January 8th, 2017
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The year that has passed dealt three tremendous shocks to Britain’s parliamentary system. Taken together, they constitute a quiet revolution: potentially the most significant recasting of how Britain is governed since the coming of universal suffrage. Understanding how this has happened, why it matters and what should be done about it is essential, if we are not to sleepwalk into new and potentially more dangerous forms of government in the year ahead.
The first great shock was Brexit, which struck the parliamentary system like a visit from the Death Star. The referendum lifted the biggest issue in British politics out of the hands of Parliament, then delivered a verdict that comprehensively over-rode its judgement. With three-quarters of MPs backing Remain, the vote to leave was a devastating indictment of the judgement of Parliament and of its claim to represent the people. The shockwaves will be felt for decades, as the whole cast of British foreign, economic and trade policy is reset in a manner to which MPs are largely hostile.
If Brexit marked one blow to Parliament, the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn was another. For the first time in British history, the Leader of the Opposition commands no meaningful support within the House of Commons. He was placed in that role against the express opposition of MPs; and when they attempted to remove him, even serious news outlets described it as a “coup”. A vote of no confidence, backed by three quarters of the parliamentary party, was dismissed as of “no constitutional legitimacy”. Corbyn’s re-election confirmed a remarkable constitutional fact: that the power to appoint the Leader of the Opposition no longer resides in Parliament. Labour MPs now huddle together on the backbenches, powerless behind a leader whose mandate is entirely extra-parliamentary.
Only a happy accident prevented an even more serious constitutional anomaly on the Conservative benches. If Andrea Leadsom had not given a foolish interview to the newspapers, bringing a premature end to the Tory leadership race, Britain would now have its first directly elected Prime Minister. The new premier would have been placed in Downing Street, not by Parliament, nor even by the electorate, but by 170,000 entirely anonymous party members. Not since the Great Reform Act have a few hundred thousand people exercised so much unaccountable and undemocratic power.
This was followed by a third key blow: the controversy around Article 50. When the High Court ruled that only Parliament could trigger the withdrawal process, the tabloids responded as if a coup d’etat had taken place. The Daily Mail denounced the judges as “enemies of the people”, who had “declared war on democracy”. The Daily Express dismissed MPs as a “Westminster cabal”, that could not be trusted to carry out the will of the people. Even when MPs voted by a majority of 5-1 (rather larger than the majority in the referendum) that Article 50 should be triggered before April, The Daily Telegraph published the names of the 89 dissidents, accusing them of “contempt for referendum voters”. Minorities must now be silenced, not simply outvoted.