With Brexit slowing down for the first time in a fortnight, the nation has had a chance to draw breath. Labour and the government met for the second day in a row to try and thrash out a deal — read: try and trap the other into taking responsibility for whatever crappy deal will be on offer. The Lords passed the “forced request bill” 313-312, which obliges the Prime Minster to ask for an extension, where Leavers put up epic procedural delaying tactics, pushing it into an all-night sitting.
If it passes the Lords, and it will, it goes back to the Commons for a lightning-quick second reading and royal assent on Monday night. Then Theresa May will go to the EU before they meet on Wednesday the 10th ahead of the potential crash-out on Friday April 12.
In the break the Commons turned with relief to the Road-Widening (Dorset) Bill but the chamber was deluged with rainwater from a rotting ceiling, suspending the session — God committing what millions have been wanting to do for some time now.
The small break in the hurtling chaos gives one a chance to reflect on what is actually happening here. It cannot bear repeating too often that the most immediate and recent effect of the Brexit process has been to thaw and re-flow various arrangements of power and convention that have been in place for quite a while.
More importantly it exposes the myths by which they work. The UK’s constitution is famously unwritten, meaning it exists in a series of overlapping documents and interpretations pulled this way and that by current demands. Since the constitutional crisis of 1911 — when the Commons tamed the Lords, making it a subordinate house — the UK has been rather more executive in form than it would like to admit. The UK parliament is a lot freer as a legislative body than, say, Australia’s, which is a stooge’s house, but it’s a measure of how tame it has been that Theresa May has had two of the greatest defeats of the past century in the space of a few weeks.
The false idea of Westminster as the “mother of parliaments” gave a legitimacy to its increasingly archaic and arbitrary arrangements — first past the post, lack of distinctive regional representation chief among them — which began to be demythologised as soon as Parliament itself passed its authority to a referendum. This would have been problematic for any party, but for the Conservatives to do so was to undermine their own ideology.
Despite the recent enthusiasm for free markets, the Tory party is Burkean, or it’s nothing. If it does not insist that political institutions are irreducibly particular, and cannot be exactly reduced to an abstract schema of right, then it starts to come apart. That’s exactly what has happened. To solve the party’s internal problem, and head off UKIP to the right, the party went to the people, and thus invoked the referendum paradox — that any referendum not arising from substantial public demand and set by a representative body is essentially constituting the public to legitimate itself, not vice versa. Any question X genuinely put to a referendum, has to be put to a two-stage process, in which the first referendum is a referendum on whether there should be a referendum on question X at all. Only if that question is answered in the affirmative — and if that were done with Brexit it may well not have been — does the process return sovereignty, partially and for a time, to the people.
Thus a parliament-led referendum, with a narrow victory, and a question whose simplicity is in inverse proportion to the “real” that it impacts upon, has become not a vindication of democracy, but an exposure of the fact that democracy is impossible.
What is most paradoxical for the Tory Leavers is that their only way of justifying a potentially calamitous no-deal exit is to appeal to the spirit of audacity in the name of “democracy”. The more they do that, the further they are drawn away from the constituting conservative virtue of prudence, the opposite of audacity
Thus, as Tories, from Thatcher biographer Charles Moore, through to Jacob Rees-Mogg and the no-deal ultras like Mark Francois, insist on the absolute momentary legitimacy of the moment of “no”, they increasingly sound like a bunch of cultural revolution Maoists, with the very act of reflection or dialogue being assessed as a betrayal of the public will. This sacrifices the other key Burkean principle of conservatism, which is that representative politics is not simply a substitute for a direct democracy that would otherwise be unwieldy; representative politics is meant to be, for conservatives, a virtue in its own right. Representation offers the possibility that a single consciousness can reflect and resolve competing claims to a higher synthesis, while restraining passions and sentiments. For conservatives, it’s meant to be superior to direct democracy.
By abandoning all of that, the Tories have massively undermined their own legitimacy; but they have made visible the fact that parliamentary regimes aren’t self-chosen, they’re instituted. The gaps in their actual democratic procedure are, it is now obvious to many, simply decided by fiat. The Tories seem to believe they can simply resuture this pre-referendum reality in which unelected Lords can kill a bill, a party can govern on 35% of a 60% turnout, and there is nothing strange about being ruled by the Common Room of one public school, decade in, decade out. Whatever happens, it’s going to be interesting to watch them try.