Joyce McMillan: British political class has failed us

Failure to effectively confront the hard right over Brexit amounts to a serious betrayal, writes Joyce McMillan
Royal Albert Hall concert venue in LondonRoyal Albert Hall concert venue in London
Royal Albert Hall concert venue in London

It was Queen Victoria who famously said that the Albert Hall reminded her of the British Constitution, and while we might feel, 146 years on, that the venerable building in Kensington Gore still seems much better organised and more symmetrical than the UK’s haphazard unwritten constitutional arrangements, it certainly shares a similar sense of its own grandeur.

The sovereignty of Parliament, the independence of the judiciary, the fundamental rights of habeas corpus and fair trial –all these are supposed to form the basic structure of the state in which we live. And the same goes for most western states, including, of course, the United States, which – in a similar set of grand domed buildings across its capital – seeks to enshrine the greatest phrases from its own founding documents, and from the world’s most famous written constitution.

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Today, though, we live in an age of new, garish brutalism in politics, when tweets from the gilded heights of Trump Tower cast a shadow over the Capitol, and the post-Soviet Russian constitution which flourished briefly in the early 1990s is now largely a dead letter.

And since the Brexit victory it has to be said that an echo of this brutalist mood seems to be spreading through some parts of the British body politic.

Since last June, there have been personal attacks on judges who have considered that parliament should have a say in the Brexit process, and even some right-wing rumblings about abolishing the House of Lords, should it try to slow the Brexit process. This week, there was the resignation of the UK’s European Union ambassador, Sir Ivan Rogers, amid attempts to undermine the independence even of the prized non-partisan Sir Humphreys of the British civil service.

And beyond that, there is the increasingly crass disregard of the Brexit camp–- and the Prime Minister, who seems helpless to resist them – for matters which surely should be of interest to any remotely competent practitioner of British statecraft.

If the Tory Party wants to hang on to Scotland – and the loss of such a vast chunk of territory always seems, in the end, to strike Tory prime ministers as unthinkable – then it should surely be giving some constructive thought to how to offer some comfort to the 68 per cent of people north of the Border who voted Remain.

If it has any claim to British statesmanship at all, it should surely, before the referendum was even called, have given some though to the possible impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and its still-delicate peace process, yet there is no sign that any such thought was given – to the point where the Irish government would, in my view, be well within its rights to delay agreement on a Brexit deal indefinitely, until this failure is remedied.

And above all, it now seems that almost no substantial group at Westminster – certainly not the hopelessly divided Labour Party – is willing to stand up and speak for the 16 million British citizens who voted for none of this, and clearly wanted to remain in the European Union; indeed the Brexiteers now seem to have convinced themselves that they have an “overwhelming mandate” for their policy, although that is clearly not the case. By this time, the debate at Westminster should have begun to produce a strong coalition of those who, while accepting the referendum result, want to keep the consequent damage to a minimum. The SNP and the Liberal Democrats – the two parties which are clear that they do not want a “hard” Brexit – should be combining with most of the Labour Party, and the rump of Tory Remain supporters, to put a powerful case for the so-called “Norwegian option”, a swift transfer to membership of the European Economic Area, without the full rights and obligations of EU membership, but with continuing rights of free trade and free movement.

Yet such a coalition at Westminster is not emerging, and is not likely to emerge, mainly because both Labour and the remaining moderates in the Tory Party have developed a near-pathological fear of confronting the hard Brexit faction on the matter of immigration – EEA membership would broadly require continuing freedom of movement in Europe.

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Despite the obvious narrowness of the Brexit vote, it has become the received wisdom at Westminster that the people overwhelmingly hate immigration, and want it reduced to a minimum, regardless of the undoubted cost of such a policy to an ageing Britain’s economic vitality.

And rather than confront this nonsense and argue it down – rather than listen to the millions of Brexit voters who say that they did not cast their vote against immigration, but against years of economic abuse, marginalisation, and declining real wages – elements of the Labour Party continue to prevaricate, in ways that only confirm and strengthen the political agenda of the far right.

What we are observing is a failure of the British political class on a massive scale; a grotesque act of irresponsibility by a Conservative government obsessed with its own internal tensions, followed by a complete lack of serious planning for Brexit, and a failure of opposition that amounts to an complete betrayal of at least half of the British people.

To those of us who have already voted Yes once for Scottish independence, all of this perhaps seems like a powerful argument for Scotland to get out, and try to rebuild something more rational, before we sustain any more damage to our social fabric and long-term economic prospects.

Yet whatever we do, the same post-Brexit England will be there, across the Border, dominated by the politics of a strident Tory Right for the foreseeable future; still our largest trading partner and inevitable bedfellow.

And sooner or later, whatever political framework we choose, there will therefore be battles to be fought, for the precious constitutional rights, checks and balances that are now being thrown into jeopardy.

We can only hope that when that fight comes, it will still involve words, argument and the ballot box, rather than the blood, sweat, and tears that was asked of our grandparents’ generation, the last time political brutalism came so decisively into fashion.