It’s being reported today (Sunday) that the British Government finds it “extremely concerning” that MPs are trying to delay Article 50 in order to avoid a no deal. It’s a bit like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when our hero and his chums are in a river and about to go over a waterfall. Theresa May would say it’s extremely concerning that people in the boat are looking to see what they can use as an anchor. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a tired and hackneyed movie containing nothing much that was new, original, or intelligent, one which kept repeating old tropes from earlier in the franchise and which had long since worn out its welcome. Very much like Theresa May’s government. It’s even got the aliens with strange heads too, which is possibly the only way to explain Michael Gove.
It’s such a mess that we’d be in far safer and more competent hands if the Brexit process was being driven by Prince Philip. He’s not sorry about the dangers he causes either. Although admittedly with Prince Philip we’d have a driver with less of a sense of entitlement. What’s driving Theresa’s ire is that tomorrow the Commons is due to debate an amendment which seeks to wrest control over Commons business out of the hands of the Government and give it to MPs. It’s an attempt to limit the overweening power of the executive branch of the government and restore it to the legislature in a state which infamously lacks a written constitution and which over the past few decades has slowly turned into what has been described as an elective dictatorship.
The phrase elective dictatorship was first used by the Conservative politician and intellectual Quentin Hogg, back when the Conservative party had intellectuals. He used it to describe the UK of the late 1960s when in his opinion the British Parliament had become dominated by the government. As a Tory, Hogg was of course using it to describe the Labour government of Harold Wilson. However back in the 1960s the cabinet, of governments of either party, was far more an exercise in collective responsibility. Cabinets contained big beasts, who were capable of standing up to a Prime Minister who was very much regarded as primus inter pares, the first amongst equals. It took the long dark decade and a half of Thatcher to transform the cabinet and the government into a tool and instrument of the Prime Minister.
The theory of UK government is that sovereignty rests in a Parliament which is elected by the people. The reality is that when there is a majority government, absolute power rests with the Prime Minister, who is able to impose her or his will. Theresa May is the head of a minority government, but one which is acting as though it had a majority. Moreover Theresa May is a Prime Minister whose personal authority is tattered and discredited. She has done nothing to endear herself to her own backbenchers, never mind the other parties.
The amendment to be debated tomorrow takes advantage of the historic weakness of the Prime Minister. Put forward jointly by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservative Nick Boles, the amendment seeks to change the timetabling rules of the House of Commons. It all sounds a bit abstract and arcane, but what MPs are trying to do is to wrest control of Commons business out of the hands of the government and restore it to MPs. That will allow MPs to bring forward bills and amendments and ensure that there is time for them to be debated and voted on, instead of hoping that the government will do so. We’ve already seen how this government is hell bent on trying to avoid being held to account by that Parliament whose sovereignty it claims to be seeking to restore. No wonder Theresa finds the amendment “extremely concerning”.
The reason all this is becoming an issue just now is that by taking control of parliamentary business back from the government, MPs will then be able to change the existing provision in the EU Withdrawal Act which the government rammed through in order to placate extreme Brexists, the clause which states that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March with or without a deal being reached. If they can do that, they remove Theresa May’s big stick, the big stick which remains her only means of exerting any authority. It’s only the threat of falling out of the EU on 29 March without any deal that allows her to continue to insist, despite the historic defeat last week, that it’s her deal or no deal.
Taking control of Commons business out of the hands of government will also allow MPs to explore the option of another EU referendum. However there doesn’t seem to be a majority for it amongst MPs, given recent reports that up to half of Labour’s front bench – those in leave voting constituencies in England – would resign in protest if the party was to support a second EU vote.
We’re in a mess. There’s no clear route out of it. Given these circumstances I have to disagree with the article published in the Scotsman by Joyce McMillan last week, in which she counselled that Scotland must wait until there is a national consensus in favour of independence before pressing for another indy referendum. I have a lot of respect for Joyce, but I think she’s wrong. The mess that the UK has got itself into means that it is absolutely imperative for the people of Scotland to have a say on this country’s future.
Joyce is concerned that Scottish independence must be achieved legally. I agree with her entirely there. Where I disagree with her is that this is not Spain. The unwritten constitution of the UK gives Scotland’s independence campaign considerably greater freedom of movement than the Spanish constitution gives to Catalonia’s. We have options in Scotland that would be illegal for Catalonia. It would not be illegal for the Scottish Government to announce its desire to test in the courts whether it could hold a consultative referendum, which is after all what Alex Salmond was planning to do if David Cameron rejected a Section 30 Order in 2012. If the courts find that Holyrood does indeed have a right to consult with the people of Scotland for their views, then the referendum would be perfectly legal. Equally it’s perfectly legal for Scotland’s pro-independence parties to convert any Scottish election into an effective referendum on independence by converting the vote into a plebiscite election on independence. As I have written before, none of these routes require Theresa May’s permission or a Section 30 order.
The time to go for a Scottish vote is when the machinations in the House of Commons play themselves out. It’s less likely this week than last week that there will be a snap General Election or a second EU referendum, but they remain possibilities. As soon as we know there won’t be, that’s the time for Scotland to make its move. One way or another, the people of Scotland must have a say, we must have a voice. Is Scotland content to remain a subordinate part of an elective dictatorship in which the dictator isn’t elected by Scotland, or do we wish to live in a representative democracy with strong checks and balances on the powers of the executive branch of government, a democracy in which the sovereignty of the people is enshrined in a written constitution.
That’s the choice facing us. We can stay in the UK’s temple of doom, or we can forge our own path. It’s either rowing our own boat, or sitting helplessly as we plunge off the waterfall and drown in the hubris of British exceptionalism.
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