I’ve always liked Dennis Skinner. The kind of no nonsense, ‘tell it like it is’ sort of guy that I thought Corbyn could learn a lot from.
Otherwise known as the Beast of Bolsover, Dennis has often been a well positioned thorn in the side of the Tory elite, dishing them up a diet of un-minced words to stick in their throats – someone who refused to give currency to a government that wasn’t even worth the loose change in his pocket. So it was surprising that on Tuesday he defied the Labour whip and handed them a blank cheque on the EU Withdrawal Bill.
Quite why he and a number of other Labour rebels chose to do this is tied up with the perception of this vote as a totem of their support of Brexit, but that’s just plain wrong. The name of the bill may include the words ‘EU’ and ‘Withdrawal’ but it was not about IF we leave the EU, it was about the internal technicalities and processes of HOW we leave.
Cynical PR Spin
The irony that seems to have been missed by all those applauding the passing of this bill is that it was never a defining moment in the Brexit process, even though its title may seek to suggest that. Prior to its publication the bill was known as ‘The Great Repeal Bill’ but was renamed, I believe, in a cynical move to wed it to the strong feelings surrounding Brexit. This was pure PR spin. The bill does not set the seal on our departure from the EU or have any influence over the timetable, that was all dealt with months ago with the triggering of Article 50.
Neither does this bill recognise or empower the ‘will of the people’ as last year’s slim majority in favour of leaving has now being characterised by cynical politicians eager to capitalise on this misguided call to arms. In fact it does the exact opposite by disenfranchising our representatives in Westminster from anything but the most perfunctory involvement in the passing and amending of laws that could affect all of us for generations. It effectively gives the goverenment the Henry VIII powers that received so much negative press when the bill went under its former name, yet seems to have been forgotten within its new nomenclature.
The intention of the bill – and the reason it is so key in the mammoth process of Brexit – is to make extricating ourselves from the EU legislature a less daunting task than it really is. Leaving aside the fact that negotiations with our EU partners are currently on a par with a drunken brawl outside a Billericay nightclub, the actual meat and potatoes of the independence process requires us to ensure that the laws that currently govern us will still be there when we gain our shiny new badge of independence. The alternative would be a lawless mayhem on day one of a rebooted UK.
In March, a report by Thomson Reuters revealed that a total of 52,741 laws have been introduced in the UK as a result of EU legislation since 1990. Many experts and commentators, myself included, warned in the months before the referendum vote that the task to realign all this legislation, should there be a vote to leave, would be monumental, perhaps needing 20 years to get to grips with. Back then of course no one really expected such an eventuality would actually come to pass, least of all the majority of pro-EU Tories. It would just be too ridiculous to contemplate, but contemplate it now we must.
After 40 years of entanglement with our European partners, many of the laws that we have adopted in the UK were enacted in partnership with the EU. The stark reality of this is that these statutes will each need to be individually scrutinised, reviewed, adapted and in many cases largely re-written to reflect the new situation post-Brexit.
Some may simply be carried across with no need for change, others will have any obvious anachronisms ignored as they will not affect their validity. But others will require a fair bit of editing. At this point few people really know which is which and there’s no time or particular inclination to be more specific. So the brilliant wheeze that was hatched by the government was to essentially adopt and maintain all these thousands of statutes into UK law on a wholesale basis, with no process of scrutiny beforehand. The theory is that we can adapt and amend later when we’ve dealt with the thousands of other more pressing aspects of Brexit, such as trade deals, our debt to the EU, immigration, borders, airspace, fishing rights, science projects, funding, law enforcement and so on and so on and so on.
On the face of it, this was a pragmatic, if somewhat blunt, solution. We only have 2 years to get ready for the big split, or rather less now that we’ve wasted months on a General Election and all the MPs have been on their holibobs, so let’s just cut and paste the EU stuff, put it in a drawer, and look at it later.
But, never ones to let a good crisis go to waste, and aware of the havoc that would unfold and occupy Westminster for perhaps decades when the review process begins, the Tories spotted a way to bolt on some conditions that would allow them to ride roughshod over parliamentary process and not bother with the tiresome responsibilities of democracy – something Theresa May has tried to do already at least twice during the Brexit process.
Trust the Tories
The Tory argument goes that to reduce the amount of time-consuming consultation with elected MPs and the people they represent, it would be better to let them make all the changes that will eventually be necessary by means of executive decisions. We should of course trust them to make all the right choices for us as they see fit, behind closed doors, in secret, with no scrutiny or right to appeal or oversight by the people whose will they claim to be so concerned about. In other words carte blanche.
It’s true that some of these amendments will be cursory and will have little impact on most of us, but many others will. The trouble is, we don’t get to decide which is which. The Tories have effectively created themselves a fiefdom in which they can use these new powers to do almost anything they want, as long as they can justify it within the very wide and nebulous parameters of the bill.
New laws and regulations will now be passed via a controversial legislative device called a statutory instrument, which are debated in tiny standing committees. As a result of Tuesday’s vote the government has engineered itself a majority on the little known Committee of Selection, which decides the make up of these cosy little groups, and in so doing has seized control of the whole process.
Moreover it was revealed last week that plans to take over the Committee of Selection were set in motion between the Conservatives and the DUP directly following the election. The Prime Minister, knowing that the loss of her majority would make it more difficult for her to pass unpopular legislation, particularly concerning Brexit, hatched a plan to ensure she would have control by other means. In most countries they call that a coup.
As Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael said after the vote
“This is a sinister power grab by an increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister. The Tories didn’t win a majority at the election, but are now hijacking Parliament”
Yes it would take up months, years, maybe even decades of Parliamentary time to discuss and debate, amend and pass all the various new laws and changes to old laws that will be needed after Brexit, but that is the reality of leaving the EU and of our democratic process. It can’t and shouldn’t be conveniently circumvented for expediency of brevity. This is the sovereignty the Brexiteers were supposed to be wresting from the faceless bureaucratic elite in Brussels. Except now we have less influence over the faceless government committees and sub-committees we’ve handed almost ultimate power to. So much for taking back control.
The Will of the People?
If the will of the people is so important, why did so many MPs, including some Labour MPs, vote to undermine that by taking away their own rights as Parliamentary representatives of those very same people? Why? Because, as with the poorly judged and badly informed campaigns on both sides during the referendum, this vote has been sold as an issue of solidarity with the Brexit ideal. These MPs are now so scared of being labelled anti-Brexit that they’ll vote for something that turns ‘the will of the people’ into little more than an empty slogan.
The result will be to raise this government to levels of autonomy and autocracy that no other UK Parliamentary government in history could ever have dreamed of. Especially one with a wafer thin majority riding on the back of a dodgy deal with another minor party bought and paid for with taxpayer’s money.
Ironically the DUP have themselves just seen an example of Theresa May’s commitment to democracy when she pushed through and increase in university tuition fees using a statutory instrument knowing full well that her paid for partners were not going to support it. Something that has already been labelled a constitutional crisis that Labour may well seek judicial review over.
Divide and Conquer
These are dark days for our democracy, days which now go beyond any talk of ‘constitutional crisis’, tiptoeing ominously into the territory of an all out power grab. Powers that were last granted fully to an absolute monarch some 500 years ago.
Who knows what fresh hell awaits us as the new statutes are manufactured in darkened rooms. What hidden agendas or ulterior motives will now be made flesh by a borderline despotic administration desperate to cling on to power? We should all dread future ‘important announcements’ from the government as these are likely to be the only notice we’ll receive of some Orwellian new law that may have a serious impact on our lives.
Divide and conquer is a much over-used cliché but it’s one that seems unavoidable in this instance. Regardless of how any of us voted in the referendum I don’t imagine we intended to cut ourselves out of our own democracy as well as out of the EU. This process is now already well under way and it needs to be seen for what it is. Unless it’s stopped, the dream of an independent state may become a nightmare bastardisation of that phrase that will mock us all. A sham democracy where the only true independence will be an autonomous failed state independent of its people and their representatives with no need or want of a genuine mandate.
We all need to wake up to this travesty and stop allowing politicians to use the divisions created by the referendum to engineer a one party authoritarian state. This is no longer about Europe, it’s about the Conservatives looking to bypass due process and establish an inviolate beachhead in Westminster in the face of mounting opposition to their rule.
At the risk of infringing Godwin’s Law I’m reminded of the Enabling Act a 1933 Weimar Constitution amendment that gave the German Cabinet the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag. It too was justified with the same nationalistic calls for independence from external ruling powers and fears over incomers. The parallels may be jarring, but nonetheless apt.
As we’ve seen throughout history, dictatorships generally don’t announce their arrival with fanfares or parades, they’re insinuated on a population incrementally by leaders who convince us that every step is essential to effective governance and in the the best interests of all.
Only when their power is cemented into law and backed by the judiciary and enforcement agencies do they show their true colours.
In our case we may soon find out to our cost that those colours are leopard print and blue.
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