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Friday, 5 April 2019

The New Cavaliers

Last Friday, Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, posted an extraordinary statement on Twitter:
Today outside Parliament I and others were accosted by people shouting f****** traitor as we tried to get in to vote. Our staff were advised to leave the building for their own safety. There were armed police everywhere.
The Scottish MP Joanna Cherry was having a similar experience:
I’m outside Parliament just now. Very intimidatory atmosphere. Currently prevented from getting to College Green to do media.
Meanwhile, as thugs tried to stop legislators from doing their jobs, men dressed in black menaced nearby journalists.  Effigies of Theresa May and that well-known Brexit negotiator Sadiq Khan were dragged by the neck down the street.  Tommy Robinson spoke on a huge screen positioned metres away from the Cenotaph.  The Leave movement had come to town.

One has to stop for a moment and remind oneself that this was not the Spanish Second Republic or Perón's Argentina, but the United Kingdom in the second decade of the twenty-first century.  The more respectable parts of the Leave movement have tried to distance themselves from this sort of thing.  We weren't there for Tommy Robinson, we'd come for the other rally down the road.  Yet the threat to our constitutional order doesn't come primarily from EDL skinheads, but from politicians wearing suits and ties.  Nigel Farage has been growling darkly about fighting, battles, and a coming "massive backlash" against Parliament.  Neil Hamilton and other Ukippers have been experimenting with referring to the PM as "Treason May".  Two Government ministers, Liam Fox and the newly resigned Chris Heaton-Harris, have been seen complaining about Parliament trying to "steal Brexit" from the people.  Jacob Rees-Mogg, fresh from endorsing AfD videos online, has lamented that there is now a "fundamental problem with democracy".  Andrea Leadsom has spoken of Britain suffering a "military coup" without the guns.  It is painful to acknowledge that we live in a country in which what Andrea Leadsom thinks about anything matters; but it is worth reminding ourselves that she was referring to the actions of MPs who were elected by 32 million people less than two years ago.

The current fantasy on the Brexiteer fringe is that Theresa May can be replaced with a strongman who will deliver the "no deal" crash-out that we are now told we voted for in 2016.  It doesn't matter that Parliament is opposed to that course.  Politicians who profess profound respect for the democratic process in relation to the 2016 referendum are coming out with ideas of authoritarian rule by the executive that have had no place in our constitutional discourse since the 1600s.  MPs and right-wing academics have proposed using the Queen's prerogative to close Parliament until exit day, or to deny royal assent to Yvette Cooper's current bill.  Antiparliamentary rhetoric is becoming part of mainstream British political debate for the first time since the demise of the Stuart kings.  Theresa May herself even dabbled with it, in her wooden way, in her now-notorious television address of 20 March.  Others have made the point more brutally.  When Steve Baker MP raged that he "could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river", it wasn't just ordinary political hyperbole but the distant echo of Charles I - another self-righteous Christian fundamentalist, if one with better manners and dress sense.

Political tactics that should be wholly uncontroversial are being greeted with populist rage.  Elected MPs taking control of their own timetable in the Commons - something that was historically the norm - is seen as a constitutional revolution.  Bill Cash actually compared it to the rule of the Roundheads.  Governments, we are told by people who ought to know better, are directly responsible to the people; so Parliament doesn't matter and MPs should vote obediently for their leaders' manifestos.  This is utter heresy from the point of view of traditional British constitutional doctrine; yet it comes from people who claim to be Conservatives.  Nationalism is a hell of a drug.

It is noteworthy that continental Europeans have recognised immediately what antiparliamentarian Brexiteers are up to.  After all, they have a much more recent tradition of damning parliaments as corrupt cliques that don't represent the true will of the people.  Some of them seem to be surprised that the Brits are going down this particular road - although anyone familiar with EU27 commentary on Brexit will know that it has become something of a cliché that the famously pragmatic British have now completely lost their minds.

Our continental European friends aren't wrong about this.  Take a look at some headlines that I've just cut and pasted from the padded cell known as the Daily Telegraph's opinion section:
Fiona Onasanya is a disgrace, but she's just one of 313 MPs who voted to sabotage Brexit

Betrayed by establishment parties, Brexit voters long for a truly pro-Leave alternative

In one move, Theresa May has betrayed the Conservatives and lost their biggest electoral asset

I am a Party loyalist, but I can no longer support our reckless PM and this watered-down Brexit

The PM's capitulation to Jeremy Corbyn makes me fear for my party and my country

Time’s up for MPs like Heidi Allen who make a mockery of our democracy
This one, unbelievably, was in the "news" section:
Eurosceptic peers warn MPs of violent uprising if they refuse to honour referendum
The language of sabotage and betrayal, the populist rage at the "establishment", the demonisation of elected politicians....  For the Torygraph, this is just about generating revenue; but words have consequences.  One thing that the paper's commentators are probably wrong about is the likelihood of Brexiteers abandoning the Conservative Party.  Hardline nationalists tried to switch to UKIP in 2015, but the electoral system made sure that it didn't work - they are now much more likely to try to take control of the Tory party machine.  Yet the anger towards the UK's quintessential establishment political party is real enough.  The historic mission of the Conservative Party has been to channel our country's right-wing loonies into a vaguely mainstream form of politics.  It has performed this task with varying degrees of success; but now it seems incapable of performing it at all.

So where do we go now?  Civil disobedience?  Violent direct action?  Last week, police discovered an attempt to use sabotage devices to disrupt the railways in Nottinghamshire and Cambridgeshire.  The devices bore the slogans "Government betrayal. Leave means leave" and "We will bring this country to its knees if we don’t leave".  We don't know who did it, but it's a fair bet that they couldn't explain to you how the Irish backstop works.  The plot was laughable rather than dangerous, but the next one won't be.  Just read that last slogan again.