1st February 2017
–By Barnabus Howard-
I am disgruntled. I am a disgruntled former Labour Party member, and I have a problem. As it stands, I am not represented, and that is the source of some rancour for me. I look at the arrayed political representatives and I cannot see a place where I’d feel comfortable. Brexit has and will continue to destroy the political scene as we know it; I am reduced to finding solace in some unusual and peripheral areas.
For me, politics is about governing; I don’t live for campaigning, and as sad as it is I like to think about government and legislation. So finding myself thinking about peripheral (and in some cases long dead) figures like Ken Clarke, Edmund Burke, Nick Clegg and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is a bit too much of throwback to my time at university. This does not feel like a place where I should be.
There was a moment during the debate for the second reading of the exiting the EU bill where Iain Duncan Smith briefly made sense, or so I thought. He was disputing the EU’s credentials for fostering piece in Europe since World War Two, and made a comment to the effect of it wasn’t the EU, it was the creation and support of strong democratic institutions in those countries that’d previously been at war.
I disagree with him, but he is right that strong democratic institutions are very important in creating stability. And this is my first real point, it feels to me that, since Brexit especially but also more broadly, that we (the people, the country, everybody) have forgotten what democracy is about.
Democracy is not just about voting, and it is not just about getting a majority. Democracy is hard to get right and although the involvement and engagement of the people is vital, it is exceedingly important that we have structures in place to ensure that the implied principles of democracy are observed. For example, freedom of speech and the rule of law.
The structures I refer to are of course the Supreme Court and Parliament’s oversight prerogative. I’d be inclined to give Duncan Smith some credit if he hadn’t been quite so lazily scathing in his comments about the Supreme Court’s recent judgement! A US Republican, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr once said, “taxes are the price we pay for civilization”. I think the same could be said for Parliament and the Supreme Court’s scrutiny of the government.
My problem with our lazy view of the democratic structures we have, is that we choose to forget how this all works. Parliament’s job is to scrutinise government, and make sure that many views are heard. And that is why I have been thinking about Ken Clarke. His contribution to that debate was in a part a rambling rehash of the referendum discussions, but in parts he was very eloquent. He may well have said plenty to irritate government ministers with his slightly predictable remarks, but he managed to highlight quite cleverly the quandary and ineffectiveness that the Labour Party has brought upon itself. He mentioned that the Eurosceptic MPs had not given up on their cause over the last 20 or 30 years. The Labour Party’s position on Brexit may well be based on a determination not to be cast as out of touch and to be seen as based in democratic instincts, but in so doing it makes itself an irrelevance. Elections are not about the answer, but the questions that the electorate deem important. Ignoring the issue and waiting for somebody to want to talk about nuclear disarmament or nationalisation is simply negligent.
I’m a private citizen, so I can choose to accept the referendum result even though I thoroughly disagree with it. The Labour Party has no such freedom; even if you do not intend to stand in the way, saying so only serves to do half of government’s job for them.
Which brings me onto Ken Clarke’s précis of Edmund Burke’s famous quote, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”. I think this quote should be printed in big bold letters on every ballot paper. That aside, the point is that your MP should vote in such a way that represents your interests whether you see it that way or not. His constituents voted him out shortly thereafter, and perhaps the same would happen to MPs who chose not to accept the referendum result. But that is what is supposed to happen.
The Tories may have taken what seems like a risky position in accepting the will of the Leave voters lock, stock and barrel. I think they know that most of their Remain supporters are going to be more scared of a Corbyn government than they are of Brexit. I certainly won’t be voting for them, but equally Corbyn’s new approach of trying to appeal to everybody by taking no position on anything of consequence makes it impossible for me to consider the Labour Party should a general election be held tomorrow.
I strongly believe that most people sit a bit on the right, a bit on the left, and a bit in between. For me that means I want some sort of free society, a regulated capitalism, a society and a government that aim to meet people’s aspirations and look after those who are struggling or in need. Labour’s silent opposition can’t fulfil that, and neither can the Conservatives’ disregard for those who voted to Remain (as well as all the people they normally ignore).
That leaves me in limbo; and I’m not quite ready to join Nick Clegg on the periphery just yet!