Thursday, 2 February 2017

Parliament's Brexit shame

The spectacle of the House of Commons voting overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50, though unsurprising, was a shaming one for parliamentary democracy and sovereignty. It’s first worth recalling, since some Brexiters who spoke in the debate hailed the vote as a victory for that sovereignty, that the vote only occurred because the Supreme Court insisted that it should. Left to its own devices the government would have proceeded without parliamentary approval, and fought desperately to avoid it (ironically, the vote has now strengthened their position). Meanwhile, those who brought the court action and the judges making the decision were viciously pilloried in the Brexit press and subjected to vile threats and abuse.

Handed the power to decide, MPs (with several honourable exceptions) refused to use it wisely. Thus – and herein lies the shame – they voted to do something which the majority of them think is wrong and many know to be disastrous for this country for decades to come. Yes, to have done otherwise would have been to defy the result of the referendum and, yes, it would have led to massive criticism and a political crisis. But, against that, at this historically defining moment the MPs chose to allow the government to embark on a course of action that the majority of them know to be against the national interest and, in terms of the form of Brexit planned, probably against the wishes of the majority of the electorate too.

It is possible (but unlikely) that some amendments to the bill may be carried, or that the House of Lords may at least delay things. It is also possible (and perhaps more likely) that later in the Article 50 process parliament will assert itself. Nevertheless, at this decisive moment MPs have abdicated their responsibilities. There was almost a sense that they knew this when, hypocritically, they applauded the veteran pro-European Ken Clarke, the only Conservative MP to vote against the bill. It was almost as if they knew that he had done what most of them dared not do.

There was much talk of MPs wrestling with their ‘consciences’ as to how to vote. But this was not a matter of conscience in the sense that that terms if usually used in a parliamentary context – that is, a matter of individual moral conscience as with issues such as euthanasia. This was a matter of intellectual judgment about the long-term strategic interests of the country.

That there will be a high strategic price to pay for Brexit is rapidly becoming clear, primarily because the first days of the Donald Trump presidency have highlighted what it will be. There is nothing new in the UK seeking a strong relationship with the USA – that has been the cornerstone of foreign policy since 1945. But in recent decades that has meant primarily being a ‘bridge’ between the USA and the EU. Now, with American politics itself undergoing a rapid transformation away from its post-1945 norms, it seems more likely that the UK will be a kind of battering ram within what are rapidly becoming the antagonistic relations between the USA and the EU.

Britain, now more than ever, is desperate for political and economic connection to the USA, making its capacity to distance itself from what is already a controversial and chaotic presidency very limited. Yet at the same time there is a desperation to develop better links, especially economically, with China to which Trump’s administration is hostile and likely to get more so. On the other hand, the administration is far better disposed to Russia than is Britain, whose position is far more closely aligned with that of the EU than it is with that of Trump. But Brexit Britain has few foreign policy options open to it, so that what would, even without Brexit, have entailed diplomatically difficult choices now allows of no choices at all.

It is telling that in the ongoing controversy over Trump’s new immigration measures which in the UK are linked to the question of whether he should be invited for a State visit closely map the Brexit divide. Thus pro-Brexit MPs have been limited in their criticism of the measures and supportive of the visit. Meanwhile, the petition against the visit is reported to be most supported in those areas of the country which voted ‘remain’ (petitioners having to submit their postcodes in order to sign).

Those pro-Brexit MPs have the logic of consistency to their credit. They recognize (even if they would not put it in these terms) that the luxury of an independent foreign policy is one which can no longer be afforded after Brexit: the strategic choices are now massively curtailed and driven by a mixture of diplomatic isolation and desperation for trade deals. By contrast, the Labour Party which has been vociferous in its criticism of Trump and of the British government’s posture towards him show no such consistency. For by insisting that its MPs vote to trigger Article 50 Labour has endorsed precisely the policy that makes such criticisms futile.

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