by Rob Marchant
As we reel from the shock of a Trump victory, it would be easy now to lose sight of our own problems as a country. But they remain the same as they were on Tuesday.
Since June, we have rapidly become a country which most of its neighbours now look at with a mixture of sympathy and blank incomprehension; shaking their heads, like a dear friend whose life has suddenly and inexplicably hit the buffers, but has yet to truly recognise the fact. Bless them, those Brits. They know not what they do (and, as of today, it looks like we are not the only Anglo-Saxon country in that position).
No, apart from Brexit, we have a government which operates without the normal checks and balances, beholden to its lunatic rightward fringe; and a dysfunctional opposition which, thanks to Labour’s current leadership, struggles to effectively oppose anything at all, even on this, the most important issue of the day.
Last week, however, a glimmer of light shone into Britain’s troubled political landscape. Seemingly out of nowhere, the High Court ruled that Parliament must be consulted on Brexit and that the referendum itself was not sufficient. The government had constitutionally overreached itself, and Theresa May had to tacitly admit that her prime ministerial powers were not quite as strong as she thought they were.
As the Independent’s John Rentoul observed, this was a strategic and unforced error by May: she should have foreseen that parliamentary assent was inevitable and planned for it. True.
But it is also true that this is something no-one would have even been talking about a mere six months ago. Since we left the normal political map somewhere around May 2015, very few things can be taken for granted.
Now, here’s a thought. Is it really inevitable that it must now go through Parliament without challenge? Well, no. It is not.
In this new, Trumpian world of “post-truth politics”, conventional wisdom rules. There seems to be a reluctant acceptance by the majority of Remain MPs – i.e. the vast majority of the PLP – that they must now rubber-stamp the decision made by what was always going to be a “non-binding” referendum. But they do not have to.
Yes, the British people have voted (somewhat narrowly) in favour of something in a referendum, which normally would not even make their top five concerns at general election time. So what? Especially when it seems that for many Brexiteers – including senior members of the Leave campaign themselves, now mostly out of a job – they were never even supposed to win, only exact concessions from Brussels.
Yes, Britain is a democracy and MPs must pay heed to their constituents. But MPs are paid to be thought leaders, not sheep, either. We are a representative democracy, where MPs are trusted to take decisions on behalf of their constituents, between elections. Sometimes leaders need to lead public opinion, not follow it.
And you can froth about democracy (when you really mean “populism”) all you like, but there are clear historical examples where the public genuinely does not see its own long-term benefit or, indeed, that it might be wrong. In these cases, it is not only right, it is our moral duty to keep opposing.
In 1938, it massively favoured Chamberlain’s approach to Churchill’s; until Chamberlain’s was shown only a year later to have been terrible folly. In the 1980s, the public overwhelmingly thought gay people were second-class citizens: anything from mildly strange right through to disease carriers, mentally ill or paedophiles. Before that it was black people. Even earlier it was women. These views were all conventional wisdom and they were all wrong. Self-evidently, conventional wisdom does not always stay conventional forever.
And what about the defects of referenda themselves? If we had a referendum on capital punishment tomorrow, which way would it go? Should we change policy accordingly? No, because we are a representative democracy, and that confers on us an extra level of civilisation, through the mostly-sane choices our MPs make on our behalf.
If something can be done, legally and constitutionally, to try and avert disaster, why not do it? Tony Blair’s comment on the Labour leadership race applies equally here to the country:
“…walking eyes shut, arms outstretched over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below. This is not a moment to refrain from disturbing the serenity of the walk on the basis it causes ‘disunity’. It is a moment for a rugby tackle, if that were possible.”
These arguments would apply equally to that now-rare breed, Europhile Tories, as much as anyone. But there are more arguments, which apply specifically to moderate, Labourite Remainers.
First, if their worry is having angry constituents vote them out of office, fine. But in this dystopian, all-bets-are-off world of 2016, they might just as likely be deselected by a hard-left cabal in their local party. And that’s if a snap general election, with a crushingly unpopular Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, does not rob them of their seats anyway.
Against this backdrop of massive uncertainty, should they not stand up for their beliefs? And might not some other constituents admire them more for sticking to their principles? Not to mention encouraging the moderate party members, currently leaving in droves, to stay?
How will they feel, looking back on their career, knowing they failed to come to their country’s aid because it was on the too-difficult path? That they hid behind the convenient shield of “democratic will of the people”, with regard to which parliament and referenda are but two, equally valid sides of the same coin? That they bowed to the shrill, lowest-common-denominator politics of the Daily Mail and the Sun on immigration?
Second, the party is currently dysfunctional with regard to whipping. Just because Jeremy Corbyn puts in place a three-line whip, does not mean it needs to be followed.
Third, do we really want to leave to the Lib Dems and the SNP the job of opposing the government on this? Who represent, in the end, only a fraction of the 48%? Who will speak for the rest? Do we not owe them our support?
Fourth, why did the Labour movement – excluding the Labour leadership, of course – campaign so strongly for Remain? Because, among other things, it knew that there would be a “bonfire of controls” over labour legislation once we left. So we now just lay down and accept that that is going to happen? Even Len McCluskey, dammit, could see that Brexit would go against all the good things that trade unions still stand for. It is very hard to see how Brexit will not ultimately leave unions hobbled and ineffectual.
With all these things, though, we do not have to lie down and roll over. We can both be angry and channel that anger. Brexit is a tragedy, not a triumph, and practically no-one outside these shores thinks a good decision was made in June.
It is not too late for a rear-guard action. It is not too late to make a statement and reject conventional wisdom, as many politicians throughout history have done before. You can stand up and be counted.
But you will need courage. The choice is yours, Labour MPs.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left