This has been a hard time for many with a serious interest in British politics, not to mention those directly caught up in it. I have given more talks than I can remember on Brexit in the past couple of years, many of them to some distinguished foreigners. I have tried to give these talks from a neutral perspective, which has certainly resulted in fairly even numbers guessing afterwards about how I voted and how I stand now. As I survey the wider scene of the Brexit Crisis, it feels as though I am looking at a room of broken china. I will attempt here to put together some of the key pieces.
Party loyalties have played a big part in why a Brexit deal was not negotiated some time back. In particular, the party leaders have been unable to work together, despite a massive majority of MPs (498 of them) voting in early 2017 under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty for the UK to leave the EU within two years. I suggest that this failure to work together is primarily not because of one isolated villain in the piece but primarily because the current party leaders do not trust or respect each other enough.
Their method of choosing the party leader has given the Labour and Conservative Parties a leader who is heartily disliked by a good part of the voting UK population who are not party members (not to mention even quite a few of their own MPs). This has had an awkwardly divisive effect in Parliament, reflecting what is happening in the country as a whole.
Unless a better solution can be found, I suggest that the leader of a parliamentary party is elected solely by the MPs of that party. MPs have a far better electoral mandate, a much more first-hand overview of the country and familiarity with opposing viewpoints heard in debates than their loyal and anonimised party members. No-one should be appointed to the position of party leader unopposed, as happened by default to Theresa May. That weakened her prime ministerial authority from the outset.
The Government, Parliament, the Monarchy and the Judiciary
The Brexit Crisis has done some damage to each of these four bodies separately and in relation to each other. We need some serious consideration and debate about the role and powers of each of these without too much hand wringing in the process.
In particular, we cannot have every government action or decision open to legal challenges from those who oppose it. However, there need to be some publicly exerted consequences for a Prime Minister (e.g. less frequent meetings) who fails to keep confidences about their conversations with the Sovereign. The Queen has a clearly stated role as monarch that merits careful study. It contains no unrealistic wording about being ‘above politics’, which would be contradictory to the existing wording if it was there. The country may yet need some evident leadership from her, which her father was perfectly capable of giving. The Head of State is not an honorary or politics-free appointment.
The person appointed to be Speaker of the House of Commons needs to be someone ready to exercise impartiality and without a personal agenda attached to the role. I suggest that the best kind of Speaker should be as subtly invisible as a good biographer. This leads me to recommend to those of us who are British citizens that we should write soon to our MP suggesting what we personally think are the key attributes for the person appointed as the next, and any future, Speaker of the House of Commons.
Parliament: a toxic place
There has been some overdue attention to the old buildings of Parliament, but not enough to the relationally toxic atmosphere that has developed inside it. Words said in recent weeks on the floor of the House of Commons, as well as the tone of them, show the shockingly low tide that has been reached in that sadly unrelational environment. A Committee of Enquiry is needed to go right back to how MPs are recruited, what their code of conduct should be, and how they can be supported and supportive in office. I recommend the book Why we get the wrong politicians by Isabel Hardman as an informative place to understand more about this.
Brexit has not been a good chapter in the history of the BBC, and not much better for other media organisations (including Euronews) attempting to process such a very complex subject into sound bytes. I will write about the BBC in general in a separate blog entry. Some of its approach to Brexit has been biased or just plain derogatory, reflecting the general establishment view that never wanted Brexit in the first place.
I am a little surprised to have seen no-one else’s observation of the big difference between the BBC’s excellent reporting of Brexit online and the much lesser achievements of its broadcast media, especially television. The former has included the best objective reporting I have found, and I have gratefully gone back to it many times.
BBC News has portrayed the ongoing news story as another day at the bear pit or soap opera. So much of its air time has been given to dissenting voices and the worst elements of the previous 24 hours. BBC audiences in the UK and across the world have been left confused and badly uninformed about the main landmarks, detailed policy work and serious thinking done along the way.
As an illustration of the repeated miscommunication done, one visitor from mainland Europe wondered to me whether the Speaker of the House of Commons is so unpopular because he shouts. How much better it could be, for instance, if BBC1 audiences could be treated to the wisest sentence spoken in Parliament today, rather than the easy attention shown to the usual protagonists.
The country is more than ready for another General Election. This seems to be one of the brightest prospects on the horizon, though it will pose some special excitement and challenges for those of us involved in it in any way.