Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The Hague doomsday machine

So, I have a new theory as to who is ultimately to blame for the UK's current nervous breakdown. And he wears a baseball cap. (Well, he did once. Poor bloke, this is unfair.)

Here's the rationale. What makes the current moment so intractable is that we've bolted bits of direct democracy onto a representative system, with no clear rules for how the two work together. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the prime minister responsible for managing this cyborg is so often described as robotic. The referendum is the most obvious problem: a narrow but decisive vote for an extremely unclear outcome, which in law was merely 'advisory' but as a political fact has become a kind of constitutional law, impossible to overturn except, maybe, by the same means. In the meantime, Parliament has the tricky task of discerning its meaning without actually challenging it, like the priests at Delphi. We've been using referenda with increasing frequency over the past few decades, without ever really thinking about how they work, so it was probably inevitable that one would turn around and bite us sooner or later. I suspect we'll be more careful in future.

But the referendum is only one part of the problem. Another part of the constitutional doomsday machine we've built for ourselves is that both of the main political parties (plus the little ones too, like my own Lib Dems, but who cares) now have leaders chosen by the mass membership of the parties, not by the MPs. Like a referendum, this sounds obviously 'democratic', though party membership is a pretty odd demos. But in a parliamentary system the consequences are bizarre. Parliament is supposed to be sovereign: and yet MPs can have a leader whom most of them see as unfit imposed on them by their parties. Labour - which has long had an element of mass-membership choice in leadership elections, but which has now moved to do so exclusively - finds itself completely unable to resolve this clash.

The Tories' situation isn't much better. Their MPs can at least defenestrate a leader, but they currently don't dare do so for fear of the candidate the membership might impose on them. Since Hague introduced the current system in 1997, having been embarrassed be being elected by MPs alone, the Tories have had four new leaders: twice the MPs have in effect conspired to deny the members a choice by leaving only one candidate standing, and on one of the other two occasions the membership's choice was disastrous. I humbly suggest that this system does not work very well.

The natural next step in this de-parliamentarisation of our political parties is for some of them (the Lib Dems might do it) to consider having a leader who isn't an MP at all. That takes us into the territory of Poland's Law and Justice, where parliamentarians are in effect dictated to by an outside figure who never has to face a mass electorate. That would be bad.

So, if only William Hague had stood firm and defended his fellow MPs' rights in 1997, everything would now be all right ...

The best argument ever made for Brexit was parliamentary sovereignty (yes, yes, irony, I know). If MPs can be trusted to make laws, they ought to be trusted to choose their own leaders. By all means give party memberships a more active role in selecting or deselecting individual MPs. But once they're there, they have to be able to organise themselves as they see fit, or we will wind up with our cyborg constitution being managed by zombie parties.

Oh, whoops, too late!

Thursday, 7 March 2019

More historical Brexits

On wise and foolish ways to win wars: two further cases from British history which seem to me analogous to our Brexit woes.

First: the English Civil War. In which the insurgents, who had been sniping from the sidelines but thoroughly excluded from power for a generation or more, suddenly found themselves leading an attempted revolution, forced on them by the rash behaviour of the posh bloke heading the government, whose previous experience of handling a crisis in Scotland mistakenly led him to think he knew how to handle things. They stumbled into the battle without much of a clear plan, and were badly divided amongst themselves over strategy and tactics. Arguably, that is why they won: their cause could be all things to all people, who could at least agree that they were rejecting the previous regime in the name of restoring some distant golden age. But this division is why they then go on to lose the peace. The new establishment wants a sensible compromise, a readjustment of the political structure which will be recognisably a variant on what’s gone before. But the war was actually won by the hardliners and the wild men, and they will not now accept half measures. In the short term, their ability to hold the new government to ransom means they win. For eleven years, they succeed in leading the country into their new utopia. But the Restorers never go away. In the end, the Scots march south and the country is won back surprisingly suddenly and peacefully. And the experiment remains a political fable for centuries. A rump of irreconcilables lament its passing, but it is never tried again.

A Remainer fantasy? Maybe. But it is worth remembering that the eleven-year timescale is probably wrong. Things move faster nowadays.

Secondly: the Second World War. Long before the outcome of the conflict is known – even when it still looks very likely that the enemy will win – the British establishment begins to think about more than just victory and defeat. Yes, it wants to crush toxic nationalism and to restore the old international order, but it also properly confronts the fact that a return to the status quo ante is not enough. It begins the job of seriously considering what British society might look like if and when, one day, the battle is won. Reimagining health care, the economy, education, welfare and all that may seem like a distraction, or an act of presumption. Surely all our efforts should be on the present conflict, not on dreams of what we might to do one day if we win? But this is wrong, for two reasons. First, if victory does come, and it might come suddenly, it is important to know what to do with it if we ever intend to entrench it. Second, what better way to spur the population on to that victory than by making it clear ‘victory’ will not mean a return to the 1930s?

I am warier of that one, since it implicitly casts Leavers as Nazis, and I really, really don’t mean that. But those of us on the Remain side have been too focused on the day-to-day fight. There is still a distinct possibility that we will win: either that a new referendum will reverse Brexit, or that a Returner government of some shade will take us back in before too many years have passed. Creative planning for how our second era of membership of the EU will be different from the first wouldn’t just be responsible contingency preparation. It would help to bring that second era to pass.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

A long view of May's long game

So, an English government falls unexpectedly as its plans for reconciliation with Europe collapse. Power passes by default to the last woman standing, who finds herself leading an uneasy regime in which her supposed allies – the radicals who are most firmly committed to a clean break with the Continent – don’t fully trust that she is on their side. It soon becomes clear that she has a very distinctive political style: to delay; to postpone difficult decisions for as long as possible; to suppress any discussion of the topics which she does personally not wish to address. For a great many of her subjects, especially for those who are instinctively her allies, this is first frustrating, then infuriating, then intolerable. The country is facing potential catastrophes, as it seems to them, and she will not acknowledge the fact or face up to the scale of the emergency. Does she not know that events are sliding towards catastrophe while she does nothing? Or does she not care? Some of those allies lose their cool, speak their minds, and are frozen out of power as a result. Others keep their heads down and keep quietly plugging away. Slowly, slowly, over time, as the evidence of real and potentially mortal danger becomes unmistakable, they manage to drag slivers of concession out of her one by one. At last, a crisis comes along that she is unable to dodge, she is forced to make a choice, and in the end she does what all the sensible people around her have been urging her to do for as long as anyone can remember. Her reward for this is permanently to be cast as a villain in the romantic narratives which lament the impossible, lost dream she killed.

Yes, I admit it is a tasteless comparison. Elizabeth I was being pressed to cut off her cousin’s head; Theresa May is merely being pressed to rule out a no-deal Brexit. But the sense of existential crisis is not entirely different.

I am no fan of Mrs May’s style of government, nor, it should be said, of Elizabeth’s. But especially since Mrs May has made the comparison herself, I wonder if it might be instructive, even as some of her party have become increasingly apocalyptic about what they see as the vacuum of her leadership. Delay, postponement and inaction are intensely annoying as political techniques, but they can work, and not just because occasionally, if you wait long enough, something turns up. Importantly, a delayer  is risk-averse - sometimes pathologically so, it is true - and this makes her susceptible to pressure. She will be much more likely in the end to take the less dramatic option in order to keep the boat afloat than to go down valiantly with her ship.

And if in retrospect everything works out more or less all right – if the worst disasters are avoided, albeit the glorious hopes remain unfulfilled too – then she may win some grudging respect and even some nostalgic affection. Especially if, as seems entirely likely, she has a successor who infuriates us all so much that we decide we want to blow up Parliament entirely.