Jeremy Corbyn more harm than good. What I mean instead is the way in which the institutions that define the terms of political trade, and hold the ring on public life, are being strained and potentially reshaped by an extraordinary and multi-layered crisis.
Unravelling half a century of diplomatic, commercial and regulatory policy in a couple of years was always going to be traumatic, particularly when most parliamentarians and officials believe the unravelling is bad for the country, and so it has proved to be. The conventional ground-rules for running the country are having to be rewritten. To take just one example, in a world where senior ministers can write newspaper columns spelling out to the prime minister the circumstances in which they would resign, the extremely unusual and supposedly tightly time-limited suspension of cabinet collective responsibility for the duration of the referendum campaign is becoming the new normal.
Not all changes to the “way things have always been done” are necessarily bad. In an age where a premium is placed on authenticity, having politicians talking candidly about the compromises and concessions they have had to make is a smarter way to restore trust than requiring them to mouth “lines to take.” But liberal democracy rests upon norms, including the rule of law and the possibility of a “loyal opposition,” which can fiercely and radically contest every government policy, but accepts the over-arching rules about who gets to be the government and how the law gets made, because it has faith that this framework will give it a fair chance to dislodge the government in due course. And these norms require institutions to uphold them, including independent courts, an impartially refereed legislature, a non-partisan civil service and journalism with at least some capacity for impartial reporting.
None of these institutions will ever quite live up to the neutral ideal—they’re staffed by people, after all, who will have their own priors and biases. In Donald Trump’s America, the Supreme Court, the right-wing networks and arguably also some liberal outlets have become too partisan to be seen as trusted referees of the national discourse. But what about Britain? Before Brexit, our political arguments seemed to play out on fairly solid foundations. This month’s Prospect, however, finds worrying signs that cracks are opening up.
In the past, however slanted Fleet Street could be, the BBC would ensure that there was at least a semblance of balance in our debate. But as the former controller of BBC Radio 4, Mark Damazer reveals, drawing on a huge volume of contacts and conversations on the inside, the demands of “balance” are tying it up in knots. Balancing parties in an election campaign is one thing, but the complexities of adjudicating between warring and shape-shifting factions are something else entirely. And with the expectation that every Brexit perspective on every policy issue must be heard, there is at least the danger that the thing that gets balanced is not party or faction but truth and falsity.
The running of parliament itself is governed by conventions: the acceptance that all voices are heard, and that the government—so long as it can command a majority—can ultimately carry the day. The man in charge of these conventions is the speaker, John Bercow, but when playwright James Graham sits down to meet him, he speaks cheerfully of brushing them aside. His enemies think the “Bollocks to Brexit” sticker on his car gives a clue as to his motives. Bercow would reasonably counter that departures from precedent are exactly what times of crisis require. But the obvious danger, as Graham points out, is that now Bercow has shown how pro-active a speaker can be, there will be a temptation in future to fill the role with someone who can put that power to factional purpose.
Perhaps our constitutional order was, as Igor Judge argues, ripe for a reckoning from the moment the referendum was called, because nobody had thought to lock down how the result would be reconciled with opinion in parliament. Meanwhile, the chief institutions we use to knit disparate individual opinions into some sort of shape—political parties—are beginning to crumble. As I describe, a steady rise in rebellion traces back decades, which gives reason to think that the simultaneous defections from both sides of the House to the Independent Group could prove to be the start of something big, and very likely chaotic.
The fractious mood and the emergency summits in Brussels will—eventually—pass. It may take considerably longer to restore the orderly function of our politics, after a crisis that has pushed it to breaking point.