WHY THE BRITISH ESTABLISHMENT MUST ACCEPT “BREXIT”
Only in a perfect world would the interests of governing and governed be perfectly aligned. What is happening in Britain today, though, threatens to widen this difference into a dangerous estrangement. Latest twists over “Brexit” call for the establishment to submit to the popular will, and to do so with good grace.
On 3rd December, the High Court ruled that the government could not trigger Article 50 (the formal preliminary for the “Brexit” process) by royal prerogative, but must put the matter to a vote in Parliament, a ruling which will stand unless overturned on appeal to the Supreme Court.
This decision prompted a backlash, not just among pro-“Brexit” politicians but in much of the national press as well. The Daily Mail pictured the three High Court judges above the headline “Enemies of the People”, whilst the Daily Express lamented “the day that democracy died”. The Daily Telegraph warned of a “constitutional crisis”.
This raises three profound questions. First, have the judges made a political intervention, with the courts blocking the wishes of the voters? Second, are anti-“Brexit” interests in the establishment plotting to subvert those wishes? Third, what happens now?
The vilification of the judges is unfair. Their ruling is not political, but concerns a point of law – can a major constitutional change (and “Brexit” is surely that) be made by the executive alone, or must Parliament be consulted?
This decision is surely correct. With an unelected upper chamber, and a voting system skewed towards established parties, British democracy is weak enough as it is, without handing more powers to the executive. Had the court ruled for the government, what further constitutional changes might be imposed on the country without Parliamentary scrutiny?
If it is right that Parliament should be consulted, it is surely right, too, that it should pass a single, “one-line” Act empowering premier Theresa May to trigger Article 50. The public, consulted directly on a major issue for the first time in four decades, has decided. Those MPs and Peers – a substantial majority – who disagree with the voters’ decision should abstain, not try to tack weakening or qualifying amendments on to the legislation.
It is imperative that this is done – and done quickly. Anything else will spell trouble, reinforcing the fear that “the establishment” is trying to subvert the will of the people.
This suspicion of trickery flourishes because the British establishment has a truly shocking record of pursuing its own interests at the expense of the public.
Trust in elected politicians, already very low, was driven to new depths by the expenses scandal. Phone-hacking tarnished the reputation of the press, and did nothing for trust in the police. The House of Lords has scant respect because it is nominated by ministers, not elected, as upper chambers are in most democratic countries. The permanent administration is seen as unaccountable, few if any senior heads having rolled even after scandals like Stafford and Rotherham. Controversial rulings (including the grant of “super-injunctions” to the wealthy) have undermined faith in the courts.
Successive administrations have done nothing to counter a feeling that government has been “captured” by two powerful interest groups – big business, and a “liberal elite” whose aims have been labelled “political correctness”. When the state bails out bankers, but not steelworkers or employees of failed retailer BHS – and when the rigorous pursuit of benefits cheats contrasts with few prosecutions of wealthy tax-evaders – the public is entitled to smell a rat.
Estrangement – the price of failed economics
Though successive administrations’ policies on energy, foreign affairs and defence have been shockingly misguided, the real failure of governments has been the economy.
Since 2000, a £0.8 trillion rise in nominal GDP has come at the expense of £2.3 trillion in additional debt. The current account – Britain’s financial relationship with the rest of the world – has plunged into a shocking deficit, reflecting the outflow of profits and interest on past asset sales and borrowing as Britain has sold assets, and borrowed from abroad, to finance consumption. Over the same period, the cost of household essentials has risen by far more (75%) than average wages (51%).
In short, an “anything goes” philosophy of neoliberalism has benefited the wealthy and the powerful to an extent that looks intentional, not accidental.
In this context, the public are right to harbour deep suspicions of the establishment. That establishment now faces its greatest test and one which, if mishandled, will have grave consequences.
What must happen now
Mrs May needs to put forward simple Article 50 enabling legislation on her stated basis that “Brexit means Brexit”. MPs need to pass it without adding amendments. Peers need to deliver a simple assent.
Britain does not yet – quite – face a constitutional crisis, but anything less than the straightforward implementation of the voters’ choice of “Brexit” could rapidly create one.
Regimes isolated from the general population are a recurring historical phenomenon, frequent enough for us to know what happens to powerful elites which seek to preserve their wealth, privileges and prejudices in the face of a rising tide of public anger.
There is a time to retreat with good grace. For the British establishment, that time has arrived.