Tuesday, 11 October 2016

She's Got Control

The theme of the Conservative Party Conference was control. Reflecting Theresa May's personal style, evident in her long stint as Home Secretary, this was combined with a refusal to divulge details. The centrepiece was not so much the Prime Minister's promise to invoke Article 50 by next March - which was always likely given the need to complete the two-year process before the EU Parliamentary elections in May 2019 - but the promise of a Great Repeal Bill. This sounds decisive, but all it does is enshrine existing EU legislation in UK law. It doesn't tell us which regulations will be repealed or when. Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt told doctors to stop arguing, thereby all but admitting that he had lost the argument with them; Michael Fallon promised that British troops would no longer be hamstrung by human rights law; and Amber Rudd threatened to name and shame the employers of immigrants, a plan that unravelled within hours under the weight of its own stupidity.

This playing to the authoritarian crowd should remind us that Brexit was actually driven by middle class reactionaries, not the northern working class, and the unstated assumption behind "take back control" is a hoarding of power in traditional hands, not its diffusion among the people. The theory of subsidiarity, as employed by eurosceptics, was always an elite manoeuvre. If there was a hint of "we are the masters now" in the total eclipse of David Cameron and all his metrosexual works, it would be wrong to imagine that unreconstructed Thatcherites are back in the saddle. Justine Greening lifting the ban on new grammar schools is hardly on a par with Edwina Currie brandishing a pair of handcuffs as an appropriate response to the 1981 riots. More remarkable was May's celebration of an activist state in language that echoed Barack Obama's "we built that" rather than Ronald Reagan's "government is the problem".

While many assume that her promise of workers on company boards and another crackdown on tax-dodgers is just the cynical adoption of populist tropes for short-term gain, it's worth noting that these are consistent with her emphasis on an organic Tory tradition of citizenship and a suspicion of metropolitan elites, which probably owes as much to the mood music of G K Chesterton as the civic probity of Joseph Chamberlain. Real power and wealth will not be challenged, but the rhetorical enemy within has changed. The implication of Rudd's plan is that the nation is undermined not just by the bolshie and the feckless but by the selfish and the unpatriotic: by liberal elites and unscrupulous employers as well as trade unions and benefit-wallahs. Though the news has emphasised immigration and the economy, May has chosen to focus her administration on sovereignty. Post-conference, that will allow the authoritarians to be reconciled with the "liberal leavers", like Andrew Lilico, and Panglossians, like Daniel Hannan, who plaintively insist that Brexit was not a vote for xenophobia.

As I noted on the eve of the EU Referendum, sovereignty has both an internal and an external aspect: who is in charge domestically and what rights and obligations do we concede abroad. The former is foundational, the latter contingent, which is why demanding clarity on whether Brexit - an issue of external sovereignty - will be "hard" or "soft" is absurd. It will be whatever we manage to get, which is probably a lot less than we want though slightly more than the EU27 are currently minded to give. It also ignores the reality that there will be multiple Brexits, including the bilateral negotiations with Ireland over the border and reciprocal rights (the n-word will be avoided in respect of Scotland, but it will amount to much the same thing). May knows she is on more solid ground in emphasising internal sovereignty, which also appeals to her own authoritarian instincts, so we can expect illiberal kite-flying at home to be as accurate a gauge of the progress of negotiations with the EU as the rise and fall of the pound. If Amber Rudd next proposes to barcode all foreign nationals, you'll know David Davis is floundering.

In this light, the Prime Minister's refusal to allow the House of Commons a vote on the government's negotiating strategy is neither hypocritical nor unconstitutional. Parliamentary sovereignty does not mean that the Commons holds ultimate power. It is just shorthand for the Crown in Parliament, which in practice means the exercise of prerogative powers by ministers. The executive has always had the whip hand and the last decade has seen Parliament's ability to hold it to account wither as select committees went for TV ratings and Labour MPs focused their energies on internal party battles. Both can be thought of as examples of institutional rot. The restoration of parliamentary sovereignty demanded by leavers ahead of the 23rd of June meant, in practice, the removal of EU political constraints on the power of the UK executive. The derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights trailled by Michael Fallon is an example of that new-found "freedom": the ability to derogate was always there, but held in check by peer-pressure in the EU.

Ignorance about the UK constitution is endemic, largely because obscurity and opacity are governing strategies. Myths include: Parliament is sovereign; the monarchy is purely symbolic; and we (meaning MPs) historically made all our own laws. An example of this is the claim that because the Tories were elected in 2015 on a manifesto commitment to maintain access to the European single market, they cannot now pursue a hard Brexit without prior parliamentary approval. This is simply wrong. Manifestos have no constitutional standing outside the Salisbury/Addison convention which holds that the House of Lords cannot oppose the second or third reading of a bill explicitly promised at a general election. There is no constitutional requirement on a government to be consistent with its own manifesto. This is why governments routinely break promises (e.g. "no top-down reorganisation of the NHS"), citing changed circumstances or even, in 2010, the demands of coalition.

In terms of Our Island Story, we are currently heading at speed, like a brand spanking new royal yacht, towards the isolationist end of the spectrum, which is really what's worrying the like of Lilico and Hannan. Their fear is that the economy will be damaged for the sake of popular support. This was to be expected, and while they're right that Brexit isn't just about immigration, it was certainly about a rejection of the outside world, not an embrace of it, so it's hard to see how self-inflicted damage could have been avoided. The whiff of the 1950s in government rhetoric is not just about white faces and restoring the privileges of class over cash (Philip Green must now suspect his knighthood is all but lost), but the return of a society of petty rules and a state committed to benevolent surveillance. The BBC's recent brief revival of Hancock's Half Hour, that paean to British ennui and frustrated ambition, may prove prophetic.


  1. Look out also for ID cards to re-surface. It's suits May's authoritarian leaning, and I can't see how we're going to exclude "foreigners" (however defined) from services otherwise, which would be a populist policy. Framed appropriately, MPs will find it hard to oppose.

    1. I suspect they'll introduce them at a similar time to when they're forcing us to pay another £80 for a blue passport even though the 'old' one hasn't expired yet....

  2. I enjoyed this one Dave.