Notes From the Margins…

Parliament Passes the Bomb

  • January 30, 2019
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Some of you may remember the family game called Pass the Bomb.   For those haven’t played it, the rules are simple: You pass a ticking bomb back and forth between the group and try to make sure you aren’t the one holding it when it ‘explodes’.

This is what parliament did yesterday, in a monumental dereliction of duty that historians are unlikely to look kindly upon.

For a brief period, following Theresa May’s massive defeat two weeks ago, a tiny chink of light broke through the black political clouds that have hovered over the nation for the last two and a half years, and it seemed that parliament had finally found a way to reassert itself over an arrogant and overweening executive.

These were heady days – or so it seemed –  when even Nicky Morgan seemed to have acquired an unlikely gravitas; when politicians on both sides of the house negotiated frantically with each other in the corridors of Westminster without any apparent direction from the government or the shadow cabinet.    At last, it seemed, our elected representatives – or at least some of them them – seemed to recognise that we faced a genuine national emergency which parliament had a duty to prevent or mitigate.

Last night these hopes were snuffed out, as parliament relinquished the control it had tried to claw back, and voted down five amendments that might have made it possible to delay the withdrawal process, revoke Article 50, call a second referendum, or  even propose alternative withdrawal arrangements in the event that May was unable to come up with any herself.

Even the mild Cooper amendment was voted down – with the disgraceful support of 14 Labour MPs.

Instead parliament voted for a non-binding arrangement that calls for no deal to be avoided, while offering no legislative mechanisms that might prevent it, and which sends May back to Brussels to revise an agreement that she herself agreed to, in an attempt to convince the EU to accept unspecified arrangements to avoid a hard Irish border which have already been rejected.

The Tory newspapers are hailing this debacle as a ‘triumph’ for May, but to many of us it looks like a collective failure of the British political class.  Ever since this horror show unfolded in June 2016,  the two main political parties have been mesmerised by the ‘will of the people’  – an abstraction based on a narrow and deeply-flawed referendum result,  which asked the public only whether it wanted to leave or remain in the EU, and did not go into any detail about how this departure should be effected.

Sensible and responsible politicians would not have embarked on the negotiating process with the EU,  without seeking consensus and ensuring that parliament had considered all the options available.

They would have warned the public of the risks involved in any of these options, and found ways of allowing the electorate to consider them – and even allow for the possibility of revisiting its decision.   Tragically these are not the kind of politicians we have, and the few exceptions have either been isolated within their own parties or else they represent small parties whose influence has been negligible.

As a result we found ourselves trapped in an increasingly dire trajectory, in which a tone-deaf prime minister has tacked to the extreme right of her own party, and sought to bypass parliament altogether while presenting herself as the person who could ‘deliver Brexit.’

Such behaviour is only to be expected from a party that has demonstrated again and again that it only cares about its own political survival.  But throughout this process the Labour Party leadership has vacillated, dithered, ducked and dived,  insisting only on its absolute commitment to ‘respect the referendum result’ and its determination to avoid anything that could be seen as ‘stopping Brexit.’

Labour did this partly through political calculation, partly through the ideological aversion to the EU amongst the Corbyn team, and partly because of the divisions within the Labour Party which made it difficult, if not impossible, to come up with coherent proposals without splitting the party.

In effect, the two main parties have competed with each other to see which of them best represents the ‘will of the people’ – while refusing to admit that Brexit cannot be delivered without inflicting some degree of harm on the country.  Of course the Brexit zealots inside the Tory Party either don’t believe that there will be any negative consequences from escaping the EU ‘prison’, or else they don’t care, but there are Leavers and Remainers on both sides of the house who know better.

Neither the government nor the opposition wanted to be caught with the hissing Brexit bomb in their hands when it finally explodes, and last night parliament made it clear that it doesn’t want that responsibility either.   Instead they have sent May back to Brussels still holding the ticking bomb that she set in motion when Article 50 was triggered.

May clearly doesn’t want to be caught holding it either, and it now seems clear that her strategy, insofar as she still has one, is to let it explode in Brussels, regardless of whether the country falls off the cliff on 29 March.

Parliament might say, and it might even believe, that it’s only upholding ‘democracy’, – as if democracy was nothing more a single referendum result – but its craven inability to hold the government to account is likely to do far more long term damage to the country’s creaking democratic institutions.

We can only hope that one day they will pay a political price for this.  But until then there is little that most of us can do except and watch their antics in horror,  as the country sinks ever deeper into a vortex of its own making.


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1 Comment

  1. Mark

    31st Jan 2019 - 10:46 am

    Ah Matt, I always thought that the path we had taken towards a united Europe was a worthy and inevitable process, and that at some point on the future a borderless state governed by a single parliament would eventually exist.

    However I had not reckoned on two things. Firstly a large number of people in the UK disagreed with me and I do hold democracy supreme. If the remain vote had been larger I would have said to leavers there you go I told you so.

    Secondly the way the centre leaning electorate were able to be influenced by a few narrow minded bigots.

    I worry that historians will look back on these events in the way we typically look back on old news stories, we put fish and chips in it and throw it in the gutter!

    P.S. since when have politicians been sensible and responsible. The whole brexit process has enabled them to do what they do best, give off hot air!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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