Only the Conservative party can save us now

A catchpenny headline, I grant you, but I hope to persuade you of the truth of it.

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By any measure, yesterday in parliament was an extraordinary spectacle. Here we had the least successful prime minister of all time, whose government has not won a single vote since he came to office, who has lost his majority live on television then compounded that loss by expelling more than a score of his party’s most loyal members (a band later joined by a defector from his own cabinet) – thereby rendering himself incapable of governing – who had the day before been the subject of an utterly damning defeat in the Supreme Court which judged him to have acted unlawfully in proroguing parliament for five weeks instead of the usual few days at a time of national crisis, yet in the face of all that, he was brazenly unabashed.

The warm-up act was his loud-voiced Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who in an extraordinary demonstration of what psychiatrists call ‘negative projection’ attributed to the benches opposite every fault that was true, a fortiori, of his own government – that they were paralysed, incapable of coming to a decision, a dead parliament,  a disgrace, a zombie parliament without the moral authority to occupy the benches they sat on; he charged them with cowardice for failing to call a general election when his own government is so powerless that it cannot even do that for itself – he actually called on them to move a vote of confidence, not because he thought they would lose, but because he was sure his own government would be defeated.

Then came the main act. The tone was set early on when the Prime Minister asserted that he meant no disrespect to the Supreme Court when he said that they were wrong – this is a man who speaks in conundrums and contradictions, who likes nothing better than to deliver a sentence where the second part flatly contradicts the first and to move rapidly on while mouths are still gaping at the sheer brazenness of it – did he really say that? It was the same with the most infamous episode, where he dismissed as ‘humbug’ the plea by Jo Cox’s successor to moderate his language because it would inflame violence and put MPs’ lives at risk; while people were still fuming at that, he went on to suggest that the best way of honouring Jo Cox was ‘to get Brexit done’.

Given that Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death in the street, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, by a man who shouted ‘Britain First’ as he murdered her and later gave his name in court as ‘Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain’, it is difficult to find a scale of inappropriateness on which the Prime Minister’s remark can be measured.

And yet there will have been those looking on who thought, not in spite of this shocking behaviour but because of it, that here was a man who could win an election.

In that they will have been emboldened by the success of Donald Trump on whose behaviour Boris Johnson has increasingly modelled his own, as last night’s performance demonstrates – and be in no doubt that a performance is what it was, cynically calculated to play well with pro-leave voters as it is conveyed to them through the sewers of The Daily Mail and The Sun and the other conduits of feculence that form their views. Those rags will present it as ‘the people’s champion’ standing up to the ‘Liberal Remainer Establishment’ – a term that encompasses Parliament, the Supreme Court, experts and anyone who is capable of articulating a reasoned argument to show that we are better off in the EU.

And this is where the Conservative party faces a stark choice. Across the Atlantic, the Republican Party ushered in the reign of chaos by throwing in their lot with a man they knew to be dangerously unfit for office, whose political credentials as a genuine Republican were doubtful at best, all because they thought he could win and keep them in power. That act of ignoble self-interest has not only served their country badly, it has made the world a more dangerous, unstable place.

If the Conservative party back Johnson because they think he can win and he does, then they will find themselves prisoners of their choice in precisely the way that the Republicans have in backing Trump: we will be out of Europe (on bad and economically-damaging terms), trying to stand alone against economic superpowers – China, USA, India and indeed the EU – and our government will be in the pockets of a small band of very rich men. It will suit the likes of Mogg, Duncan Smith, Johnson and the wealthy, privileged elite they count as friends but the notion that it will be a victory for ‘the people’ is a very sick joke indeed.

Para. 55 of the Supreme Court’s judgement opens with a timely reminder:

‘Let us remind ourselves of the foundations of our constitution. We live in a representative democracy. The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The Government is not directly elected by the people (unlike the position in some other democracies). The Government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that.’

 

Once you start talking, as an MP,  in terms of ‘people versus parliament’ you are disavowing the very thing that gave you authority to speak in the first place and espousing gangsterism – the gangsterism of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Putin and Trump. There are, I am sure, enough decent Conservatives who are deeply worried by the direction in which Johnson and his advisers are taking their party, and who are as appalled as any decent people would be by his shameful and cynical conduct last night.

Now is the time for them to put Country before Party. Johnson has to go, and it is they who should take the lead in ousting him.

 

Another lie from the egregious Bernard Jenkin

As I have pointed out before, Bernard Jenkin is given to lying to the public (see Liars in public places). It’s not a habit he’s cured, if what he said today on BBC Radio 4 is anything to go by:

“We’ve got two democratic systems of deciding things in the modern constitution: one is by representative democracy and the other is by direct democracy.  What we have is a collision between two forms of legitimacy,” he adds. “The Supreme Court has clearly chosen the parliamentary, they don’t address the question of the direct mandate.”

There is a good reason why the Supreme Court did not address the question of the ‘direct mandate’ – there is none in this country. There are three branches of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Jenkin himself is part of the second: he is elected to the house to scrutinise and pass the laws which the executive propose and the courts then interpret. For him to suggest that there is a second ‘democratic system of deciding things’ – ‘direct democracy’ that is one of ‘two forms of legitimacy’ is simply a lie.

It is a particularly brazen one, given that he had heard (and who could fail to hear Mr Cox?) the Attorney General not long before confirm, in answer to a question on its legal force, that the referendum had none; it was not binding.

But he should have needed no reminder – it is incumbent on all parliamentarians and those outside parliament who make its doings their business to know that in this country we have no provision for a binding referendum save the sort that brings into force legislation already passed by an Act of Parliament, as was the case with the 2011 UK Alternative vote referendum (see detail here), a point I discussed in The Real Enemies of the People.

Commons Briefing Paper 7212, giving background on the European Union Referendum Bill, could not be clearer on this point:

‘This Bill requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’

So, Jenkin is lying when he says ‘we’ve got two democratic systems of deciding things in the modern constitution’ just as he was lying when he said ‘the country voted overwhelmingly to leave’ in the 2016 referendum, when in fact only 17.4 million out of an electorate of 46.5 million did so. By implying that the Supreme Court ought to have addressed this  ‘direct mandate’ and second ‘form of legitimacy’ (which he has just invented) he promotes the pernicious narrative that casts the present crisis as ‘The People v. The Remainer Elite’ with the Judiciary ranked among the latter (along with, curiously, the very Parliament of which he is a member, whose sovereignty he has sworn to uphold).

This is the new way of doing politics: invent ‘alternative facts’ and inject them into the mainstream discourse, where, if unchallenged, they rapidly gain currency.  Journalists, do your job: call it out at every turn.

Hijacking the common speech: A bad deal is better than a worse one, but no deal is better than both.

The use and abuse of language has been critical to the continuing political crisis initiated by David Cameron’s ill-judged and badly-executed attempt to stem the flow of votes from his party to UKIP in the 2015 General Election.

Recently I remarked on how ‘just get on with it’ and kindred expressions had been subverted to serve the Brexit cause. There are, I suggested, a great many ordinary people  – burden bearers, we might call them – who are the ones who keep things going from day to day, who make sure the mundane things happen – that the bills are paid, that there is food on the table, that the children are clothed and fed and got off to school. For them, the phrase ‘just get on with it’ has a peculiar resonance – it is what they do, day in, day out; it carries with it an implication that a whole lot of other things might be all very well if there was time to indulge in them, but life being as it is, we must just get on with it and get what needs doing done. As I pointed out, the phrase might well be one that we would agree with in everyday circumstances, but not in the particular case where you found yourself on a strange road in the fog with the growing sense that you might be about to walk over a precipice.

In the same way, an expression central to the debate (it may even have featured in Mrs May’s manifesto in 2017) has been hijacked from the everyday context where it makes sense and slyly introduced to one where it makes no sense at all, with deliberate intent to deceive: I mean the oft-repeated mantra ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’

When is no deal better than a bad deal?

Always, I would say with confidence – and that is what makes the particular use to which the term has been put recently so pernicious, cynical and downright wicked.

Consider an instance. I set off for Italy because there is a special car there that I want to buy – an old classic Lancia, perhaps. The owner knows that I have come from abroad so can gauge the extent of my commitment – I am serious about wanting this car. He considers that this puts him in a strong bargaining position so holds out for a far higher price than he would otherwise ask because he is confident that I will not walk away, having come so far. But I consider that at this price I would be paying way over the odds – the car needs work done and further expenditure to make it presentable, so the price should reflect that. As it stands, this is a bad deal. I say as much. ‘Then it’s no deal,’ says the owner, in a last attempt to persuade me. ‘No deal is better than a bad deal,’ I say, and walk away.

There has been no transaction: the situation remains as it was – he has the car, I have my money (though I have to put down my expenditure to experience, the price I am willing to pay to achieve my desire). I tell myself that there will be other cars, or indeed that I could learn to live without one.

If we try to map this case onto our present one – leaving the EU – a peculiar thing emerges: no deal is indeed better than a bad deal, but only provided we resume the status quo – in other words, that we walk away, not from the EU, but from the idea of leaving it – on the very good ground that we cannot get a deal better than the one we already have, so we’ll just stick with what we’ve got, thanks, and put the time and money we have spent down to experience.

But that is not what is on offer here: rather it is a choice between a bad deal that is at least orderly and leaves us on good terms with our neighbours (though not as good as those we currently enjoy, which is what makes it bad) and a deal that is a great deal worse, because it involves our crashing out in a disorderly fashion, breaking all sorts of commitments in the process (such as paying our debts)and tying ourselves to WTO rules that will prove economically disastrous for the country as a whole and will ruin many businesses individually.

So yes, no deal is better than a bad deal and very much better than a worse one. So let us not make any deal to leave, but rather stay as we are.

This way to the oligarchy

An odd collocation: I came home from a visit to Stanley Mills to find that Dominic Cummings had said he wanted to ‘get away from rich remainers’ and ‘talk to ordinary people.’ As many were quick to point out, Cummings himself is exceedingly wealthy, as are his closest allies in the Brexit camp; so this was clearly a bit of ‘projection’ on his part, the device where you attribute to your enemies the very fault you yourself are guilty of – if one thing is evident from the whole affair, it is that Brexit is being driven by wealthy men. But what is the connection with Stanley Mills?

Stanley Mills typify a period in the early industrial revolution, when energetic entrepreneurs saw the moneymaking potential of the mechanisation of weaving that happened in the 18th century. This led to the construction of vast multi-storey mills which were essentially huge complex machines for processing cotton from raw material to finished goods under one roof, generally driven by water power.

These mills required a numerous workforce so their construction was accompanied by the building of houses and related infrastructure for the workers and their families (many of the millworkers were young children, small enough and nimble enough to get in below the machinery to help keep it working by clearing away waste, etc.). 

Thus, the construction of a mill was also the creation of a community, with the millowners providing not only housing but schools, shops and churches. There was no doubt that the living conditions (and pay) were an improvement on anything the workers had known previously – most of them would have been agricultural workers – though the working conditions were in a variety of ways hazardous to health, from the perils of unguarded machinery, the deafening noise of the mill and the atmosphere thick with lung-threatening dust.

However, it was certainly possible for the millowners to consider themselves benefactors, giving their workforce clean, modern housing with sanitation, providing education and meeting their spiritual and material needs; and it is probable that many of their workers would have shared that opinion, especially if they still had relations toiling on the land and living in primitive conditions. But another aspect of this set-up was that the relationship between community and millowner was one of total dependence – they were relatively well-off and certainly well-provided-for, and as long as they did what the mill-owner wanted (working hard and causing no trouble) it would stay that way. And of course the millowner had a vested interest in treating his workforce well, since they in turn made him rich.

This looks, from some angles, to be what the Americans call a ‘win-win situation’: the workers get a secure livelihood and all sorts of benefits while the owner not only gets rich, but gets to feel good about doing so – ‘what’s not to like?’ as they say.

Well, the inherent inequality of the relationship, which for all its apparent modernity has a strong whiff of the feudal about it – the mill-owner holds the lives of his workers (and they are ‘his’ in every sense of the word) in the palm of his hand: all is in his gift.

The counter-argument is to say that this is all right as long as the owner is well-disposed, as he has every incentive to be – the better he treats his work-force, the more the rewards for him; and in any case, are there not strong social constraints among the mill-owners as a body, who see themselves not only as enlightened men who are benefitting the whole country through the application of modern ideas but generally as pious, upright Christians, with a strong sense of decency?

We will leave aside what happens when forces beyond the owner’s control – the American Civil War and its effect on the supply of cotton, for instance – lead to an economic downturn which imperils the livelihoods of the millworkers, and concentrate instead on the relationship between these two distinct classes of people, one of which is responsible for the livelihood – indeed, in many ways, the very lives – of the other.

It is an old-fashioned patriarchal model: the father provides for his children, who in turn do him proper respect and give him his place – which is in charge, naturally enough: the responsibility for direction and decision-making falls to him.  It seems obvious: after all, has he not created all this through his own acumen, built it up by his shrewdness, to the benefit of all (though most of all himself)? And everyone does well out of it, as long as they all know their place in the scheme of things.

This, I think, is the model that Johnson, Cummings and his fellow wealthy ‘Brexiteers’ are aiming for (and doesn’t the swagger of that title, ‘Brexiteer’, with its echo of ‘musketeer’ and ‘buccaneer’, fit perfectly here?). Look at recent history: the painful wake of the collapse of Soviet communism led not to the promised democracy but an oligarchy allied to political dictatorship – and did so by allowing the seizure of what were hitherto state assets (in theory, at least, the people’s assets) by private individuals, who have profited massively from exploiting them. [though advocates of free-market capitalism will doubtless recast this as proof that what becomes moribund under the dead hand of state control has its potential realised by enterprising individuals]

Look at what Trump is doing: weakening legislative power and state regulation in every direction, and benefitting the super-rich who already control so much of the American economy. He aims to revive the days of the ‘Robber Barons’  – Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller et al. before anti-trust laws brought them under some sort of control. The ambiguity with which America still regards the effects of concentrated wealth is neatly expressed in this lesson plan, quoted in the Wikipedia article on ‘Robber Barons’:

‘In this lesson, you and your students will attempt to establish a distinction between robber barons and captains of industry. Students will uncover some of the less honorable deeds as well as the shrewd business moves and highly charitable acts of the great industrialists and financiers. It has been argued that only because such people were able to amass great amounts of capital could our country become the world’s greatest industrial power. Some of the actions of these men, which could only happen in a period of economic laissez faire, resulted in poor conditions for workers, but in the end, may also have enabled our present day standard of living.’

The key that links all these groups – from eighteenth century mill-owners to Cummings and the gang – is the sense that large affairs of state are best left in the hands of a few wealthy individuals, as untrammelled as possible by any state regulation or legislation, whom the great mass of ordinary people (who know little of such things) should trust to do what is best. Of course they will get even richer as a result, but we should not worry about that – isn’t it their just reward? In any case, doesn’t it mean we’ll all be better off in the long term (just as long as we all remember our proper place in the scheme of things and don’t get ideas above our station)?

Viewed in that light, that bastion of democratically-agreed legislation and regulation, the European Union, for all its faults, looks very much the safest refuge in an increasingly dangerous world for ‘ordinary people’ who ‘just want to get on with it’.

If what they say is true, then how did we get here?

A Dutch view of prorogation

A useful test is to ask whether the account that people give of events is consistent with the events themselves.

If it were really the case that in the 2016 referendum ‘the country voted overwhelmingly to leave’ (to quote the chronically untruthful Bernard Jenkin, MP*) is that at all consistent with the point we have now reached, and the path we have followed to get there?

If that were the case, is it conceivable that Theresa May, boldly flying her banner with a strange device – ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – would have lost her majority when she called an election expressly to increase it, so finding herself reliant on the ‘support’ of the DUP, which proved fatal not only to her Brexit deal, but ultimately to her premiership?

Would we not rather have expected her to be swept to power by the 80% of the electorate that supposedly support Brexit, according to the convoluted casuistry of the congenitally mendacious Jake Mogg? ** 

From such a position of strength, her deal would have passed first time, complete with Irish backstop, and we would have left the EU on the date originally intended.

But Mrs May did lose her majority, her Brexit deal and finally her job; yet if all this was the fault of a treacherous Remainer parliament determined to thwart the will of the British people, why did Mrs May and her successor consistently rule out a ‘People’s Vote’, i.e. a second referendum on the subject of EU membership?

If it were the case that ‘the country voted overwhelmingly to leave’ then a second referendum could only confirm the first, leaving those Remainer elite MPs without a leg to stand on, nor any rag to cover their shame. Surely – if the facts were as Jenkin, Johnson, Mogg, Gove and the rest pretend – it would be the Leavers who would take to the street in their millions demanding a People’s Vote? Why would the Remainers call for something that would only confirm once more that theirs was a lost cause?

And if there really was a solid majority in favour of leaving the EU would we not already have left in an orderly fashion under Mrs May, rather than have reached the present pass where a Prime Minister appointed by 92,153 people to lead a population of 65.5 million issues a public statement that “the claim that the govt is considering proroguing parliament in Sept … is entirely false.’’ when in fact he has already decided to do so (as was demonstrated at the Court of Session in Scotland today)?

And would the same Prime Minister have to maintain the threadbare pretence that, by ruling out the Irish backstop – which the EU have made clear is not negotiable – and by taking the position that the UK will leave on 31 October ‘with or without a deal’, he is genuinely engaged in trying to negotiate a better deal with EU rather than intentionally precipitating a no-deal Brexit? (an outcome that is generally agreed to be calamitous for the country)

I suggest that, if Messrs Jenkin, Johnson, Gove, Mogg and the rest were actually telling the truth when they said (as they have repeatedly) that the British people voted for Brexit, then events would not have played out as they have to bring us to our present predicament. I therefore conclude that those ‘honourable gentlemen’ have not been telling the truth and that our present situation is quite the opposite from what they claim it to be: far from a recalcitrant Remainer elite group of MPs  attempting to thwart the will of the people, the reality is that a small gang of unscrupulous and self-interested MPs have hijacked the government of our country and are determined to force through an outcome that has only ever been supported in any form by a minority of people and in this latest form – a disorderly Brexit with no arrangements in place – has few supporters if any.***

They appear to be hellbent on steering the ship of state onto the rocks, in some cases at least (the egregious Mogg) for personal gain: it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that their behaviour is both criminal and treasonable.

*as I have pointed out many times before, there are around 65.5 million British people, of whom 46.5 million were eligible to vote in the 2016 referendum. Only 17.4 million expressed a desire to leave the EU and so change a status quo that is all that half the population has known since birth (according to the most recent census data (2011) over half the population were 39 or younger at a time when Britain had been in the EU for 38 years; it is safe to say that it was certainly the case that by 2016 more than half the British people had grown up as EU citizens) It is therefore impossible to sustain with any truth the claim that the British people (or even a majority of them) voted to leave. The great majority of the electorate (62%) expressed no desire to do so. For a closer examination of this point, see ‘Liars in Public Places‘.

**In a brief interview of extraordinary mendacity, the egregious Mogg attempted to claim that there was no need of a further referendum because ‘We had an election in 2017 where over 80% of people voted for parties committed to leaving’. He conveniently overlooks the fact that it has been the norm for the last hundred years for the great majority to vote for the same two parties, and also that many who voted for those parties did so for reasons other than their Brexit stance.

***No less an authority than the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster himself, plucky Michael Gove, has assured us that ‘no-one voted for no deal