By Myles Cook
WE stand at the precipice of political change here in the UK. Brexit has proven itself to be the most divisive political issue of British history and has brought the country to the point of a potentially huge constitutional crisis. Families and friendships have been torn apart by the 2016 EU Referendum and the resultant spike in racially-motivated hate crime is undeniable.
At the time of writing, the UK’s fate will be decided in Parliament when the House of Commons votes on whether to accept Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement or not. Depending on the result there could be a deal with the EU, no deal or no Brexit and, if it is the last of those options, there could be a time of public unrest the like of which this country may never have seen before or will ever see again.
It might be just as well to look back at what has brought the UK to this point in its political history so, whatever the outcome, we may learn from what’s happened if, indeed, the British electorate are capable of learning anything.
The UK joined the Common Market, an international community created to prevent war in Europe and to build the European economy, following a referendum. Being essentially a trading bloc, this was good for the economic growth of all the nations that joined it although, as with many such organisations, there were disagreements among member nations over certain aspects of what became officially known as the European Economic Community. As the organisation evolved and grew, a direction was taken that upset some people – that of political integration. The EU as it was eventually called started to require the inclusion of rules of its devising in the legal systems of member countries. Some rules were merely suggestions whilst others were mandatory.
The imposition of rules from the EU started to anger some members of the UK’s political parties and, whilst this occurred to some extent in all political parties, the greatest divisions appeared in the Conservative Party. For decades this rift within its ranks caused relatively minor problems for the leadership but these divisions grew greater the more integrated the EU member states became.
In 2008, a worldwide financial crisis that started in the US hit the UK and the rest of the EU member states. The lack of proper regulation in the UK’s banking sector during the Labour administration under Blair and Brown meant that the UK was not as resilient as it might have been and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) collapsed. As the UK economy was heavily weighted towards the financial sector due to the decimation of the manufacturing sector during the Conservative administrations under Thatcher and Major, the banks were seen to be too big to be allowed to fail and, with cross-party support, a bailout of RBS was enacted at huge cost to the taxpayer.
The global financial crisis hit the jobs market hard with companies failing leading to a large number of redundancies and living standards started to drop as the recession started to bite. National debt levels rose due to the bail out of RBS and the country sank into despair. At the General Election of 2010, Labour was wrongly blamed for the recession caused by the global financial crisis although it is only right to admit that if Labour had regulated the banking sector better while it was in power, the UK may have faired better.
Following the General Election, the Conservative Party entered into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, not having enough seats on their own to provide a clear majority in the House of Commons. Using the excuse of a large deficit to ram home an ideological austerity agenda, the Conservatives started to put the onus of responsibility of ‘balancing the books’ on the poorest and most vulnerable citizens whilst giving tax breaks to the richest and failing to tackle the issue of mass tax avoidance.
The austerity drive pitted even closely related socio-economic groups against one another – the working poor against those on welfare, the middle class against the poor and disadvantaged and the North against the South. All the while resentment was growing that the political classes weren’t listening to the electorate especially in areas outside the so-called ‘Westminster bubble’.
In 2015, to try to placate the Euro-sceptics in his party, David Cameron pledged to have a public referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. This one decision would tear the country apart as it targeted the only fault line left to break and this fault line would not respect party political boundaries.
The two camps started selling their arguments and we were given “Project Fear” by the Remain campaign, backed by prophecies of economic catastrophe and emergency budgets, and “Project Hate” by the Leave campaign that stoked the fires of hatred towards the EU. The Leave campaign scoffed at the predictions of economic experts, saying that you couldn’t believe in experts whilst peddling the idea that the UK would be a greater economic power outside the EU without any real arguments to back their position except their word. The Remain campaign failed to sell the benefits of staying in the EU. Lies and exaggerations abounded on both sides of the argument.
The result of the EU Referendum took everyone in the political classes by surprise. Remain was surely going to win, they thought, so no one went into the campaigns with any clear idea of how to enact an orderly and sensible exit from the EU. However, the political classes neglected to see the mood of the electorate, the disdain in which they were held by the masses, the anger at falling living standards and financial inequality between different areas of the UK. For some of us, the result was only too obvious to have been so misjudged by the politicians because, in a fight between fear and hate, hate will always triumph.
Suddenly, with a result he didn’t expect coming to pass, David Cameron, the man who brought such division to the country resigned, running off with his tail between his legs for starting a process he thought would heal the rift in his party only for it to make it worse and now leaving others to clean up his mess.
Theresa May took over as Prime Minister and, although a Remainer, took on the poisoned chalice of delivering Brexit but instead of taking it seriously spent the best part of the following two years laughing at the chaos in the Labour Party due to the dislike of Jeremy Corbyn by many Blair-supporting members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who decided to try to unseat him as leader whilst failing to try to come to some sort of consensus amongst her own party for a Brexit strategy.
Sensing the opportunity to decimate Labour in the polls, May made another error and called a snap election. She underestimated the allure of Labour’s policies amongst young voters and the vision of hope that Corbyn was painting for the future. The Conservatives relied on the fallacy of their supposed fiscal responsibility that pervades political discussion and published a manifesto in which the only figures were the page numbers. Whether you agree with the figures Labour published or not, they at least published exactly how they were going to finance their spending pledges.
May spouted sound bites whilst Corbyn presented a vision of a better future. She compounded her mistake in calling the snap election by making herself the focus of the campaign. It wasn’t ‘vote Conservative’, it was ‘vote May’ and then she refused to appear in the televised debates alongside the leaders of the other parties instead throwing Amber Rudd under the bus.
The outcome of the 2017 General Election came as a shock to the Conservatives as their slim majority was wiped out and the only way she could command a majority was to shake the magic money tree she said didn’t exist to pay off the Northern Irish DUP. It was a grave error in judgement that has led to where we are now but not the last mistake she would make.
Having wasted so much time on a pointless and damaging snap election, Theresa May finally came up with a plan that she announced her Cabinet was collectively responsible for – her ‘Checkers deal’. The very next day leading Brexiteers, realising that Brexit was not as simple to achieve as they had believed, started abandoning ship. Some of the criticisms may be true but the real motive behind them was the scent of May’s blood in the water over her lame duck deal and the glittering prize of the keys to Number 10 should she fall.
Rather than trying to find a new deal based on a consensus within her Cabinet, May ploughed on ahead with a deal that disappointed everyone. All the while May was doggedly pursuing her plan, the EU were laughing at the state UK politics was getting into. They had been approaching the negotiations in strictly legal terms, trying their best to look out for the rights of their member state, the Republic of Ireland, with regards to the Good Friday Agreement; the UK government was approaching the negotiations aggressively and emotionally.
Theresa May finally got a withdrawal agreement that the EU could accept but it was still unacceptable to the hard-line Brexiteers in her party and, because of the deal with the DUP to gain a workable majority in the House of Commons, meant that the Northern Irish MPs had a great deal of influence regarding the so-called ‘backstop’ which has been a major sticking point in the negotiations. If May hadn’t called the snap election, this would not have been an issue.
So we come to the final few errors in Theresa May’s judgement that have brought us to this point. In November, Labour brought a ‘humble address’ to Parliament to force the government to publish the legal advice on May’s deal. The Conservatives failed to turn up and the vote went against them, leading to a binding ruling that the full legal advice on the deal would have to be published. Despite the binding nature of the ruling, The Conservatives ignored it and hoped it would go away. It didn’t.
On the 4th December, the Conservatives tried desperately to postpone the contempt of Parliament vote against them using a delaying gambit and lost. The government was then found to be in contempt of Parliament in the second vote they lost, the first time in history that a government had such a ruling against it.
Theresa May could have avoided having to publish the legal advice and the contempt of Parliament vote if she had taken the earlier suggestion from Ken Clarke that would have seen her share the advice with Labour under Privy Council terms to agree redactions. She didn’t.
And, with so many people against her plan, she lost a vote on an amendment by fellow Conservative Dominic Grieve which gives MPs the opportunity to amend the deal if it fails to get through Parliament, basically ruling out a ‘no deal’ scenario. She had a chance to stop this amendment when Grieve had proposed an earlier amendment which would give Parliament a meaningful vote but May had it worded in such a way that MPs would have no opportunity to amend May’s plan if it failed to get through. She didn’t.
We are now in a situation that Theresa May has a Withdrawal Agreement that only the EU accepts and looks unlikely to get through Parliament. Thanks to the Grieve Amendment, if the deal is voted against, a ‘no deal’ Brexit is ruled out. The EU has also ruled out any more negotiations with Theresa May. The idea that the UK’s options are May’s deal, no deal or no Brexit is inaccurate.
The real options now are take the deal to the electorate in the so-called People’s Vote to see if her deal is acceptable or a General Election, Parliament amending the deal and renegotiating with the EU (with someone else in charge) or remaining in the EU.
Whatever happens, the opposition parties have done their due diligence in their duty to uphold the current government to account and the problems that the government have are of their own making.
What’s great about this situation is that Leave voters can’t blame the EU or Remainers if they don’t get the Brexit they want (or, worse still in their eyes, remain in the EU) because it is Theresa May’s decisions, the arch-Brexiteers who absolved themselves of the responsibility they had to deliver Brexit and the Leave voters themselves who voted for Parliament to ‘take back control’ and who got what they asked for – Parliament took back control.