Charles Parselle argues that we face new challenges for which we need new systems and processes for the effective conduct of our politics
The French President, Emmanuel Macron, would have done himself and France a favour by not insisting on a short Halloween extension; a longer extension would have favoured Remain and therefore France and therefore Europe, because France plus Germany is an unstable combination, nor can France and Germany together necessarily prevail over the “Exit (but leave the cash on the table)” impulse prevalent in Hungary, Poland and Italy. But Macron won his Pyrrhic victory and the extension is only until 31 October.
Now Macron will have his hands full with the Notre Dame calamity, a calamity that the Palace of Westminster has only avoided so far by having teams of fire wardens patrolling the premises 24-hours a day. The condition of Notre Dame was well known and the necessary work kept being delayed; as a result what was to be a large expense will now be a colossal expense, and the original can never be restored.
The Notre Dame fire may fairly be taken as symbolic of politicians’ reluctance to tackle anything they feel they can “with deniability” put off to a later day. The recent rain that caused a flood in the House of Commons chamber likewise exposes our politicians’ willingness to rely on the procrastinator’s prayer: “Lord, grant that this day we come to no decision, neither run into any kind of responsibility.”
Today’s House of Commons has failed every citizen and its historic duty, even though listening to many hours of debates in recent weeks has shown so many individual members knowledgeable, eloquent, concerned and genuinely seeking solutions. That cannot be said of all of the 650 members; many have not participated in the debates except as party-line voters. Nor are all those who spoke either knowledgeable or persuasive but rather their speeches have been characterized by Shakespeare’s way of describing b/s: “…as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the [politician’s] pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” These ones would be easy to name.
Their reluctance to consider new democratic processes has been very much on display. Nearly all MP’s contributions to the debates, however eloquent, seem to exist only in the bubble of the chamber. Few of them quote outside statistics, for example the two great Remain rallies of 700,000 and 1,000,000 respectively, or the 6 million plus signatories on the petition to revoke Article 50, or the polls that clearly demonstrate a significant majority (8%) in favour of Remain, or the dire predictions and statistics of the civil service and the Bank of England.
It seems that the United Kingdom has moved on a very great deal in the past 50 to 75 years, but Parliament has not moved on. It is the same institution that it always was, and MPs no matter what their background as soon as they are inducted into the House of Commons almost immediately succumb to its byzantine charm and pronounced biases. Such bias of course revolves around the sovereignty of parliament itself. We see this very clearly in the fact that MPs always feel free to ignore the wishes of their constituents if they so choose, including the Prime Minister, who has mouthed “will of the people” hundreds of times but clearly does not include her own Remain-voting constituents in that phrase.
We are in a different world now. Our country is quite different in composition than it was 75 years ago, notwithstanding that the Guardian just reported that half of England is still owned by less that 1% of the population.
We need new democratic structures in this country. Not a single MP referred to the possibility of thinking outside of the House of Commons box in the very extensive debates to which we have listened these past few days. MPs seem to be terrified now of referendums. Even though they constantly pay lip service to respecting the result of the 2016 referendum, nonetheless one gets the feeling that they never want to entrust the public with a referendum again. Citizens’ assemblies, which worked so well in Ireland to resolve a problem – abortion - at least as intractable as Brexit, seem anathema to our politicians.
Not only are external processes needed, but also the Commons itself is in grave need of modernization and reform. [The Blunders of our Governments, 2013, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe] Westminster is the mother of Parliaments, but there is now a great deal we could learn from our “children.”
As Timothy Garton Ash just pointed out, the elections on 23 May for MEPs will serve as a second referendum on Brexit, and as YouGov now tells us, Farage’s Brexit party just formed in the past few weeks is ahead at 27%, with Labour 22% and Conservatives at 15%. Yet the new party Change UK (aka TIG) declined to make any “arrangement” with the Lib-Dems or the Greens or any other party, which seems pretty much like politics as usual in Britain; considering this defining event is only five weeks away, one wonders what level of ideological purity they are trying to preserve.
The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author, not necessarily of London4Europe.