Looking at the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph and the Express this morning was a frightening experience. It may be unwise to use the word fascism, but England does seem headed towards a populist tyranny – fomented in large part by newspaper owners who live elsewhere and journalists inflated by post-referendum self-importance. I realise that the tabloid press is an easy target and that it reflects as well as stokes the public mood, but there's no longer any doubt in my mind that it has brutalised, inflamed and cheapened the public discourse. Murdoch and Rothermere in particular should have the ruins on their conscience.
Neo-fascism has been awakened in the UK by Brexit. Dormant since the 1930s, it was aroused from its slumbers by the EU referendum, but now fully alert following the judgement yesterday by the High Court. The judges ruled that the government cannot trigger Article 50 without a vote in parliament.
The headline in the Daily Mail this morning might as well have screamed 'Enemies of the Folk’. The Express in a sublime piece of irony states that the country faces a crisis 'as grave as anything since the dark days when Churchill vowed we would fight them on the beaches’. Usually this kind of tabloid nonsense is widely ignored by civilised people. But the judgement has unleashed frightening and widespread hysteria even from May herself – the PM for God’s sake – who launched a vicious attack on the judges. The hysteria of David Davies, Nigel Farage and the Telegraph purposely undermines the judiciary.
Like it or not, the rule of law takes precedence over democracy, particularly on constitutional matters. Without it, the 'tyranny of the majority’ and brute demagoguery can easily emerge. Independence of the judiciary is essential for the preservation of the rule of law, must be applied free from political pressure, and requires due process, whether the Daily Mail likes it or not. (That does not mean there are no bad laws, but that’s a different issue). The UK government is facing a constitutional crisis entirely of its own making. Unprecedented in the UK, it is as though Brexit has shattered the veneer of civil society, unleashing a modern fascist culture. Risking the accusation of overreaction, make no mistake, historically, the first target of fascists – whether from the extreme left or right – are the judges.
As a wise old legal bird on Twitter put it this morning: 'Creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which' (Ern Malley).
One of the most sinister mentalities in politics is enshrined in the words: 'We only have to win once'. The mantra is used by fundamentalists and wreckers around the world to rationalise another dangerous creed: 'The end justifies the means'. The tactics do not matter. Lies are a legitimate weapon of war. Winning once is what counts; then everything is changed irreversibly and only detail remains.
If they succeed, they claim to have been legitimised by 'democracy' so that anyone standing in their way is opposing not only their cause but democracy itself. If they lose, as in Scotland of 2014, democracy becomes an inconvenience to be moved on from with indecent haste. They still only have to win once, so 'once' is merely postponed and the cycle resumes.
In reality, this 'winner takes all' approach is alien to a democratic system which is otherwise based on checks and balances. Nobody should dispute the legitimacy of the EU referendum outcome but neither should we concede the deception that it allows or instructs government to interpret as it pleases, regardless of parliament’s will. That fine line was in danger of being obliterated in the clamour. The High Court has rightly restored it on the basis of law and democratic safeguard.
It is open, of course, to the prime minister to seek a new parliament which might be more compliant with her objectives, whatever these may be. She might succeed in securing that outcome; the Scottish precedent suggests that those who have voted as a bloc in a referendum tend to hold together in a subsequent election. However, there are uncertainties and risks for all parties. In Scotland, for example, supporters of Brexit who have been airbrushed out of existence might have something interesting to say.
Approached sensibly and democratically, there need be no election and no great drama. The High Court is right. The popular will can be respected. Negotiation on myriad fronts should continue. But ultimately, 'Brexit means Brexit' is not a viable dismissal of the people’s democratic right to be represented through parliament and the government will be foolish to pretend otherwise.
There are many, including me, who consider the European Union as it has evolved to be the least democratic organisation to exist in Europe since the 1930s. That is why, amongst other reasons, the SNP’s professed solution of an independent Scotland in Europe must be given very careful consideration.
Nonetheless, the complacent and intellectually lazy campaign to leave the EU at this time, inspired by the arch opportunist Boris Johnson, was the wrong move at the wrong time for the UK. Our shocking continuous trade deficit makes a collapse in living standards inevitable in the medium term as the required restructuring of the economy fails to materialise.
Similarly yesterday’s High Court decision was also inevitable and is a direct result of the Brexiters’ profound sloth and lack of clarity. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a parliamentary democracy, protected by the rule of law. Understanding that is one of the binary elements to being British. Not understanding it is utterly shameful.
The judiciary exist to defend the separation of powers and to prevent the executive branch of government becoming authoritarian. That is precisely what the judges did yesterday. Our unwritten constitution is built on precedent and there is no precedent for a popular referendum superseding the sovereignty of parliament unless already agreed by parliament.
The infantile bleating of the Brexiters immediately destroys their claims of wanting their country back because they have clearly never understood their country and the core of its system of government in the first place. Have there ever been such poor winners?
As for the prime minister… I suspect that she expected and welcomed yesterday’s ruling and will continue, despite all the bluster, to steer Brexit itself towards a renegotiation of Britain’s difficult relationship with the EU. She has little choice.
We are only half way through the first half of this game.
There was a glimmer of hope in the gloom yesterday. Could it be that the oncoming train wreck of Brexit may yet be avoided as a result of the High Court ruling? Could our parliamentary democracy save us from the madness resulting from Dave’s self-serving, reckless, pre-election promise of the in/out vote? The optimism was dented this morning with the realisation that in the gloom lies a sense of threat and divisions which are much more hardline and sinister than previously imagined.
'The judges versus the people' screams the Telegraph. The message is pretty plain: with us or against us, regardless of the letter of the law. 'Enemies of the people' in the Mail is even more concerning. For the avoidance of doubt the three men tried and found wanting deep in the heart of the Northcliffe empire are pictured. Enemies of the people? God knows, judges are not perfect but these three were asked to interpret the law as it stands. That’s what they did and if we want to change how we do things in this country we must do so through an act of parliament and all be clear that the mob is now in charge.
Further extinguishing of the light came this morning when Theresa May – who has not yet asked the people of this county whether we actually want her as PM – declared that the Brexit timetable is not to be derailed. She reminds me of the time when, on a day trip, a PE teacher was leading my class through a field. An Ayrshire bull appeared and began stamping the ground as he eyed us up. Not unreasonably, a number of us began expressing alarm but she kept going instructing us cheerfully to follow her. On that occasion there was a nearby fence and common sense told us to hurl ourselves over it and onto a riverbank, which we all did, teacher included.
This morning, I am desperately looking for the fence but I fear we are all to trudge on regardless.
A motley coalition of investment bankers, unelected lawyers, disgruntled ex-pats, a Spanish hairdresser, champions of progressive thought from Nick Clegg to Michael Heseltine and, of course, Nicola Sturgeon – they can scarcely believe their good fortune. Have not the lawyers struck a blow for democracy?
But two shadows fall over this unlikely 'popular front' and a potential Brexit veto by an unelected House of Lords. The first is the 17.5 million people who voted Leave in a referendum made possible by MPs voting 6-1 in favour of holding it and the result of which then prime minister David Cameron promised unequivocally to respect and implement.
Referendums? Pah! How could voters possibly understand the delicate and complexities of an issue such as this! 'Take our country back', indeed! Who on earth did these morons think they were? Sovereign?
The second shadow is lack of consistency – and law must surely be consistent. For years successive UK governments have enacted EU regulation by making use of the prerogative power without that alteration of the law going through parliament. So, as lawyer Martin Howe QC points out, why should it be okay to have 'more Europe' through exercise of the prerogative power, but wrong to have 'less Europe' as a result of Article 50 being invoked and the direct effect of parts of EU law ceasing to apply within the UK? Nothing in the wording of the 1972 Act supports such a distinction.
The Lisbon Treaty, which inserted Article 50 into the Treaty on European Union, made the Article 50 power available for use by the Crown but did not specify that its exercise would need the approval of parliament. However, when the prerogative is invoked to achieve 'less Europe', the lawyers are up in arms. Might that be, er, political?
Theresa May bears some responsibility. Article 50 should have been invoked immediately. The delay has allowed the forces of reaction to delay and frustrate the clear wish of voters – including several SNP ministers who, in MSP Alex Neil’s account, would have preferred to vote Leave. What a mess we’re now in.
Last night, Twitter was a Brexit cesspit with the most rabid of the Brexiteers calling for everything from the exile of 'foreign’ Gina Miller to the trial of the three 'unelected’ judges for high treason. Then I turned on BBC 'Question Time' and saw only a milder version of the same hysteria. The larger the poppy, the more vitriolic the speaker, which is kind of sad when you think about it. They all repeat the mantra that 'the people have spoken’ and must be obeyed. Article 50 must be triggered immediately or the people will rise up in protest. They seem to have no understanding of how a parliamentary democracy works, nor of the complexities of unpicking a 40-year relationship. The tabloid press add outrageous, hate-filled fuel to the flames.
Lying awake, fretting about it all, I found a couple of thoughts persisting. The tabloids and some politicians are perilously close to threatening mob rule. The irony of people who have been banging on about reclaiming sovereignty, now expressing outrage at the sovereignty of parliament seems to be completely lost on them. It would be amusing if it weren’t so terrifying.
And secondly, when they talk about 'our country’, make no mistake, they mean England. I have seen real dislike directed at the Scots over the past months. We have become 'the other’ up here, quite as much as our friends in the rest of Europe. That being the case, I now believe that Scotland must and will find a way to take itself out of this morass. I don’t know how or when and the problems will be huge, but I think it’s inevitable. You can see the cracks and they’re spreading. We just have to keep our heads and find a way to make it work.
One of them was a fencer – a fencer! This information has practical applications. When next you are out hunting for enemies of the people, either alone or with a pack of other civic-minded vigilantes, be sure to look for men with strange-looking masks and funny little swords. Another – God, this is even worse – is connected to Tony Blair. And we all know Tony Blair is now really rich. The last of the terrible trio was just your average Europhile so his treacherous nature needs no further elaboration. He's the boring one.
Only certain regimes are infected by enemies of the people. The UK, in its misfortune, is now cast alongside the benighted likes of North Korea, Stalinist Russia or any two-bit dictatorship you might care to name. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that only certain mentalities are willing to use the concept for political purposes. Usually enemies of the people are nothing of the sort. Instead they represent a threat to the institutions or individuals doing the labelling. It needs to be stated quite plainly: They know what they're doing. But, then, so do we.
Like Churchill smoking a cigar on a blacked-out street, it's all so obvious. And obviously concerning. It's only this concern for the people involved – that's real people, in this instance – that elevates the front pages above the comical and delusional qualities of authoritarianism wherever it manifests itself. Inflammation not information is the game. In this period of quiet crisis, too many avail themselves of the worst possible sentiments rather than encouraging resolution and then reconciliation. Easier to get drunk lapping from the puddles of resentment, I suppose. Hard to imagine, I know, but there are worse things than being a fencer. I beg, in advance, your forgiveness for the inappropriate paraphrasing of Fidel Castro: History will not absolve them.
On 'Newsnight' last night Paul Auster expressed dismay and depression about what is happening in his country. He believes that even if Clinton defeats Trump next week there will be hell to pay and the far right will do everything it can to 'make America great, that is, white, again’.
Shortly after the Brexit vote, Zoe Williams challenged the prevailing assumption that the vote was one in the eye for metropolitan elites and that the white working class, the disenfranchised and unheeded had finally sent a message to the Westminster bubble that cared nothing about their concerns. What this story about the deprived north discounts is that most of those who voted to leave were in the south – apart from London. Southerners did so by slightly smaller margins than in the north but they (mostly middle class homeowners who owned their houses outright) voted in far greater numbers. Whilst leave did have some popularity among the disaffected, the people who really swung the vote were affluent, older southerners.
Yet this story about the north and working class has stuck and could have profoundly misleading consequences for the political landscape. So too could the allied story that this was the immigration election. Only a third of leave voters cited borders as their main concern. Yet this story’s underpinning assumptions – that public services are under pressure because of foreigners, not underfunding; that housing is expensive because of demand rather than because of a rentier class empowered by inequality – has stuck.
Somehow, the narrative has become: the voters ('the people’) have spoken, and now our fellow feeling and humanitarian obligations towards refugees must take a back seat and the 'metropolitan elite’ must just admit it let immigration get out of control. It is this picture – this new very distasteful nationalism – that needs to be challenged. And it is this discussion that matters far more important than the current flurry around talk of a second referendum, the role of parliament vis a vis government – or even the terms under which we exit the EU.
I just don't have the chance this morning to make any useful sense of this momentous moment! In haste all I can suggest is that, rather than poppies being the issue, maybe the Scottish supporters should bring the EU flag to Wembley along with their Saltires and screwtops. Or maybe not.
In a parliamentary democracy, one would expect the judiciary to support the power of parliament and that is what the high court judges have done. The referendum has unleashed all kinds of prejudice and hatred but, thankfully, the judges have risen above that. I am hopeful that this may mark a turning point in the Brexit farrago. Good sense may begin to assert itself throughout civil society and people will make all kinds of new alliances to meet the unprecedented challenges that face us all.
If anyone doubted the serial incompetence of the UK political classes, the latest twist in the post-referendum manoeuvrings surely provides compelling evidence. The campaign prior to the vote did not shed a favourable light on either side. Both employed fear, evasion and misrepresentation. The unexpected victory of the Brexiteers soon exposed the fact that they didn’t have a clue about the practical implications. This confusion has not been eased by the failure of Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox to offer any constructive thoughts on the exit strategy.
Remain supporters within the government see the High Court ruling, requiring a parliamentary vote to trigger Article 50, as providing a possible escape route, conveniently reinterpreting 'the democratic will of the people’. The sight of Conservative MPs eagerly nipping each other, like ferrets in a sack, is not exactly distressing, but it hardly amounts to a positive contribution to a complex and messy situation.
Meanwhile, various figures in the supporting cast of this Whitehall farce seem determined to get in on the act. Some members of the unelected House of Lords are threatening to delay any legislation. Nicola Sturgeon, in full rant mode, is using the chaos to deflect attention from SNP failures in domestic policy (in health, education, local government and economic strategy). Constitutional and contract lawyers smile quietly in the background as they anticipate years of lucrative work.
In the recent election in Iceland, the anti-establishment Pirate Party won 13.5% of the vote and, when that was added to the votes of other left-of-centre parties, a parliamentary bloc of some 45% was created. Is there a glimmer of hope for other countries in this result? Can anyone help me to source a Jolly Roger to display from my window?
Cartoon by Bob Smith
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