Saturday, May 26, 2018

A time to speak

It has been 23 months since the last post. I was drawn to that one by a kind of euphoria after the Brexit vote. At the time when I commented David Cameron was still Prime Minister, although he had announced his intention to resign (as the post said, in October- but David Cameron's word was never worth much if he could find space to backtrack...). I wouldn't have expected the next Prime Minister to be Theresa May, but retrospectively the 'pair of safe hands' cliche suited the mood of the moment. The fact that she was a remain voter was weighed as a positive, given the carnage of careers among the remain side as recriminations set in. The hysteria on their side as Cameron and Osborne mutually walked the plank was a de facto argument that remainers needed to be reassured, but throwing sweets to a screaming child is an equally responsible reaction.

Hence, although in the subsequent elections the Conservatives won (just) on a platform which included leaving the EU, the cabinet is actually balanced in favour of remain, if we count the crucial consideration of how they voted in the referendum. Moreover, those closest to Theresa May, like Damian Green (who would it seems be a long way from his current eminence but for contact with May) are also remainers.

Should we be surprised that remainers, er, remain? Much as I dislike the monikers associated with the two sides (Brexit is an ugly word for the claim of legislative supremacy for the British parliament which is at the heart of the matter) they do crystallize, in the unintended way slogans often do, something at the core of things. In this case, another way to see 'remain' is 'remain as we are', embrace the status quo. This was always the strongest position of those who want the EU as their future, to argue that things are not so bad, why change them? It is always the best argument against the other side in a 'change' referendum, and in this case, given the way that EU law and institutions have woven themselves into British ones, the argument could be combined with the sense that out there, in the deep blue beyond the EU, (as the old maps proverbially indicated) 'here be dragons'.

It's striking, in a way, that the politicians overwhelmingly voted remain (more than 50% of  Tories, even, did so) despite purporting to represent their constituents for decades in some cases. It's not exactly surprising though- it was the world they had known as politicians. They often cut their teeth in the Major-Blair years with a cross-party consensus on the membership of the EU, and on more detailed issues such as the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. These treaties and the Directives flowing from them also determined the parameters of their discussions in Parliament.

None of the 11 general elections between 1972 and 2016 had been decided on the question of European Union membership or any issue which threatened it. It was a done deal, the backdrop of our affairs rather than the substance of them, and yet the hidden shaper of the substance which actually meant that abdication of roles was a fact of life in the Westminster Parliament.

That's why the decision of the 52% was so remarkable in 2016- it was a rebellion, not against a defined specific issue, but against the presumed context behind them. It was not really even a rebellion, in the sense that it was a restatement of desire for British institutions to be the superstructure of our democratic choices. 

Today, as things stand (23 months on from June 2016), that superstructure is still supplied by the EU. The UK's MPs still exist alongside the EU's UK MEPs, who occupy a position closer to the mainsprings of power and patronage, in the sense of the power to define the bounds of law and the power to bestow patronage flowing from these. Thus it happens that MEPs are paid more than MPs. 

This helps explain why the process of leaving the EU is so tortuous: literally, livelihoods depend on the UK's membership. It so happens that the relatively few livelihoods connected with the EU are those of the ruling class in the UK, either those who bestow, receive or rely on the EU's patronage and acquiescence. Not being a Conservative MP I feel free to go further than Jacob Rees Mogg's sensible recent statement that 'you wonder if the government really wants to leave at all'. I don't wonder, I know they don't, because in the best case they are surrounded by people who don't want to leave (ie. the civil service whose status is enhanced so much on the European stage), and these people know just enough technical verbiage to intimidate their humble elected political masters. In the worst case, the politicians themselves are angling for benefits from a pro-EU political line (see Morgan, N. MP for Loughborough). 

The campaign for the (EU) status quo hasn't stopped since the referendum, and has gained momentum based on the self-belief and self-entitlement of its proponents (see Blair, T and the majority Blair-Cameron appointed House of Lords), and their essential contempt for their opponents (the great unwashed). This has combined with the EU negotiating outrage that its power is challenged, and the desire of the Republic of Ireland to undermine the express democratic will of the British people (or as they would say, the English and Welsh peoples, without the Scots).

The phrase losing the battle but winning the war comes to mind for the remainers, but here is the frustrating part: this is a political question about economic matters, sovereignty, representation and identity. None of this would be as fixed post-Brexit as it is before (and no, Brexit hasn't happened yet, despite desires to claim the public relations high ground and define its character beforehand). Alignment with the EU could be as close as the voting cycle allowed, which is to say as close as you like provided that no one unduly suffers (see, the entire British fishing industry). 

The country where I was born assumed for itself that the government it elected would follow the will of its people in the key elements of its activities (defence, border control, raising taxes, providing for welfare, economic regulation). I would like to remain a citizen of that country, the Britain that was and (still, despite all) remains a city on a hill.

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