• Parliament’s Failure

    Amidst all the “shock horror” of recent days, the convolutions of law and constitution, and the parliamentary confusion and wrangling, there is one undeniable fact arising from the Brexit saga that should really cause concern.

    A full three years after the British people voted to leave the EU, a Parliament stuffed full of MPs elected on the promise that they would “respect the result” of the referendum has still failed to deliver on that promise.

    Instead, those MPs have contrived to frustrate the will of the people. They have, by implicitly working with EU leaders, made sure that an acceptable exit “deal” is not available, and have then gone further by placing obstacles in the way of departing without a deal – and all this, presumably, in the hope that Brexit can be forestalled and ultimately negated.

    These manoeuvrings may have “succeeded” in stymieing Brexit so far, and those responsible may hope to avoid any recriminations on the part of that majority who looked to Parliament to act according to their wishes and now feel betrayed. But they will be disappointed; the long-term damage to the principle of representative democracy is incalculable.

    Even in terms of the immediate objectives of those who have conjured up these delaying tactics, the desired outcome looks likely to prove elusive. Those whose response to defeat for their viewpoint in the referendum has been a rearguard action using these guerrilla tactics do not seem to realise that the difficulties they have helped to engineer in the way of the UK leaving the EU make the eventual departure even more certain.

    The ordinary British voter is unlikely to conclude, in the light of the parliamentary difficulties, that Brexit should be abandoned. They are far more likely to see those difficulties as further evidence that EU membership is a burden and constraint that must be removed.

    Having decided, after 40 years of membership, that it was a bad idea that had turned out badly, they will see continued EU intransigence over the process of departure as further evidence that – if even leaving cannot be achieved without seeking permission – the sooner we remove the shackles the better.

    And it will not have escaped their notice that those who are responsible for delaying Brexit today are the very same people who took us into the whole sorry shambles in the first place. All those bien pensants, those who “know best”, are precisely those who assured us in the 1960s and 1970s that joining the Common Market would usher in a new era of prosperity and national success.

    Those of us who warned at the time that the consequences of membership would be anything but beneficial have, sadly, been proved right. There has been no economic revival – only perennial trade deficits and a decimated British manufacturing industry. Despite the promise that there was no intention to create a European super-state, we found ourselves subject to European laws, economic policies and jurisdiction, with no ability to decide our own destiny or even to control our own borders.

    When we have to go cap in hand just for the privilege of leaving, the British people are not likely to change their minds about the acceptability of government from Brussels. They are not likely to look kindly on those who misled them in the first place about the nature of the arrangement, and who are now compounding that misjudgment by colluding with the EU in order to stop us from leaving.

    Even if the people were to be required, on the ground that they got it wrong the first time, to go through the process again, the machinations which have been resorted to in order to keep us in the EU are unlikely to induce them to change their minds – quite the reverse.

    What many voters now want most is to be shot of the whole sorry business, and as quickly as possible. We will then, they feel, be free for the first time in decades to seek our own salvation. They will realise that the dire warnings about our future outside the EU look very unconvincing when one grasps that that is exactly where the whole of the rest of the world has always been and continues to be, and that it doesn’t seem to have done them much harm.

    The guerrilla warfare faced by Brexiteers may have some success as a diversionary and delaying tactic, but it is, in other words, most unlikely to change the eventual outcome.

    Bryan Gould
    26 September 2019

  • Parliament and the Executive

    The Brexit issue has certainly brought with it a series of apparently difficult constitutional issues, many of them concerning the respective roles of the executive and parliament. Most of them arise because of the unwillingness of MPs, despite their professions to the contrary, to be bound by a constitutional rarity – a referendum – and as a consequence their determination to use parliament to stand in the way of the executive’s commitment to give effect to the outcome of that referendum.

    No one can be surprised, therefore, that the issue is increasingly seen by the general public as a battle between the popular will, as manifested in the referendum result, and their elected representatives in parliament. That perception has been greatly helped by the Speaker, who seems determined to go out in a blaze of glory, and by his efforts to portray himself as the defender of parliament’s rights and therefore of democracy.

    The prorogation of parliament has of course been the issue that has attracted most attention and is most easily characterised as an assault on constitutional convention, despite the fact that parliament is, as a matter of course, always prorogued at this time of year. But of equal, if not greater, novelty and significance is another, and related, development.

    If there has been one step above all others that has “stymied” the government, it has been the passage of legislation that “instructs” the Prime Minister to seek an extension of the Brexit departure date from the EU. If there is any measure in the Brexit saga that breaks new constitutional ground it is this Act of Parliament.

    Parliament is of course able to pass any legislation it likes, but to use legislation to instruct a particular member of the executive to take a particular step is to see the legislature straying well and truly beyond its usual remit and into the realm of the executive. An Act of Parliament is a measure that almost always has a general application to at least a group, if not all, of the population as a whole, and its effect is usually to change the law for those affected.

    To assume the role of an executive body and to prescribe a particular executive act is at the very least a departure from the norm. It represents the interjection of parliament into the usual relationship between the executive and the electorate – one in which the elected government seeks to act on its undertakings to those who voted it into office.

    Speaker Bercow may use his best and long-practised persona as the defender of democracy to try to persuade people that parliament has behaved properly in this matter but there is no concealing the relative novelty and far-reaching extent of what it has tried to do in this instance.

    If we are to have a workable system of parliamentary government, it is of course essential that parliament should be able hold the executive to account at every turn – but that is very different from claiming the right and power to dictate to the executive that it must take a particular step – and nor should the fact that the step required is of great significance be taken as providing a shred of justification for this power grab by parliament.

    For those who are quick to condemn the executive’s attempts to deliver on its promises, and to complain about constitutional impropriety when it does so, a period of reflection on these issues may be in order.

    Bryan Gould
    13 September 2019

  • Corbyn and Brexit

    As the Brexit saga staggers on, the focus is naturally enough on the Prime Minister and his attempts to achieve Brexit “do or die”. But the role played by the Leader of the Opposition is of almost equal interest and complexity.

    The first problem for Jeremy Corbyn is that he seems unable, under the pressure of varying advice from different quarters, to decide on the stance he should take on Brexit. This is surprising, given that all the evidence suggests that he is a euro-sceptic from a long way back.

    My own impression of him in the days when we were both backbench Labour MPs was that he was, like most on the left of the party, suspicious of an arrangement that was manifestly dominated by bankers and bureaucrats and designed to serve the interests of big business and multinational corporations.

    And in more recent (and especially post-referendum) times, he can hardly have been unaware that it has been his own voters who were most grievously disadvantaged by the high food prices, and the threats to jobs, wage levels, housing, schools and health services, that came with EU membership.

    Even his much-touted internationalism surely does not preclude some recognition of the undoubted desire of ordinary citizens to live in a country in which they are masters of their own destiny.

    Be all this as it may, there is an even more impenetrable mystery at the heart of his current Brexit stance. How is it that he does not take the chance to press for resolving the Brexit impasse by going to the people? What Leader of the Opposition worth his salt would not leap at the chance of a general election, so as to submit the government’s record – on Brexit and everything else – to the judgment of the people?

    It beggars belief that Jeremy Corbyn would lead his troops into the division lobbies in order to negate the possibility of a general election that would offer a means not only of resolving the Brexit issue but also of replacing a government of which he has been so bitterly critical.

    The answer to these questions is surely, after a mere moment’s reflection, painfully clear. Jeremy Corbyn does not want an election at this juncture, because he fears that it would be primarily about Brexit, and that Labour, in the light of his own prevarications on the issue, would be soundly defeated.

    So much for the constant message from Remainers (including those who currently seem to have Corbyn’s ear) that Brexit must not come to pass before the people have a further opportunity to express an opinion.

    There is, however, an obvious escape route for Corbyn from this dilemma. He could re-affirm his earlier assurance that Labour will accept the referendum decision and deliver Brexit, thereby removing Brexit as the dividing line between the two major parties and as the potentially election-winning issue for Boris Johnson.

    Taking this step would not only make political sense. It would allow Corbyn to stay true to what I believe are his own instincts (and politicians are always more effective if they are seen to be sincere and not merely posturing) and to campaign successfully, with a clear mind and conscience, on holding a Tory government to account in respect of its whole record and not just Brexit.

    Bryan Gould
    10 September 2019


  • Democracy – I Don’t Think So

    So, those who “know best” have again done their worst. While constantly claiming to be the guardians of democracy and the constitution, and respecters of the 2016 referendum result, diehard Remainers (who have never brought themselves to believe that their advice could have been rejected) have striven might and main to prevent Brexit – whether with a deal or not – from happening.

    Not only have they used their votes in parliament to frustrate the will of the people – they have now gone further, and have removed from British negotiators with the EU the one bargaining chip available to them in their attempts to achieve a negotiated deal that would be acceptable. A no-deal Brexit has, as a consequence, become much more likely – even if later rather than sooner.

    By removing through legislative means the possibility of a no-deal exit, they have ensured that the EU will maintain its refusal to negotiate further. They have not only, in other words, deliberately sabotaged the outcome mandated by the referendum result; they have gone further and ensured that, even as we attempt to leave, the power of decision over the whole matter of Brexit remains with those whose control over us as EU members has already been found by the British people to be intolerable.

    Far from supporting British democracy, they have preferred to concede to an outside agency the power to decide how we should govern ourselves, irrespective of the declared preference of the British people. There can be no greater demonstration of their refusal to understand, let alone respect, the referendum result.

    They can have no complaint if the response of voters is to see the issue as one of parliament against the people – little wonder that they are not willing to have an election on the issue. There can be nothing that more thoroughly discredits the whole concept of a representative democracy than that the supposed “representatives” disclaim any responsibility to “represent” their constituents.

    The damage done by the last few weeks to our parliamentary democracy is incalculable. The whole concept of an arrogant “ruling class”, cloaking its pretensions to infallibility in a democratic pretence, has been greatly reinforced. We should not need reminding of what usually happens when the people lose faith in the good faith and readiness of those who govern them to serve their interests. Our rulers will have no one to blame but themselves if their short-sightedness and arrogance produce their inevitable outcomes.

    Bryan Gould
    5 September 2019

  • A Post-Brexit Europe

    In the 1960s, after I had graduated with a first-class Oxford postgraduate law degree, I joined the British Foreign Office as the top entrant of my year. There, I worked for a couple of years on European affairs and was eventually posted to the Embassy in Brussels.

    After this exposure to the realities of what was then an emerging “Europe”, I concluded that joining the Common Market would be against Britain’s interests – but when I expressed this view on entering the House of Commons in 1974, I was immediately labelled as an “anti-European”.

    I had to grin and bear this ridiculous label – all the more ridiculous, so it seemed to me, when I thought of my love for European art, music, literature, architecture and food, and the enjoyable holidays I had spent in France and Italy and Portugal, and recalled that my wife and I had met, fallen in love and married in Brussels, and that our son was born there.

    That experience has led me to what to some may seem a surprising conclusion – that, far from being the promised land of European cooperation, the European Union is in fact the major obstacle to a fruitful and rewarding relationship between the UK and Europe.

    The fact is that a full and proper recognition of what each has to offer the other – and especially what Europe has to offer us – has been obstructed by all the baggage that has come with it. To limit the possible forms our relationship could take to membership of the EU is to accept the whole unwieldy and uncompromising super-structure built by those intent on, despite early assurances to the contrary, creating a single European state.

    It has meant accepting as the foundation stone of “Europe” a Franco-German deal that, from the outset, was inimical to our interests. It has meant accepting economic policies designed to serve the interests of multinational corporations and reflecting the neo-liberal convictions of German bankers. It has meant recognising the European Court of Justice as our supreme court, able to over-rule our own courts and strike down laws passed by our own parliament, and thereby removing from us one of the essential powers of a sovereign state.

    It has meant being unable to control and protect our own borders, and unable to restrict the inflow of foreign workers. It has meant being unable to regulate our own trade relationships, denying us access to efficiently produced food and raw materials from around the world and leaving us powerless to defend British manufacturing against powerful competition from the Continent. It has meant paying a substantial annual subscription for the privilege of belonging.

    Little wonder, then, that the “Europe” we were commited to was rejected in the 2016 referendum. But there is a corollary that promises a much brighter future for UK-EU cooperation.

    With Brexit achieved and behind us, the way will then be clear to build a much more beneficial relationship for both parties. We can then give proper recognition to what has always been true – that we are historically, geographically, economically, politically, culturally and militarily part of Europe – a Europe that is not narrowly defined by the EU.

    With the obstacles to cooperation removed, we can then, as a sovereign state, make a fresh start and build a mutually acceptable and rewarding relationship with our friends across that narrow body of water we call the Channel.

    We can, as one sovereign entity with another, negotiate in good faith a sensible trading relationship that serves both our interests. We can focus on, and extend, what I like to call “functional” cooperation – that is, working together on issues where we can both gain from sharing our expertise. In matters of developing technology, research, communications, education, foreign policy, military preparedness, there is everything to be said for working together.

    We can each bring to the relationship our own particular strengths. From the British side, this would mean deploying in the common interest the expertise as a financial centre developed by the City of London – there would seem to be no point, post-Brexit, in the EU trying to set up a comparable capability of its own, when it is already available on its doorstep and has experience of working in both interests.

    If we can cast aside pre-conceptions and have the breadth of vision to recognise the possibilities, in other words, a new golden age for European cooperation is possible. We can each strengthen our “European-ness” in a cultural sense, and enjoy what each can offer. Brexit should certainly not be the end of European cooperation; it may well be the launching pad for a much closer and more fulfilling partnership.

    Bryan Gould
    13 August 2019