It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this blog. The main reason for that is that I simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of news in the months that followed the EU referendum. Just when I thought the state of affairs could not get any more ironic and idiotic, someone would raise the bar a little higher. While there was plenty of dark humour to be had watching things unfold, it seemed impossible to make sense of anything, except in hindsight, and by then something else ridiculous had happened. These kinds of actions are what I’ve come to call irodic, displaying equal measures of irony and idiocy.
The first such act of irodiocy came immediately after the referendum when David Cameron confirmed (as far as I can tell) the only lie from the remain side, when he resigned instead of enacting Article 50. This triggered a Conservative Party leadership race that was an embarrassment of riches. Having a handful of nobodies standing up as pretenders to the throne is nothing new, and all part of the game. The main show came in the form of the four big players, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May. Johnson’s twisted path through the referendum deserves it own post, as his presence probably accounted for a few percent of the Leave vote. At least in Michael Gove we know that, no matter how misguided he is, he actually thinks leaving the European Union is the right thing to do. His act of irodiocy comes in two moves: first, support Johnson for Prime Minister, and second withdraw that support at the eleventh hour. To this day I still can’t understand what his motivation was. In this one act he destroyed not only Johnson’s chances, but his own. His credibility lay in shreds (not hard to do as the person who thought it would be a good idea to unblock a toilet with a vacuum cleaner.) If he had pulled this move on anyone else, or if it had been anyone else that pulled it, the leadership race might have kept at least one of the two contenders. In a moment of sheer lunacy, two big players fell out of the race before it had even begun.
Over the course of the next week or so, the smaller players also dropped out, with Fox being eliminated and Crabb withdrawing. It looked like the zoo was rapidly shrinking and we ended up with two female candidates, in the form of Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May. It seems, as Ms Lintott said, that “History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind. With the bucket.” As a prominent (if naïve) Leave campaigner, all Leadsom had to do was stay in the race. After all the bitterness and division, the UK deserved a fair election of a leader, and even though the picking were slim, the next Prime Minister should have been put under full scrutiny before being appointed. (This is to say nothing of how hollow the calls of “Take back control” were in the face of this decision sitting in the hands of a few hundred tory MPs.) In the end she couldn’t handle the media attention and withdrew (and by “the end” I mean “within hours of the final race being announced”.) That was the moment that we ended up with an unelected Prime Minister, who supported the losing side of the referendum, with the unenviable role of enacting the result. No wonder it’s taken her about six months to say anything decisive.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the House of Commons her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition were doing their best to cease opposing by holding their own leadership election. It seems that Jeremy Corbyn’s support of the Remain campaign had been somewhat lacklustre, and now the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) were determined to oust him in the light of his failure to lead. It started with Hilary Benn’s statement of no confidence, at which point Corbyn fired him from the Shadow Cabinet. This was followed by a slew of resignations until the PLP lay in tatters on the floor. The resignations were so fast (two dozen in two days) that the news broadcasters had trouble keeping up with the pace, and the news looked like an socialist version of Guess Who. Those few who supported Corbyn were given multiple portfolios to keep their role as an opposition working as best they could. Things came to a head with a motion of No Confidence, triggering a leadership election. Unfortunately for the PLP, the rules of elections had changed in recent years, and now anyone with £3 in their pocket could vote for Labour leader. This, combined with the efforts of the far left group Momentum had lead to a swell of people electing Corbyn back in 2015, and they were still around in 2016. Even worse, Corbyn got a free position in the race without having to be nominated by MPs. As with the tory party, the candidates got whittled down fairly quickly, with Angela Eagle dropping out of the race to leave Owen Smith. Smith was a moderate Labour MP who had the support of most of the PLP and strongly supported the Remain cause, but the PLP had two main problems to face. On the one hand the PLP and their voters were deeply divided, and the PLP is replaceable, whereas the electorate isn’t, and on the other hand there was a lot of support for the Leave campaign across many Labour constituencies (although that’s a story for another blog post.) After a three month long hiatus from their official role of opposition, Labour finally held the election, and Corbyn was returned with an increased majority. That was the moment when the Labour party lost credibility as a governing party and we were suddenly left alone on an island with the tories in charge of the asylum.
So who was playing the role of the opposition at this time? It was, of course, the Scottish National Party (SNP), who seem to be the only competent socialist party in Westminster at the moment. From the moment of the result being announced, the positon of the SNP has been to seek a second independence referendum as a way to retain membership of the EU. This is in line with how votes went in Scotland, so as policies go it’s fairly sensible, but it does leave Holyrood and Westminster with a serious problem. One of the biggest problems with devolution has been what’s known as the West Lothian question, where the Scottish MPs get to influence English and Welsh policy whether or not if affects Scotland. This was controversially used to introduce university top-up fees, making education inaccessible to thousands of people in England and Wales. In the absence of an opposition party, someone has to fill the void, and that person was Aongus Robertson (called on by one of the few voices of reason in the past decade, Speaker John Bercow, to fulfill this role.) It’s seems difficult to justify the SNP’s split stance, that they want independence from the rest of the UK, while also piling pressure on the lame duck government of the day. This sits in sharp relief to what is perhaps one of the smartest moves of Cameron’s government, which was to have the Scottish independence referendum ahead of the EU referendum, which throws an obvious spanner in the works (as well as destroying the Labour party North of the border.)
In spite all of these examples, we have to look to the nature of British democracy (or lack it) for the most impressive demonstrations of irodiocy. One of the main thrusts of the Leave campaign was that regulations were being put in place by unelected bureaucrats in the European Commission. In the strictest sense, this is correct, but it’s also deeply misleading. The Commission itself is made of members appointed by the European Parliament, which is directly elected by the citizens of the EU. This gives us, as voters, more control over the European Commission than the House of Lords. It seems we should be putting our own Houses in order before scapegoating those across the Channel. It also speaks volumes that the UK electorate repeatedly sent UKIP MEPs to the EU instead of actually voting for people who would engage with the EU to make a positive change in our favour. It seems we get the representation we vote for. The situation is somewhat simpler when it comes to how to enact our departure from the EU. Although we don’t have a written constitution, we do have constitutional norms and practices, and there are two possible ways to enact Article 50. One is to use the Royal Prerogative (which is exactly as arcane as it sounds) and the other is through an Act of Parliament.
This issue was taken to the High Court, and the move was seen by some as a way to halt the Brexit plans. This was irodiocy at its finest. All the guttural rumblings to “Take back control” came back in force. The issue at hand was whether or not the Houses of Parliament would be the ones to decide to leave the EU. This is the very essence of parliamentary democracy that the Leave campaign had hollered for, and yet they berated the Court as loudly as they could (a meaningless act, given that the Court “knows nothing of public opinion”.) After a unanimous decision to allow Parliament to have its say, the Brexiteers were not content with this level of democracy, and the Government, lead by an unelected Prime Minister, decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. (Incidentally, there’s only one place left to go after the Supreme Court, and that’s to European courts.) The Government lost this appeal, of course, and in an 8-3 decision, the Supreme Court decided that the triggering of Article 50 required a vote in Parliament after all. I did my best to follow the case as it wound its way through both courts, and was in awe of the intellect and nuance on display, but as an ordinary voter I was quickly lost on the finer points. The entire process could have been avoided if May had decided to consult Parliament from the very beginning. Instead the most vocal parts of the Leave campaigns burned through what little credibility they had left with their objections to being given control over their own destiny. If Theresa May wants the UK to leave the EU she first has to answer to my MP. It’s that simple.
All of these actions seems to be conspiring to meet a single end, and this is slowing down the process of Brexit. It’s widely held that the longer the Brexit process is delayed, the less likely it is to happen, and many of these acts of supreme irodiocy have pushed back decisions further and further. From Cameron’s insistence that Article 50 would be enacted immediately, to his resignation with an expectation of a leader in place three months later, to Labour’s collapse, the court cases, Brexit has been pushed back to the end of March, nine whole months after the referendum (although still in time to leave the EU before the next General Election.) The time period given by Article 50 is two years, which is a punishingly short interval. May chose the time to push the button to balance all these factors out, to give herself time to make her mind up (after saying practically nothing of use for half a year) while getting things done in good time. All that seemed to go to plan until Michel Barnier piped up to say that the UK would have less than 18 months for negotiations. Suddenly an improbable task seemed impossible, and all the misleading talk of “at least two years” became, as it should, “at most two years.”
The past seven months have shown the population of the UK to be even more divided than before the referendum. With saner minds backing the Remain campaign and repeatedly issuing ignored warnings of leaving the EU (many of which are now starting to manifest), and the Leave side being dominated by the loud, the angry, and uninformed but popular, it looks as though the situation is irreconcilable. With such high levels of incompetence, of individuals, of organisations, of institutions, of the electorate as a whole, it’s hard to see what kind of a future the UK can shape in this Brave New World. The whole catalogue of failures has left me jaded and looking beyond our shores for an escape route. We’re now living in an era where not only are facts ineffective, but so is common sense and critical thinking. That’s not the kind of society in which I want to live.