Simon Usherwood is deputy director of The UK in a Changing Europe, at King’s College London. He is also an associate professor in the politics department at the University of Surrey.
Another week, another crisis in British politics. This time, a Prime Minister, who has only had one full day of Parliament being in session since taking up the role, lost a vote on the central plank of his program for government, and then withdrew the whip from all the rebels, at a stroke depriving the government of even the slim majority it notionally had.
And then he promised to bring another vote to move to early elections, a vote that he is almost certain to lose, forcing him to stay in office while Parliament writes out rules to make him do what they want on that central policy.
To say it’s unprecedented would be true, but hardly hints at the scale of this challenge to the theory and practice of British politics over the past 100 years or more.
If you’re looking for an equivalent disruption to the existing order of things, then you have to go back to the run-up to the English civil war in the 1600s.
Importantly, Britain is not on the verge of civil unrest, let alone regicide. However, the cavalier attitude of the government to the norms and conventions of the Westminster model have raised fundamental questions about the constitutional settlement in the country.
Key in that was the quibbling this past weekend from government ministers about whether they would follow the legal obligations of the text that Parliament is now putting into law. Those ministers might have argued that they didn’t know what the text would say, but that is completely beside the point: The law is the law and no one – not even governments; especially not governments – is above that.
This all comes in the cratering of trust between the institutions of the state. The government doesn’t trust its own MPs to vote in line with ministers’ preferences; Parliament doesn’t trust the government not to abuse its prerogative powers to sidestep the checks and balances; and no faction in the debate over what should be done about Brexit really trusts another faction enough to compromise.
I might have said, a few years ago, that you’d have to laugh if you didn’t want to cry. But neither of those responses now feels appropriate.
Britain has become caught in a trap of its own making, with each step being shaped by short-term expediency rather than any thought to the underlying issues or dynamics.
Whether it was former prime minister David Cameron promising a referendum he thought he’d never have to deliver on, in the hope of getting his backbench to ease up their pressure on him for a bit, back in 2013, or his successor Theresa May deciding she needed to prove her “Leave” credentials to her party by taking the hardest possible line on Brexit negotiations from 2017 onward, the approach has been the same.
And it’s not just the Tories. The Labour Party’s main participation in all this has been to generate the maximum frustration of government plans, in order to force a general election where they could take power. Ironic now that this week they get their wish, just as they commit to not taking that opportunity.
The traditional view of British politics is that it’s pragmatic, distrustful of big ideas and big plans. But the period since the 2016 referendum has shown just how fundamentally that cannot be a sufficient response to this situation.
The choices that are being made in a moment now, to serve some pressing need, are ones that Britain will have to live with for a very long time. And that matters because the British constitutional order is uniquely fragile.
If we care about our democratic order, about the protection of our fundamental rights, about having a political system that works, then there has to be a recognition that Brexit is not simply about whether Britain is in or out of the European Union. Instead, it is about what kind of society the country wants to be and what its position in the world should be.
Brexit was always a means, not an end, but the more that politicians lose sight of that, the greater the risk to our way of making decisions about anything.
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