When Constitutional guru Peter Hennessey is on the lunchtime news quietly saying that he hasn’t the faintest idea what might, can, or should happen in parliament within the next few days, we know that we are deep in uncharted territory. Anyone who thinks that, once Brexit is “out of the way”, it will be business as usual, is deluding themselves. And sadly the delusional folk are in plentiful supply.
Let’s set personalities aside (if Theresa May can be called a ‘personality’). This is not a war between May and Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Anna Soubry and Andrew Bridgen, or Nicky Morgan and Nadine Dorries, Tories all, and with as much in common as a vacuum cleaner has with a lute. This crisis really is about the British constitution.
It doesn’t even begin with Brexit. Brexit was a bomb under a rickety bridge. We loved that old bridge, so ancient, so beautiful, but it was already crumbling. It might have crumbled away further, sometimes slowly, sometimes with greats chunks falling off, but in the end, sooner or later, it was going to collapse. Brexit just blew it up fast, and with maximum noise.
The myth of the British constitution is that it is ‘unwritten’, in the sense of having no foundational text, and elegantly flexible, accommodating itself to change without the need for revolutions, constitutional conventions, or any of the deliberative actions of ‘lesser’ nations without the British genius for stable and efficient institutions. Ha, bloody ha, as Walter Bagehot never said.
The real genius of the British constitution was to hide government from the prying eyes of the public.
TV cameras were kept out of Parliament until the 1980s. Daft conventions were used to ‘disguise’ lobby or ministerial briefings, so that political reporting had a language of its own, with ‘sources close to the Prime Minister’ being preferred to naming the bloke (or occasionally woman) who’d told a bunch of journalists something the PM wanted them to be told. Freedom of Information was granted by Blair, but it was, in practice, hampered, delayed, or even blocked, and increasingly so after 2010. Opacity suited government (and Parliament), and restricted access to information lent a certain collusive glamour to political journalism. We all find it difficult to resist being in with the in crowd. But it was a weakness, not a strength. It assumed that ‘ordinary people’ (that’s me and you) should know as little as possible, except where it was absolutely necessary, or highly convenient.
Add in the elevation of the cult of the amateur in British politics. The Commons was once, genuinely for many, a ‘gentlemen’s club’, modelled on the most elite public schools and Oxbridge colleges. It might have been quaint that the Front Benches are two swords’ length apart, or that until relatively recently an MP had to wear a top hat to make a point of order during a division, but it was all part of a pantomime of privilege. The Commons used to have working hours from 2.30 – 10.00, to enable MPs who wished to, to make a bit of money in the City, or down at the Old Bailey, before tumbling in to the Palace of Westminster at some point in the afternoon, preferably after a good lunch at Rules.
As part of this theatre, MPs pay was kept deliberately low, by comparison with other professions, and certainly by international standards. This was simply because MPs did not want to have to make the case for their worth to the public. Instead they instituted a crazy expenses system which was a backdoor bung away from prying eyes. Some MPs claimed little but their salaries, while most others claimed in lieu of salary, and some for every last paperclip (and duck house).
The resulting MPs expenses scandal which emerged, ironically, as a result of dogged Freedom of Information requests, was a ‘mini Brexit’ in its devastating effects. It may have helped to bring down the Brown government as much as the financial crash, but its corrosive impact was far greater than that. It fed a narrative of politicians ‘on the take’, who were ‘only in it for themselves’. They were ‘all the same’, with ‘snouts in the trough’. It all helped to alienate the public from their elected representatives. Even the reforms that came about as a result did not much help. Raising MPs pay and clamping down on expenses and perks, like first class rail travel, did little to assuage the anger and cynicism of many voters.
So by the time David Cameron lazily lit the EU referendum time bomb, the groundwork for a populist firework show had already been well-prepared. Just add lies, inflammatory rhetoric, clever data harvesting, and dodgy cash. The poor bloody constitution never stood a chance.
Of course, this is only one aspect of a genuine constitutional crisis. The public one. The withering of the social contract.
The other is about power, and procedure. Governments like to hoard power, and never so much as this friendless Prime Minister, her only confidents Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men. May’s transparent aim right now is to ensure that the only options available to Parliament are her ‘deal’ – the exit agreement – or a cliff edge.
But, like some parliaments in the past, this is an executive power grab that the legislative chamber is determined to fight. And there is no mechanism in the constitution to resolve this grave situation except through actions which are without precedent in the democratic era. It requires parties in effect to dissolve, and the Speaker to make it up as he goes along. It looks like the 17th Century all over again. It’s a kind of revolution.
Which is why this constitutional meltdown doesn’t owe everything to Brexit, and why it can’t be business as usual when Brexit is ‘done’, whatever that means.
Our entire political system is in an existential crisis. The public seems without faith in the legitimacy of the system. We have local government in name only, reduced to the threadbare administration of statutory services. A centre that hoards power and resources to itself and its region. And now an executive without discipline (the effective minutes of every Cabinet meeting are Tweeted by Sam Coates within minutes, so it seems), and a legislature game for a fight to the death with the PM. And I haven’t even mentioned the electoral system which once was hailed for producing ‘strong government’, but which is now primarily a source of weakness, anchoring a party system which no longer mirrors the key cleavages in society.
One of Theresa May’s favourite slogans is, “Nothing has changed”. Too damned right.
Now everything must change.