Is Brexit the new political axis of Britain?

It was the biggest political event in living memory. It shakes the very political foundations of the country. And it will come to shape our culture, foreign policy, and prosperity. The referendum last year has an importance unmatched by any other event on the British political scene. In the 2014 Scottish Referendum demands for independence – long-harboured, passionately aroused – were ultimately was defeated by the economic and social rationale of union, to lie dormant for another generation. The 2015 general election, where Labour lost what they believed could be a tight race, the Lib Dems collapsed, UKIP failed to advance, the SNP emerged as a new force, and the Conservatives stood bruised but standing from 5 years of coalition government, was one of the most exciting (if tiresome) contests since 1997, yet still soon receded into memory. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour party 4 months later emerged as the more important development of the year, heralding the wasting away of the once healthy Labour corpus to the attenuated figure that lies before us now.

Yet whilst these have all become inalienable parts of the political landscape, each demanding its own attention and providing its own thorny issues, none dominate the political scene like the EU Referendum of 2016. Unlike these other events, nothing polarises voters in as divisive a fashion. It dominates the proceedings of Cabinet, the time of the Civil Service, and debates in Parliament. Our airwaves grow thick with speculation and discussion, our public fora rowdy over it, our box sets filled with the latest gossip. If the atmosphere grows heated with all the hot air spilled over it still, then it’s perhaps balanced by the chilliness that pervades formerly cordial relationships across the UK. 9 months on and it continues to hog headlines, never absent from the inside pages. Its battles are relived and refought on fields still fresh with recent wounds, with the release of every growth forecast and every immigration swing. It’s not just an economic argument, technical and limited in scope, whose intricacies most of us don’t have the time to investigate. It reveals a cultural divide: those of us worried for our futures, for the future of our culture, for our liberties and sovereignty; and then those of us who aren’t nearly so concerned.

The reason it remains so divisive after so long a period is that it touches on a real political divide in this country. Our politics is dominated by parties formed from the events of at least century ago. They have evolved, but haven’t kept up with the rapid social change we’ve undergone – the fact that only 29% of MPs are women is evidence enough. Our political issues, those that we feel most passionately about and that most likely determine how we vote, have changed as well. The parties fight along a left-right 2D spectrum, whereas most of us subscribe to a good chunk of both sides of the divide, in its classical definition. Taking the last general election; the campaigns revolved around economic issues and competency. The Conservative’s mantra was their “Long-term Economic Plan”, whilst Labour’s was a “Better Plan for a Better Future”.  But in reality, as the recent referendums show, we are holding our cultural and moral politics as increasingly important. This isn’t to say economic competency is no longer important, just that it now shares the stage with culture and values, forming an uneasy double act. The Conservative’s election in 2010 was on the back of their switch to a socially liberal platform. The SNP’s was an emotional cry for Scottish culture. And the Leave campaign, the focus of this article, won by leaving the economics to Remain, and focusing solely on the cultural argument.

Now a quick aside must be made to explain what’s the “culture” and “values” that I am referring to. By this I don’t so much refer to what we watch, read, and listen to – though they are somewhat reflective of our “values” – but what we hold deeply as most important. This could be an attachment to elements of our culture and way of life. It could be helping those in need. It could be the principle of fairness or equality. It’s what you’ll get riled up at if someone seriously challenges you on it, and a maxim for your life. It is above monetary value; for instance, if I offered to give you money for your child, your wife, or your faith, you’d be furious. However, if I offered you an equal amount never to be able to eat a yorkshire pudding again, or listen to Adele, you’d probably take me up on the offer.

The arguments have lasted so long, become so heated surrounding membership of the EU precisely because of how it touches on cultural sensitivities, and how it has become embroiled as, to some, a threat to their culture. The EU stands for so many different things to different people. It sees itself as a harbinger of peace and defender of human rights. In Romania it is seen as a bulwark against political corruption. In Germany as a means to protect Europe from external and internal threats. Yet at the same time, more negative views have become widespread. In Greece it’s equated with chastening austerity measures, in Russia as a strategic threat, and in Britain it has been portrayed as the fifth horseman by some; consistently identified for the past four decades since our ascension as limiting our sovereignty, as clogging our industry by red tape, and as subsuming our culture to a pan-European conglomerate. You’ll note that these are not primarily economic. They are diverse, covering all aspects of how Britain imagines itself – forward-looking, industrious, and somewhat unique in Europe – cultural and economic. Tabloids have presented the EU as the very antithesis of these mentioned values, and have immeasurably poisoned public opinion against it.

Yet popular Euroscepticism – not elite – was slow to develop. UKIP was formed in 1993, over 20 years before the EU referendum. It’s first real electoral success came in winning the 2014 EU election with over a quarter of the vote. However, two events have caused the growth of eurosceptic opinion to its current level. Firstly the Great Recession in 2007/8 and its aftermath in the EU debt crisis. This directly provided fodder for accusations of elite indifference. The rigidly enforced rules for Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland drew much ire for the effects it had, and still has, on the lives of those living in those countries. It was also a clear example to Eurosceptics of the supposed imperial ambitions of the EU. The EU seemed to overstep its competence into matters of national control. It was resented for how it acted as -it seemed to those on the receiving end – a vengeful institution. The second, and perhaps most damaging, accusation it provided evidence for was that the EU was incompetent. Unemployment in Greece, Spain, and Italy are all still in double digits, and is much higher amongst young people. All the while, statistics of economic growth released by statistics offices, stock market records announced proudly by reviled bankers, and daunting salaries to executives quietly offered once more by corporations have eroded trust in those in power, and tarnished the already fairly blackened reputation of these institutions.These elites, as a class, partaking in and having close connection with these industries, by association sully their reputation. And its effects aren’t limited to the continent. Britain too suffered the effects of these twin crises, though obviously we were insulated somewhat from the EU debt crisis. Whilst some communities have recovered quickly in Britain – take Cambridge or London, who voted strongly to remain – others, such as Wales and the North East have recovered far more slowly, or not at all. Taking the house price rise as a metric for regional recovery, even in just the past year Yorkshire house prices rose 4.7%, compared with 13.2% for the East of England. It’s clear that certain regions, and certain sections of society, have a relatively confident economic outlook, whereas many feel under financial strain. Real wages haven’t risen for more than a decade, inflation rising again, and consumer debt is increasing.

Simultaneously with, and to an extent because of, economic damage, cultural fears have arisen across the UK. Radical Islam and immigration have been regularly touted by populist politicians, who appeal most strongly to those citizens feeling ignored. Fears of radical Islam really started before 2007, having been incensed by the rare and notorious large-scale terrorist attacks of the 2000s. Of course, 9/11 stands foremost amongst those, yet Britain endured also its own, with the 7/7 bombings. It has become the “anarchism” that plagued the late 19th century, the “socialism” that haunted our 20th century history, or even the “witchcraft” that perturbed our predecessors in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is painted as a force that seeks to violently overthrow and destroy our “civilisation”, as scaremongers delight in proposing. Its tiny adherence, its lack of popular support even in most of the Middle East, and the emptiness of most of its threats have little bearing for these commentators. It does, however, have a shock factor that can inflate the threat out of all proportion. The brief surge of the BNP in the 2009 EU elections is a testament to the potency of this kind of threat.

The debate surrounding radical Islam has pervaded the debate on immigration – again, both drawing from it, and contributing to it in a symbiotic relationship. The antipathy felt to this one particular foreign culture has done much harm to all. It is easier to justify measures and feelings against one culture when there are obvious parallels to draw on concerning Islam. They have become punching backs to those communities, with enormous targets painted on them by politicians seeking to exploit them for electoral success. Nothing could be easier than blaming immigration for economic hardships that many now face, for the mounting concerns surrounding the NHS, or declining prospects for young people. And mirrored on the cultural aspect, fears of radical Islam convince many that British culture is under threat, that Muslims don’t support our political system, want to abolish our way of living, and that they threaten our values. When immigration is from those not of our culture (ie. almost all of it) then they intertwine for double the potency. This has become one of the most powerfully felt sentiments in British politics, and many (though obviously not all) felt at the very least one of these on the 23rd of June.

The second of the key events contributing to widespread Euroscepticism is the Syrian refugee crisis. This succinctly linked these two fears together. Beginning in 2015, hundreds of thousands fled from the horrors of war in Syria to the safety and security of Europe. Their numbers overwhelmed the response offered by the Balkan EU states, and the Schengen area allowed migrants to travel freely within the EU once they had arrived. The EU’s response itself was muddled and chaotic – the Eastern European Slavic countries taking a much harder stance against collective action to resolve the crisis, or indeed accepting any quota of migrants than Germany in paticular. This led to political deadlock that only worsened the situation on the ground and further discredited the Union. Germany’s acceptance of as many migrants as arrived was most contentious of all. The Chancellor Angela Merkel, being the leading politician in the EU, attempted to throw the institution’s weight behind her proposals for accepting those having already arrived and instituting a hard external border. This linked in the minds of British voters this munificent policy with the EU, much as it had already been by the location of the crisis. The sheer volume of refugees, mostly young men, mostly Muslim, was seized upon by the alt-right as an example of a threat to our culture. 1.5 million refugees arrived in the past year, and when concentrated in countries like Germany, who took in 800,000 in 2015, it shocked many here and abroad. They made predictions we would become a Muslim majority country. Much like a “non-Newtonian” liquid, such as custard or cornflour and water, cultures change and flow over long periods of time, but with a big enough shock become hard and brittle. Just such a shock caused just such a reaction all across Europe, even here in Britain, where we accepted few migrants. Now identified with EU those who already feared this surge in migration channeled their ire in addition to the EU.

It’s easy to make someone hold an attitude or opinion, so vociferously that they will defend and expound it even in the face of the most widely-arrayed opposition. All you have to do is publicly challenge, deride, and humiliate someone and their opinions. As you can imagine, once that happens, it is not an experience anyone could forget, and rarely forget. And that is the overwhelming response that came from both campaigns in the referendum, to humiliate and denigrate the other side. When people started shouting at each other, their opinions hardened until they set. When some on the Remain campaign pointed out how parts of the Leave campaign utilised material bordering on racism people felt aggrieved to publicly labeled i as such. This is irrespective of whether they did or not – no one ever thinks that they themselves are racist, and so they felt aggrieved either way. Therefore it only reinforced these opinions and soured the debate. For voters, this will have fired opinions that remained even after the vote took place, further re-enforcing the importance of the EU to our current political situation.

These trends coincide with growing inequality and a hardening of class divides, largely caused by the slow economic growth. As people become more and more educated – with over 50% of school leavers going to university – their expectations rise commensurately. Expectations for a house, a good job, for a place amongst the community perhaps. However, when people increasingly fail to achieve these aspirations, inevitably they turn for reasons why. Migration, refugees, the EU have all become scapegoats for the problems that the coming generations face – lack of employment primarily, but also longer working hours, less secure jobs, worse-paying jobs, and rising house prices. Seeing as the underlying trends that in reality cause these problems aren’t going to be rectified and ameliorated in the foreseeable future, and neither do we seem to have widely recognised these far more complex issues yet, the same issues that drove the Brexit vote, and that continues to make it such an important issue now, will retain their relevance. The same results, same parties, and same politicians will profit.

These sentiments were channeled, in particular, throughout the EU referendum campaign by Leave politicians. After the campaign, this rhetoric has continued, spurred on by the election of Donald Trump and wrangling concerning the triggering of Article 50. The EU now touches on the biggest questions in British politics: Between those who feel confident economically and open culturally, against those who feel under threat on both accounts. The EU has come to epitomise the divide. Whether or not it fulfills the liberal ideals that are painted on it I offer no comment here. However, continued membership of the EU, or at the very least the single market, has become more than just the battlefield over which our politics is fought. It is the whole war, the motivation, and part of the casus belli. Whilst not every issue that we face now, nor in the future, may directly relate to Brexit, most will become related to it in the course of debating it.

Yet for all the importance of the issue – though, it must be noted, it is not the sole challenge that lies before us – the UK’s political scene remains broadly the same. Whilst Labour has fallen in polling from ~30% to ~25%, and the Conservatives rising equivalently to ~40%, the broad outlines of the parties remain. Only the Lib Dems have radically altered their platform to accommodate this momentous occasion, becoming the party of ‘Remain’. For most other parties the referendum presents just another political landmine to avoid treading on (which Labour, adopting Stalinist tactics, drives their forces over in human waves, managing to trigger every single one). For an issue that now characterises our politics, and whose importance is genuinely greater than any other, why has there been this political hiatus?

Each of the parties are limited for their own reasons. Labour’s incompetent and contradictory leadership has caused it to absent itself from the entire debate. They fail to confront the important problems raised by Brexit, as their base is torn between the socially liberal middle class (who support remaining) and those described above (in favour of Brexit). Jeremy Corbyn is a politician from the 1970s, whose political understanding is rooted there. This can be inferred some of his policy proposals, such as his suggestion during his leadership campaign to reopen the coal mines. Meanwhile, the Conservative government’s only worry is that their hardline MPs force such a “hard” Brexit that the party suffers at the ballot box. They have free reign to continue with their policies as before, and feel no compunction to rock the boat of their high approval ratings and fragile Parliamentary majority.  The two parties who already are occupying this axis, the Lib Dems and UKIP, are both hampered by their own circumstances. The Lib Dems, still reeling from their rout in 2015, and no longer the anti-establishment party of the angry (a mantle taken up by UKIP), have yet to find its voice in the wake of the vote. They have achieved a notable success in winning the Richmond Park by-election, but they have a long struggle ahead of them. UKIP also are failing to connect with voters. Whilst both parties have leaders that have failed to connect, the organisation and coherency of the Lib Dems promises a greater future for the party than UKIPs. Their ground game, canvassing, leafleting, noting, calling, visiting, were very poor in their recent Copeland by-election defeat. This, alongside their disastrous leader. Nutall is perhaps the exception to the rule that populist politicians can say what they want. The blatant and insulting lies he made up has cemented him as a figure of absurdity and ridicule that will not be easily shifted, if at all.

It has been written that the affairs of the great powers shape those in their orbit and feeling its gravitational pull. It moulds and fashions their politics by presenting two alternatives that are sufficiently disparate that factions form. Between their most important trading partners, their political allies, and their ideological friends, factional rifts grow between those seeking the contrasting diplomatic visions, until politics is stretched to breaking point. The history of the Italian city-states is littered with such situations, with the Ghibellines vs the Guelphs of the Medieval periodand again in the Netherlands, with the Hoeks (Hooks) vs the Kaabeljauws (Cod-fish) of the c.14th and c.15th. Perhaps Britain now is facing a similar situation. Now no longer a great power, we shall be torn apart by our differences of opinion regarding the EU and the rest of the world.  Insulated for the past two decades by the absence of a geopolitical alternative, where a clear foe – the USSR – kept the coalition against it – The USA and EU in particular – bound together. Now China, India, Brazil, the nations of Africa, and the states of the Middle East all present themselves as partners of importance. The integration of the EU, that sped up in the 1990s, has to an extent forced the issue to a head. Those opposed to the EU became increasingly shrill in their dire warnings. Now with an actively hostile Russia, that funds and supports the breakdown of the western coalition, has found increasing openings for its intrigue. This, sadly enough, is likely to further polarise debate, as relations with Russia becomes an issue of the greatest importance again. However, given we are a democracy of the people for whom our immediate material circumstances are of great importance, foreign affairs, which has only an indirect effect on these circumstances, is never going to become the sole issue of an election. But it will become an issue of ever-growing urgency.

Ultimately, however important Brexit is as an issue it won’t be the new axis itself. It will, however, betray the real stances of the parties. Not just in the old left-right split, which amalgamates so many cultural and economic outlooks, but instead in a new split along these separate issues, cultural and economic. Electoral Calculus, a website focused on political data run by Martin Baxter, has investigated this and found the “left-right” axis fits well economically – on benefits, tax, and regulation – and provides the “internationalist/nationalist” axis as well. Clearly from this analysis the EU emerges as the key issue on the latter axis, if not so much the former. Brexit is the symptom of issues that are coming to the fore in British politics, and that shan’t leave for decades. Both politicians and voters would do well to catch on.

 

A Brave New World’s Arrival

Is ours a Brave New World?

The three great dystopian novels of the 20th century all betray their authors’ outlook on life through their outlook on our future. Orwell must have been profoundly pessimistic to set 1984 in the eponymous year, clearly not holding out much hope for our ability to resist the slide to dictatorship. Bradbury might have been slightly more positive to have set Fahrenheit 451 in 2053, hundred and one years after he wrote it. Adolphus Huxley’s A Brave New World, set in 2540, five hundred and eight years after he wrote it, would tempt us to conclude that he was more optimistic than the others. But, alas, as with the others, his world was baptised in nuclear fire before it reached the drug-induced “paradise” that we read about. Whilst we’ve surpassed their most depressed of outlooks, both long-term trends and recent events conspire to draw us ever closer their grim futures. How far have we come to one of these authors’, Huxley’s, imaginings?

One of the most intriguing parts of a Brave New World is that it is so strangely enticing. It crosses all readers’ minds at some point that what if the authorities are correct? that a drug-induced tranquility isn’t so bad after all? Taken individually, many aspects of peoples’ lives are far from troubling in the book. Citizens enjoy freedom from disease, from genetic disorders, from pain and suffering. There’s a community, there’s entertainment, and there’s plenty of time to enjoy it. People’s lives, whether the lowest Delta or a high Alpha, are without cares and worries. Unlike the other novels mentioned, Brave New World is not so clear cut a dystopia. Only once the reader becomes aware of the shallow and stunted extent of their culture, the debauched retardation of foetuses, and the ambitionless leadership – once the society is seen as a whole – do its faults become clearer. Yet this ambiguity begs the question. How far do we have yet to go towards Huxley’s fantasy before it becomes, as far as a fictional book can, reality?

We’ve come no closer than in Huxley’s day to the totalitarian authority that rules the globe. No political consolidation, hinted at by all of the authors mentioned initially, has come about in any part of the globe. It took a world war, a devastatingly terrible war that ravaged the globe and all in it, to convince the world leaders to unite to prohibit such a war’s reoccurrence in Brave New World.  Agglomeration of states, which seemed under wartime pressures so obviously near, in utopian dreams so rational, and in dystopian imaginings so worrying, now cannot seem a more distant a reality. The EU barely struggles onwards towards its goals of “ever greater union”. The UK has voted to leave, and though this may take years, there seems little reason why it shan’t go ahead. Indeed, it has inspired, and is inspired by, the many other nationalistic parties that abound on the continent, that seek to escape from the EU. Financial worries in Greece, Spain, and Italy threaten even those states that remain on that path with economic collapse. Security concerns abound on what the EU’s reaction to any Russian aggression to the Baltic States or Finland should entail. Clearly then, the organisation that has come closest could hardly be farther from its ultimate purpose. Further expansion of the EU is more unlikely than ever, not just because of how unpalatable it is to EU voters, yet also because of the illiberal turns of the EU’s surrounding states. Further afield, it’s needless to say no other countries are progressing towards as close a union.

Scientific advances abound that echo with both the most desirous and troubling elements of the birthing process of Brave New World. The CRISPR technique, developed at MIT and Harvard, allows for efficient, cheap, and accurate genome editing. The potentials for this technology are enormous – effectively the ability to cure all hereditary diseases, and even, if allowed under ethical guidelines, to change human DNA in other cases. Dangers are inherent in it, and what will be the most pressing ethical question of the next two generations concerns it  -how far should we be able to “improve” a baby, not only to cure disease, but to alleviate it of certain undesirous attributes – perhaps make the potential human taller, more intelligent, more athletic. I am in little doubt that without substantive preliminary legislation internationally such incremental “improvements” shall become widespread amongst those that can afford it – and as past international agreements show, that is an exceeding rare scenario. From here it’s but a small step to start to make and fulfill quotas – through market forces, international disparities, or national oversight – that would usher us into a Brave New World.

The breakdown in the family has certainly come closer than during Huxley’s day. Divorce rates are higher, and more children are born out of wedlock. But these things are a consequence of the greater freedoms that women have been able to achieve. Therefore, the rates before this third Feminist wave must be considered artificially raised, and their decline from the 1930s not all that disturbing. It’s no good to be stuck in a loveless relationship for decades, unable to escape. In fact, in recent times divorce rates have fallen. In Britain, they have since 2003. Does this herald a slow normalisation of marriage rates following a sharp initial drop? The positives that comes from living in a functioning family are enormous, that would be lost by a Brave New World. But there is little to fear in all likelihood. For anyone to give up their child to the state, to be so almost brainwashed, is unthinkable for us.  

Yet the most pertinent aspect of Huxley’s writings concerns culture, and how culture defines the civilisation of Brave New World. Culture in that society is not so much picked up from the environment – from years of play, conversation, and immersion – as spoon-fed at night via the sci-fi method of “hypnopaedia”, or sleep-learning. It is a rigid and mono-faceted syllabus, that teaches the same rote phrases and behaviours to every member of a caste. It inculcates as strong a learned reaction as is possible, with reflexive sayings for every possible situation in life. Even the Alphas, the most intelligent of all the castes, are unable to advance past the use of these stock phrases. Phrases range from the innocuous “a doctor a day keeps the jim-jams away” to the far more troubling “…Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides, they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta…”.

Whilst our children’s programmes contain a more wholesome message than this, we as adults most certainly are deceived often by a restatement of facts over and over, even when it is completely contrary to the truth. Whilst not every political mantra is devisive, simplistic, or important to a movement – like Obama’s “Hope” – short, reflexive answers to deep and complex political and social questions are distressingly common. Take, for instance, the “£350million a day to the NHS” claim made by the Leave side of the EU referendum campaign. Despite the statistic being false, the intention being misplaced, and with the benefit of hindsight, never secured, it was widely believed that the NHS would be better off outside the EU. Likewise the Remain’s “scare campaign” that they ran equally relied upon set phrases

In fact, much of popular Euroscepticism is built on a reliance on these set phrases. James O’Brien’s interview with a Leave voter is a classic example of this. Just as Bernard challenges Lenina whilst hovering over the English Channel Brave New World, whose stock phrases are unable to cope with his searching questions, this Leave voter’s deeply held sentiments, held in good faith and good intentions, are revealed as having been inadequate to stand up to penetrating inquiry. Of course, many Leave voters had an able grasp of facts, but there was remarkably little substance to most of those “facts” regarding the EU. Indeed, the European Commission set up a website debunking many of these infamous claims. Our concerns regarding immigration, that our system of welfare might be taken advantage of, have been shown time and again to be false  Our fury was whipped up against migrants in the stead of far more complex problems. The”scare campaign” elements of the Remain campaign equally relied upon set phrases; that the present situation is better than the contrary, that the banks and other companies would desert Britain immediately, and that the economy would be thrown into chaos. Most voters, on the Leave side especially, ended up voting according to ingrained mantras – disguised as gut feelings – that had little bearing on the complexities of the debate.

Have we regressed since Huxley’s age? 1932, the year of the book’s publishing was the year before Hitler came to power in Germany. We’ve certainly come little further since that time. Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, and “Build a Wall” have come to encapsulate this phenomenon. The complex issue of immigration reform in America is supposedly settled by stopping new arrivals – via the aforementioned wall – and deporting all 13 million illegal immigrants living in America. The reliance on the 10 second soundbite for the news and our plummeting attention spans would merit a more despondent assessment of our progress since those dark times.

Another key component of Huxley’s world is our desire of simple pleasures. In Brave New World, citizens are offered the simplest route to happiness at all opportunities. Soma, a pleasure-inducing drug, is taken with abandon. People’s free time is packed with inane games and gossip. Whether visits to the 26th century iteration on the cinema or a match of centrifugal bumble-puppy, they can choose from an endless list of equally vapid activities. Their society is geared towards the maximal deliverance of immediate pleasure. In this regard, we have most disturbing progress.

It’s no secret how digital media has transformed how we read, watch, and play. Think back to the last time you finished a book; about a hobby that you’ve practiced for years; about a subject that you immersed yourself in; or finished a project you set yourself. All of these things are increasingly rare. They are also all examples of some of the most satisfying things we can do. We’ve become drawn, not always consciously, instead to our digital selves and our digital lives. Our smartphones have become our leisure hubs, replacing in many cases all the other multitudinous forms of entertainment and fulfillment. News, games, socialising, work, television, sport – all these functionalities, and so many more, are contained in those devices. It is so easy and convenient. To be convenient, to be easy, is certainly no bad thing. Dealing with a physical dictionary, finding an answer to a factual question, or a recipe for some foodstuff all have been immeasurably easier by our digital assistants.

Yet, with Brave New World as the ultimate end, acting as a lighthouse that wards us from the perilous rocks, we sacrifice much to use these. It’s been well-publicised (but with much controversy) that our attention spans have dropped significantly since the digital revolution. Apps are designed to grab our attention, by providing intriguing, funny, or witty notifications. No doubt you have been working, only to be interrupted by a Facebook notification or a Twitter alert that’s diverted your attention by providing immediate gratification. Our brains are being shaped by our browsing habits, to seek the instant gratification that accompanies browsing Reddit, Facebook, or Imgur. Clickbait headlines are another symptom of this. Newspapers rely on sensationalist headlines to grab our attention. Of course, it’s a self-reinforcing relationship between those titles and our falling attention spans. Attempts to limit their use are unsuccessful, as fewer people would read the articles without some inventive line to tantalise us. As I’ve mentioned before, most of us read only the headlines of news items. To convince us to invest the time and effort to read an article online is most easily done by using such a title. These are just a couple of examples that illustrate our larger predicament.

Now, I am no technophobe. This is indeed a blog, written online, being read by you on a screen. But that doesn’t mean that our move to digital platforms is without consequence. Yet precious few of us are aware of the logical conclusion of our infatuation with the cheap thrill and the quick fix. For these activities aren’t satisfying. We ‘achieve’ watching a funny cat video on youtube, scrolling through our Facebook feed studded with funny memes, or tweeting in anger about Trump’s latest outrage. Yet no doubt a couple of minutes, an hour, a day later has this had an emotional impact? Has it enriched our lives in a way that you could tell someone about? Has it ever satisfied someone on par with any of those activities I mentioned before – finishing a book, or a project, practicing a hobby for years, or learning a language? I doubt it has ever come close. This is no idle preoccupation, no inconsequential paeaning for a former lifestyle and age that, not only unattainable in an ever changing world, but that misses out on the vast quality-of-life improvements inherent in the powers of these objects. Our lives are enriched by these momentous achievements and attainments. Our satisfaction, contentment, and happiness is contingent on retaining a modicum of these former virtues. Yet not just personally, but professionally and culturally, our endeavours rely on sustained concentration, vigour, and drive, that finds this present trend to idleness inimical.

But in so many others our technology, society, and culture tempts us to such a New World. Each of us, a member of a huge herd of cattle drive ourselves onwards towards a cliff’s edge. Stampeding, we’re impelled by the need to keep pace with the herd, unwittingly and unceasingly drawing ever closer to Huxley’s unsettling vision. There isn’t a global conspiracy, not even a concerted effort maliciously driving us onwards down this path. The impetus comes from a natural impulse to be at leisure, make our lives easier, seize a quick dopamine hit. But in doing so we risk the perils that are concomitant with it. We chance, and rarely avoid, the pitfalls that await an unsuspecting consumer. We’re threatened by a future that the more prescient have predicted – and with the unfulfilling and vacuous consequences inherent with it.

Just like the deforestation of Easter Island, it shall advance imperceptibly. The one day we will realise we are without the most precious and vital aspects of our lives – we’ll be without the trees for our buildings, our fuel, or our wildlife. Instead, we’ll have spent it on our own Moai heads – the vain, ironic tombstones of our civilisation in a tailspin to inanity. It doesn’t have to be that way. By preserving the habits of the past, limiting our digital exposure, and challenging ourselves once in a while we can do much to ameliorate the worst effects our march to a Brave New World, whilst preserving its best parts. For unlike in Huxley’s vision, limited in technological prowess, in scope, in ambition we inhabit a society that can look forward to, if we endeavour to do so, space flight, quantum computing, and so much more.When we get there, let’s make sure we are ready for it.

 

Follow on Twitter here: VerumPopulae

 

 

The Bercow Ban

Bercow, who had the right to speak out, was not right to speak out.

“I would not wish to issue an invitation to President Trump … our opposition to racism and to sexism, and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons”

These comments don’t come from a member of  Labour, the Greens, or the SNP. Instead, it comes from the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. The ramifications of his comments are graver than the now regular peal of condemnations that have been flung across the Channel. They come as a crack of thunder in the menacing storm of Britain’s relationship with the US. They threaten May’s diplomatic detente and, more importantly, his own political independence.

It is the latest in a string of blows to May’s charm offensive against the US. It lies in tatters, as it becomes clear to the new US administration that the May doesn’t have the political strength to stand behind Trump. On top of the petitions, comments from opposition MPs, and protests, May seems weaker and weaker to an administration in America that seems to value strength and loyalty. This criticism is the most obvious, that it damages British diplomacy. But it is also the most short-sighted, and least important. He is still one MP among 650, however prestigious his position. But was he within his rights to make such a statement? And was he right to do so?

As Speaker of the House of Commons, it is Bercow’s responsibility to issue invitations to speak at the House of Commons. So Bercow has the technical right to do so. By making these comments he has effectively denied Trump this prestigious opportunity during his upcoming state visit. But the strongest criticism of his conduct is that he has infringed upon  the speakers’ political neutrality.

The speaker of the House of Commons “must be politically impartial”. Bercow has most obviously transgressed in this regard. Calling Trump a “racist” and a “sexist”, whilst backed up by a copious amount of evidence, clearly places Bercow on a political battleground he was meant to stay well away from. Whilst he may have the power to veto Trump’s address, in reality, much as the Queen does, he ought to eschew making statements of such an overtly political nature.

Bercow’s statement was greeted by cheers from Opposition MPs. Most likely they were agreeing with Bercow’s damning judgement of Trump, rather than lauding the other ramifications of his comments. For the Houses of Parliament rely on a speaker to mediate debate, as all Parliaments across the world do. Without one, chaos would ensue. Yet a partisan speaker is almost as bad. It creates fears that one political view is favoured above another, that one party is a victim of another, and that the constitution being misused and undermined. These all damage the legitimacy of the position of speaker, of Parliament, and of democracy entirely. And here lies the consequence of greatest importance.

This is perhaps a tad hyperbolic, British democracy, famed for its resilience to extremism is under no such immediate threat. And Bercow has been an accomplished speaker for most of his tenure. His decorous manner, his light wit, and his commanding presence during debates has graced the chamber for eight years. Despite the protestations of some Conservatives, he has until now shunned partisanship or political intervention, and ensured healthy criticism of the government. Yet this should not permit us to overlook his lapse in judgement.

As is the depressing norm, we have only to look across the channel to see the ultimate ends of a politicised speaker. These chambers are home to many issues that clog their proper functioning, yet a partisan speaker more worryingly drains the legitimacy of the institution he speaks for. The Senate and Congress, assemblies whose activities are locked in a partisan mire, routinely bend (far stricter) constitutional rules to ensure ‘correct’ procedure. Take Elizabeth Warren’s dismissal from the floor of the Senate earlier this week over the application of an obscure and inconsistently applied rule governing criticism of senators. Last year, the Senate Democrats staged a 25 hour sit-in over Gun Control, having been shut out of debate by the speaker.

A further criticism of the Speaker is that he is purporting to represent all of 650 MPs and 805 Lords, or at least the majority of them, by objecting to Trump’s invitation. In reality, it is doubtful that the cheers heard following Bercow’s statement reflect more than a select number of opposition MPs. The government certainly does not agree. For many MPs, this is the most grievous insult, that he spoke for those that vehemently disagree with him. Pity more the Lords, who were open to Trump’s address, and whose speaker rebuked Bercow for his commentsCalls for Bercow to step down  from a select few of them are, however, exaggerating the punishment due an offence of this scale. It’s not even clear that Trump, whose oratory has never been a particular strong suit, would have wanted to address Parliament in the first place. Nor is it clear when, or indeed if, the state visit will take place. These discussions may turn out to be moot.

As always with constitutional matters, it is rarely the action itself which most damages our democratic edifice. It’s the precedent, precedent that can be invoked to push further and further from what was once considered the margins of politically acceptable behaviour. However distasteful, however vulgar, however despicable you may find Trump, it’s clear that Bercow was not the one to voice such criticisms. The Government, opposition MPs, the Lords, the media, the public – all of these, all of us, are better placed to make such a comment. Bercow, who had the right to speak out, was not right to speak out.

 

Follow us on Twitter for all the latest posts here.

How should the media cover Trump?

There are many ways that Trump has disrupted the normal mode of operations, whether pioneering a successful social media campaign, global investment patterns, and American politics more generally. Yet one sector has stayed relatively unfazed by Trump: The media.

Trump has been covered, throughout his campaign, as a normal politician would be by most journalistic outlets. They report what he’s said, a bit of context on why he’s said such things, and then go onto to report what those who disagree with him have said. Most journalists don’t stray from this standard method, concocted from decades of work to balance transfer of knowledge, objectivity,  and safety from libel lawsuits.

Yet can this continue, when dealing with a man (and his associates) who flagrantly disregard all notions of truth and objectivity himself; who wants solely to steal the attention of those who read the headlines, angry or otherwise; who obfuscates whenever possible the truth behind a smokescreen of lies?

Take the reaction to Trump’s comments that his inauguration was better attended than Obama’s, with, according to him “a million and a half people”. It is objectively false: The number of trips on the Metro was significantly lower, and photographic evidence clearly shows the depreciation in turnout.

Image result for obama's inauguration vs trumps

Given that most people will not read past the headline on any given story (Here’s an interesting article on the topic), this is possibly the most important part of the article. Not only does it reel people in, it sets the tone in the reader’s mind for what they are about to read. The headline is key.

So what were the media’s headlines? The Daily express’ was “Donald Trump inauguration crowd largest EVER spokesman says in attack on ‘FALSE REPORTS'”; Vox’s was “Trump claims 1.5 million people came to his inauguration. Here’s what the evidence shows”.; The BBC’s was “Trump claims media ‘dishonest’ over crowd photos”.

Whilst these headlines range from the Daily Express’ very misleading to the BBC’s more staid style, to anyone scanning the headlines, the impression they would be left with would be very different from both the truth and from what they would find if they read the article. Yet, given that headline is the most important part of the article, this discrepancy is clearly worrying.

The issue goes to the heart of what reporting should be when information is abundant, false claims and propaganda equally so, yet we have little enough time to sift and digest it all. Should it be a faithful report of what has happened, devoid of comment? Or comment pieces with the news interwoven? Both of these have their benefits, but most of all problems. Too faithful, and you mislead those who read the articles. Too much a commentary and readers become susceptible to manipulation, polemic, and even just losing track of the news.

Instead, it’s best if media outlets can fact-check as they go, and make it clear the verdict they’ve reached. Take Trump’s false inauguration crowd claims. A couple of outlets published their headlines just this style: The Washington Post’s “With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift”, or Buzzfeed’s “Donald Trump Lies About The Number Of People At His Inauguration“. These convey the point Trump made, that he claims many more people attended his inauguration than actually did, whilst also making clear to people that, in fact, he is making it up. Those skimming the headlines get the most accurate information, and Trump’s attempt to manipulate the media and public is combated.

With such a history of lying, propaganda, and falsification, should the media stay ‘neutral’? Should they judge a statement or policy of Trump’s as they would a statement or policy of any other politician? Clearly not. Trump probably spends more time in a sunbed than he does telling the truth. With such a history of ignoring the truth, he’s lost any ‘benefit of the doubt’ that might be afforded to another politician. Treating his speeches with a high-powered lens, to investigate and expose him, would be advisable.

The news runs on a short time span. Imagine what was the biggest news stories last week. Difficult enough. Now last month. Very challenging. Now 6 months ago. You’d do well to get more than a couple. Yet many of Trump’s most heinous statements – that he groped women, he hasn’t released his tax returns, his bigoted comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and disabled people, his hypocrisy of not manufacturing in America himself – are quickly forgotten by most. The pomp and authority of the presidency, and perhaps a willful amnesia of Trump’s faults, to lessen the fear and dread, combine to obfuscate Trump’s past behaviour. For this reason, it’s clear that a running tally of Trump’s many issues, hypocrisies, and statements would be of great use. A compendium to draw upon when needed.

Perhaps you think I am being partisan, naive, or just plain dumb. Perhaps I am. But I’d say that democracy can’t function when there are ‘alternative facts’; when two people of different parties can no longer understand the other’s opinions; when the rivalry of parties becomes actively hostile; when a demagogue and propagandist is head of the government. We need to take action to halt Trump’s utilisation of the media as a propaganda mouthpiece. The longer we linger, the more pressing the problem. Trump has shown from his first few days in office he has no intention to rule as a “One-nation” president, as most politicians try to.

The media is one of the most effective ways to hurt Trump. His ego drives him, and he becomes enraged by those who oppose him, belittle him, or point out his flaws. The media his conduit to deliver his message. And the media has a job a responsibility to act with  the integrity that comes with the power they wield.

The next 4 years will be formative for this century. I certainly don’t hold consider the possibility that Trump will govern well. But will we, as a society, emerge stronger, energised to resist any other attempt to subvert democracy? Or more divided by the legacy of he who tried? I hold out hope that the former may come to pass.

The Health of our Democracy

The doom-mongers had a field day this past year. In their predictions for the end of Western Civilization they identify a pattern of blasts that undercut the formerly unassailable position held by the West. It rested on several key assumptions. Democracy is the ideal form of government, by involving as many people as possible in the business of government. Parties, representing both more socialist and more conservative-free-market outlooks, fought over the centre-ground voters. This ensured a shared argument. Here in Britain for instance, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Conservatives fought for those middle voters. Over the NHS, the armed services, over the deficit there were real conflicts, with varying solutions. Yet these parties fought for policies that were never so venomous to the other that they couldn’t find some middle ground. Take, for example, the overriding, almost neurotic, drive to secure a budget surplus that drove Cameron and Osborne’s government, which Labour did not, in principle, contest. Labour queried the speed and focus of the cuts but not the ambition itself, knowing that it was both politically popular and an eventual necessity for the UK. The common aims of the parties, whether to improve the services of the NHS, schools, or fight terrorists, formed the basis of our politics.

 

But what happens when our parties start fighting for inimical values? When two people, supporting different parties, cannot hold a conversation without finding the other repulsive, delusional, or ignorant? When parties stop fighting for the centre, and start fighting for the extremes?

 

If you’ve been perceptive, you might have spotted all three of these trends pervading British politics over the past 8 or 9 years since the Great Recession. The ‘minor parties’ of British politics – the Lib Dems, UKIP, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru – like adolescent cubs gnawing on the legs of the two venerable lions – the Conservatives and Labour – they distracted them in their clash, forcing them to double back, to cover their hinds and defend against them. The most obvious example of this is the EU referendum itself. Cameron, cornered by the perceived threat from UKIP and wearied by his own MPs in 2013, conceded that a referendum would have to be held on EU membership. This in itself is not necessarily as divisive an issue as it became. Membership of the EU won’t decide the UK’s future in its entirety, and another party coming into power would find both its benefits and costs, varying with how it’s executed. However, the conduct of both sides, In and Out, revealed the cracks in the crumbling bastion of our former political system.

 

The campaign never came close to meriting the title ‘debate’. There was no common respect for either side; both derided the other without properly attempting to convince them; both saw each the other as an other. The In campaign’s rightly derided claims of instant doom awaiting Britain on June 24th should we vote to leave, of economic collapse and a flight of companies from the UK, mirrored the Leave campaigns flat out lying that it a vote to leave would help the NHS’s funding crisis. Yet both sides persisted with their falsities. For a voter considering which way to vote, faced with contradictory facts and no way to check them, they are left completely unsatisfied. It fuels the declining trust in our politics, and the general anger at politicians. The nation split into an In and Out camp. Most visible is the hint of racism that taints discussion of immigration. This comes in spite attempts by leaders like the archbishop of Canterbury to insist that people’s concerns over immigration aren’t racist.

 

The fracture in our nation is visible through the kaleidoscopic array of issues that now divide us: Nationalism and the rise of the SNP, Plaid and English nationalism, or issues of privacy here in Britain. The debates have been given a more pressing demand given the inexorable pressures that are bearing down on us: The rising inequality of wealth and incomes, growing recognition of the unaccountability of the 1%, and now the challenges to international stability arising from Putin and Trump.

 

Usually in Britain, these issues have been overcome in the past by our parliamentary democracy. Labour and the Conservatives could argue and, eventually, work towards an eventual outcome, whilst simultaneously including both sides of the political spectrum. They drive their supporters to back the eventual outcome. Yet, with the chaos that is eroding the Labour Party’s internal cohesion, approval, and thus its relevance, the left of the political spectrum not tied to our political system. Furthermore, any policies that are currently being considered, and that have been during Corbyn’s premiership in Labour, are at risk of alienating voters further. When the opposition tendered is, at best, from the more extreme left- and right-leaning parties, or from within the Conservative party itself, the result is not a broad-based policy that is politically acceptable but divisive. Whether with the Snoopers Charter that was passed with almost no debate at the end of last year, or earlier this week when Theresa May has had to pander to her most extreme Europhobes and UKIP announce we’d leave the EU, the Common Market, and the European Court of Human RIghts.

 

This rift, which luckily for us is far from unbridgeable, must be rectified. The alternative is unfortunately prominent, its torpid, cantankerous democracy grinding to an ignominious halt, if not end: The United States of America. The rabid ideological divides that form a schism in the political nation, parties pandering to the extremes rather than the centre, with all common decency lost. This has contributed not only to the sour and vindictive president, Donald Trump, but can help explain the blatant disregard for the democracy that might seem so central to a nation with its founding principle being democracy.

 

There has to be an opposition party that fights the Conservatives. If Britain’s exit of the EU goes through Parliament without any of the scrutiny that is so vital, or the repeal of the Human Rights Act is conducted with as much secrecy as the passage of the Snoopers Charter, then once more, we take one step closer to a sham democracy. It’s clear that Corbyn is no leader – he’s failed to land a blow on May since his time in office. He clearly won’t step down, he clearly won’t be beaten when he’s backed by his Corbynistas and Momentum. In its stead, for it is not the credible opposition that Britain needs or deserves with our Parliamentary history, I still hold out hope for a mass exodus to either the Liberal Democrats or UKIP. Whilst some may query the second, UKIP’s anti-establishment, social responsibility message (one of its many) is popular in many of Labour’s heartlands. By reinvigorating either party, with thousands of new members, voters, and political ideas, there could be a credible alternative presented to May’s government. Yet it is clear this cannot happen anytime soon. Labour MPs, too bound to the institutions of Labour, cannot bear to let go. Until they abandon that sinking ship, taking with them all the valuables that still remain, we all remain in great peril. Perhaps a shock result from the Liberals would do it, as they seem to be racking up a few already, but anyway to revitalise the opposition is key, to rebind our nation together.

 

Yet the old adage, ‘be the change you want to see’, remains true today, and will be far more effective to follow than trying to breathe life into one of the myriad of opposition parties. As individuals, it is the choices that we make that ultimately decides the outcome of our elections, the issues our representatives raise, and those which dominate the national agenda. Acting courteously, considering and investigating the arguments of those whom you disagree with, however detestable you think it might be, and working to explain and convince other people to your point of view. Fight the political apathy of your fellow voters, because our democracy works by mass participation. Become an MP, a councillor, or at least join a party if you can – it is the lifeblood of democracy. Finally, don’t patronise those institutions you know actively divide the nation whether The Daily Mail, Mirror, The Sun, or The New European, online and in print. Every snide comment, every arrogant dismissal, every snarky meme, all contributes to the hateful divide we see across the pond.

 

We are lucky in the UK. We have an example of where a democracy went wrong. America’s seems almost beyond salvage, and as of writing this we are yet to even reach Trump’s inauguration. What’s more, our history of centre politics is strong, and, despite its slow fracturing, most people remain committed to these ideals. This blog may not conform to the farcical ‘anti-elite’, ‘anti-liberal, ‘anti-establishment’, or any other derisive trend that has swept Western politics. Yet this is not because there isn’t anything worthy in those movements, for there is much to be admired. Nor is it because the consensual style of politics didn’t have flaws, for there were several. It’s because we shouldn’t forget those most useful parts of our politics, which bring us together as a nation where others fall apart. We should never forget how much we have in common, and how much better we are together. Let Trump’s inauguration be a bugle call, to wake us from our mindless descent into national dissent.

What will Farage’s role be?

Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party and a chief proponent of the British exit from the European Union earlier this summer, joined Trump on stage at a rally to draw similarities between the UK's vote to leave the European Union...
Farage and Trump at a rally in Mississippi

“Ambassador Farage”.

Doesn’t it have a certain ring to it? President-elect Trump thinks so. So do those who attended his homecoming party at the Ritz on Wednesday night. And so does Nigel Farage himself.

But could this be a good thing for Britain? Could we have found our messiah to lead us in this new world, to take us across the Red Sea, whilst the walls of water crash down on those countries left behind , crushed by the tide of localist sentiment?

Or is this just a desperate attempt by a man who has failed to ever win a seat in our Parliament to assume power by other means? Would this be a betrayal, not just of diplomatic procedure, but flaw in the links in May’s government that could paralyse and ultimately damage our relationship with America?

That’s a lot of questions. And as with any such conjecture, especially with men as volatile as Trump and Farage, the actual situation in which they arose are liable to change at a moment’s notice. Indeed, some reports have Farage instead considering settling across the pond, perhaps in the employ of Trump himself. Yet with these questions posed, it’s worth considering them – and then perhaps pleading with Farage to return.

Farage does have a lot to offer at a first glance. He undoubtedly has a closer relation than any other Briton with the incoming president. Meeting Trump before the prime minister, foreign minister, ambassador, or any other member of the British government is not only quite the snub for them, but highlights their close relationship. Farage’s relationship with Trump extends at least as far back as August, when he appeared at a Trump rally in Mississippi, and continued through the support that he continued to provide, such as dismissing to importance of Trump’s groping scandal.This provides him a level of access that is unparalleled at the moment.

Yet Farage would hardly fit the role of ambassador. The ambassador is the arm of the British government in America. They do what they’re told, no more, no less. They are a civil servant of the government, not a minister making policy on the hoof, as in the movies. Detailed negotiations on topics of the utmost importance and secrecy are carried out there. Whilst Farage is likely adept enough to handle these tasks, this is surely not the role that he envisioned when he imagined being the “Ambassador”. What’s more, the ancillary tasks of being an ambassador (replacing lost passports, helping Britons in America, etc.) are definitely not what Farage will have envisioned, however insulated he is from these roles.

It’s clear that Farage’s place can’t be as ambassador itself, but it’s just a title. As a proper “ambassador”, a go between for the British government and Trump, perhaps Farage would be better place; leading negotiations, whether over trade, intelligence, or defence, Farage might find more scope for personal initiative, and here his charm with Trump might best be used. He could be our “Trump” card in negotiations. However, even then, the constraints that are placed on Farage as a servant of the crown would be fairly onerous for him, I’d imagine.

The biggest obstacle to Farage’s assumption of any power in the British government is it’s overt hostility to him, and his overt hostility to it. Neither side can see eye-to-eye, with threats coming from Farage to finish his “revolution” (however misplaced his use of the term is), and the government firmly denying any role for Farage whilst they’re in power. It derives from how May wants to steer her government: it’s business as usual, there’s no need to worry the markets, and that her government listens and acts on voter’s concerns. There’s much logic to this in fact. Why should the wish of (a minority) of American voters suddenly dictate Britain’s own politics in such a drastic measure? The experience of years of our “Special Relationship” with the US should have taught us that slavishly following the American’s every whim never ends well – we get taken for granted, ignored, and mocked.

So Farage as ambassador is out of the question -The role doesn’t suit him,  he doesn’t suit our government, and why should our government’s agenda suit Trump’s whims?

Farage has a bright future ahead of him, if not as ambassador If his role is not in government (yet) he surely, as the only figurehead of Brexit not sullied by the experiences and disappointments of May’s government so far (failure to make any headway on Brexit, failure to enact any important legislation save the hated Snooper’s Charter, an aloof style of government) could lead the hard Brexiteers should he desire. Whether as leader of UKIP (for a fifth time), or taking a more cross-party approach, sucking up disaffected Conservative and Labour voters, he does have the opportunity to shape British politics. As one of the few politicians considered “outsider” (whatever his history working in investment banks, and connection with the wealthy elite), he can pick up on the anti-establishment feeling that has been inflamed across Britain and the world.

Alternatively, America beckons. The irony if Farage was to be posted as American ambassador to Britain or the EU could not fail to amuse, whatever your political leanings, but the same limitations for him apply in that role, as in the British. He’d do well to avoid becoming one of Trump’s “attack dogs”, like Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie, who were shunted aside by Trump the minute he’d won the presidency, and their usefulness thus at an end.

Wherever Farage’s future is headed, the government on this side of the pond would do well to keep tabs on him. His heady combination of personal charisma amongst pro-Brexit voters, and backing from powerful business and journal interests, makes him a potent force to lead an insurgency against the Labour-Conservative politics that don’t function properly.

 

In defense of the High Court.

I was struck by the vitriol thrown towards the High Court in the past month concerning the High Court judges’ decision that the Government would have to gain Parliamentary approval to trigger article 50. So struck, in fact, that I started this blog. Democracy, especially one as open to a powerful government as Britain’s, relies on a politically interested and competent public. If the public is misled, democracy suffers most of all. And this front page, from the 4th November Daily Mail, is a clear example of this.

Image result for high court brexit front page daily mail

Criticising a judicial ruling is perfectly reasonable, and sometimes we do find some rulings just baffling. As anyone familiar with divorce cases might be aware, the settlement in the most acrimonious case is rarely satisfying to either side, or fair. But all the same, judges operate on the basis of common sense whenever possible, and make sensible rulings. The latest example of this is the victory, in both the magistrates (local) and High Court, of a father who refused to pay a fine for taking his daughter on holiday during term time. Clearly, the judges acted sensibly (and in accordance with the law) when they rejected this lawsuit against the father.

However, labeling three judges as “enemies of the people” – effectively calling them traitors; using the same language as someone inciting a pogrom in Tsarist Russia – is not only beyond decency, especially for a national newspaper, but an absurd assessment of their decision. Therefore, I’d like to explain why the judges made the right decision.

Firstly, an explanation of the actual ruling must be given, and why it was not only right from a legal perspective, but for the good of the country as well. The decision turned on whether the government could trigger “article 50”, the mechanism to leave the EU, without consulting Parliament. The government argued, as it was effectively a foreign policy decision, which is part of the government’s responsibilities (“the royal prerogative”), they could trigger it whenever they like. The argument against the government is that Parliament passed a bill to take us into the EU, and so only Parliament could repeal that bill. This is the idea of “parliamentary sovereignty”, that Parliament is the highest law-making body in the country, so it can legislate what it likes on any matter.  A nineteenth century political theorist called de Lolme summarised it pithily as: “parliament can do everything but make a woman a man and a man a woman” – though nowadays, even that’s been assimilated into Parliament’s remit.

This concept, which no doubt you heard bandied around by pro-Leave campaigners in various forms as a key argument in their arsenal, “to maintain our national sovereignty”, “to preserve Parliament”, “to be a responsive democracy”. All of these revolved around the concept of Parliamentary sovereignty. Now that we know what Parliamentary sovereignty is, its importance can be fully realised: It’s integral to how British democracy, built from centuries of experience and comprimise, functions; it is a both a key check on governmental power, and one of the most important ways that the government can get things done.

Yet this judgement would seek to overturn the very institution that we voted to protect on June 23rd! By allowing the government to repeal an act of Parliament without a vote – bypassing Parliament, our representatives, altogether – would be a travesty for our democracy. For a judge, when making a decision, must think beyond the case at hand and consider the implications of their judgement. “What could happen if the government can bypass Parliament because of foreign policy demands?”. No doubt already in your minds, any idea of limiting the government’s power to declare war, as many have demanded since the Iraq War, goes out the window. Yet even this as yet unrealised aspiration pales when compared with the implications that this could have. The government could, were the case to be declared in favour of the government in the Supreme Court, and should it so desire, repeal any act of Parliament by justifying it as a foreign policy concern.

The implications of this would be staggering. A vote to return power to the people, too long starved of political responsibility, could instead be cruelly snatched away once more, to an even more closed elite group. A government could sign a treaty, maybe to placate some Russian or oligarchic, interests, that limited the investigatory powers of the police to probe for tax fraud. Billions of pounds of billionaires wealth would be hidden away, foisting yet more burden on the taxpayer whilst they shoulder no responsibility.  Anything our Parliament had written could be conceivably ignored and bypassed, by reference to this ruling. A similar scenario could be imagined in regard to any legislation – human rights, trade unions, drugs and smoking, free speech…

Perhaps this is a tad hyperbolic – the present government neither is contesting this case to obtain these powers (instead using it as a way to garner sympathy with the gutter press and hard Brexiteers, two largely separate groups), nor does it seem poised to want to utilise them should they get them. Yet when making a political decision of this magnitude of importance, that potentially could “subvert our democracy”, as these papers take ironic pleasures in arguing, the judges of the Supreme Court are being incredibly prudent, sensible, and legally correct to follow the letter of the law – Parliamentary sovereignty – and common sense in preserving it.

Yet some fear a stitch-up, that its just a legal ploy to delay and ultimately stop Britain’s departure from the EU. Therefore, a further key point must be that the decision that the judges made was not contrary to the result of the EU Referendum. These judges are not trying to oppose the unquestionable outcome of this June’s referendum. The argument that critics of these judges have made is based on the idea that, by stopping the government from triggering “Article 50” by itself, and giving it to Parliament instead, the judges have tried to block Britain’s exit of the EU. This fear is based on the fact that most MPs (around 2/3) campaigned for the “IN” campaign in the run-up to the referendum, and that, therefore, they will stick to their pre-referendum positions and vote against Brexit.

MPs will not, as a whole, vote against Britain leaving the EU. Firstly because it would infantile and arrogant were they to ignore what Brits declared in June (and, despite claims to the contrary, probably would give the same result if rerun tomorrow), despite their personal views. Secondly, most MPs do listen to their constituents and the public more broadly, as examples like Jo Cox show. Thirdly, for the cynics, it would be political suicide for every politician (save the Nationalists) if they were the one who blocked Brexit indefinitely this way. Nothing would do more than this to polarise our politics and alienate further British citizens. And for all these reasons, MPs will not vote against Brexit. Individuals may: One can easily imagine the SNP, and some Cambridge or London MPs – ie. from strongly pro-EU (70%+) constituencies – voting against Brexit, but this is a minority of MPs; and they would be quite reasonably fulfilling their functions as representative to their own constituents. The government not only commands a majority in Parliament that they could use to coerce the majority of their MPs to stick to Brexit (not that I reckon that this would be needed), and the opposition Labour Party is certainly in no position to organise  a stand against the government on this issue (nor any will, given Corbyn’s personal opinion of Brexit).

This ruling is not a roadblock on the path to Brexit, and in fact can improve it. By mandating that Parliament must be consulted, Parliament can fulfill its most important role, to scrutinise the government’s actions and bills. By forcing a proper debate in Parliament, our MPs can make sure that the Brexit that does happen will be far fairer to the entire country. The interests of every community, industry, and constituency can at least be recognised, instead of being ignored, as the government would seem to prefer. There are several parts of the EU which it would be a good idea to keep close ties with – a common drugs policy for biomedical research and access for certain industries into the EU market stand out – which currently the government seems unwilling to consider. Though this could prolong the time until we do leave, surely it is better to get the best deal possible, that will define our relationship with Europe for decades to come? To fluff it up for our children for, maybe, a 4 month quicker Brexit would be the height of stupidity.

We voted to protect our national sovereignty – let’s not allow the government to steal it from us before we’ve even left the EU. What was the rallying cry for those on the Leave campaign should, and still could, be the banner to which we flock: for the defence of our democracy, our Parliament’s place in it, and our own. By giving Parliament the power to challenge and work with the government on the most important issue of the millennium so far, we can strengthen our democracy, and make sure that the Brexit that we emerge with is as good as can possibly be, for more than just the elite.