Jonathan Clark: Brexit. Is democracy at risk?

Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.

Observers agree that this is the most impassioned episode in British politics for over a century. But it has been so under David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson alike. The last alone is not to blame. Why, then, is it so bitter? We ought to be able to debate whether GDP will be slightly higher or slightly lower in 15 years if we leave or if we remain in the EU without expulsions, mutual denunciations, threats, and lawfare. Other things are at stake, far beyond economists’ guesswork. At least two are at issue, for the Brexit crisis is at its heart a proxy war.

The first is democracy itself, for two conceptions of it are widely held in the UK, representative and direct. In 2019 they collide. What are they?

Representative democracy assumes that Parliament once seized sovereignty from the King, and the Commons then seized it from the Lords; or, alternatively, that if the People once had sovereignty, they surrendered it completely and for all time to members of the Commons, who, collectively, now have absolute authority. Being wise and restrained patricians, MPs rule in the national interest. This theory looks more unpersuasive the more one explores it.

Direct democracy assumes that sovereignty resides with autonomous individuals thanks to God’s gift or to Nature – thoughtful individuals who know all they need to know in order to govern, and who exercise their authority just as they please via universal suffrage. Again, this theory is not wholly plausible. Which of the two predominates is likely to depend on practice more than on theoretical argument.

Practice depends on logistics, and these continually develop. Representative democracy seemed obvious in days when communication was slow and expensive. Members of the Commons might visit their constituencies seldom. The franchise was restricted, newspapers reported little, the actions of most MPs at Westminster were seldom in the public eye. Members were unpaid, so normally had to be rich: they were seldom inclined to defer to the poor. But all that was long ago.

From the mid-1990s, and increasingly every year, the internet has transformed everything. For the first time, it is possible to conduct opinion polls in a shorter time than it takes MPs to file through the division lobbies. For the first time, I can watch my MP speak live in the Commons, or in a recording. I can monitor her every vote. I can email her almost instantaneously (I have even exchanged brief emails with one distinguished MP while he was in a debate). Thankfully, my MP is admirable, in her labours both in Parliament and in her constituency. But for voters who differ from their MPs, the potential for active involvement is far greater than ever before.

Kenneth Clarke speaks for the old school of Parliamentarians in insisting that the referendum of 2016 was merely advisory. But he is out of date. The European Union Referendum Act 2015, which made the arrangements, nowhere said that. Nor did the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. No legislation has ever provided that votes cast in general elections are merely advisory either. On the contrary, the electorate decides things.

We can only deduce the advisory status of referendums by implication, from the premise ‘Parliament is sovereign’. But no Act of Parliament can establish parliamentary sovereignty, any more than Kenneth Clarke can rise into the air by pulling on his shoelaces. Since the People elect members of the Commons directly, by binding votes, and of the Lords indirectly (via elected members of the Commons), it might plausibly be argued that the People are sovereign.

Yet representative democracy is widely championed, and here lies the second great point at issue: a culture war, over what might be called the recent hegemony of social democratic values. It was not so in 1962 when Anthony Sampson published his famous Anatomy of Britain; it shaped the subsequent understandings of ‘The Establishment’ as a closed social circle of the public school and Oxbridge educated who staffed the boardrooms, Parliament, the judiciary and the church.

But a wind of change has swept over Britain as well as over Sampson’s beloved South Africa. The public schools and Oxbridge are still there, but captured for other purposes. Rank derived from birth and class now derives from style and political correctness. The old boy networks are replaced by the luvvie networks. Sampson himself (Westminster and Christ Church) became a Social Democrat during the 1980s.

Set aside the party label; its opponents perceive a state of mind shared by larger numbers of people. They are the commentariat. They allegedly run the media, the universities, the civil service, the judiciary. They are not, indeed, socialist: that would be too uncool an ideology for the twenty-first century. But they are not democrats either, and instinctively reject the outcome of the largest democratic exercise in British history, the referendum of 2016. To them this is ‘populism’, the opposite of themselves.

In this sense, say their opponents with ever clearer definition, social democrats are ‘anywheres’ rather than ‘somewheres’: they have no particular loyalty to a country, let alone Bolsover or Sunderland. They encourage mass migration and multiculturalism. They have places in the sun. They countenance divorce, sex change, and gay marriage. They are secularists who favour religions that are loud against religious establishments. The EU suits them perfectly. Its Roman Law tradition fits their world view, since it works down from grand statements of principle; England’s common law tradition worked up, from specific concrete entitlements. In their eyes, social democrats champion correct, modern, enlightened values. These entail membership of the EU.

Against this perceived social democratic hegemony have developed two great protests: Momentum, and the Brexit movement. To simplify, Momentum wants real socialism; Brexit wants real democracy. They can only achieve either by championing an old ideal that now becomes a new one: the People are sovereign.

Both these conceptions of democracy are plausible, but flawed. They have historic force, but they are contradictory. A collision was inevitable sooner or later. What better ground on which to fight than the UK’s membership of the EU?

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Iain Dale: Were the Prime Minister to pull the plug on HS2, would he call time on Heathrow expansion too?

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio, and is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Why can’t we all just get along’.

I have very mixed feelings about HS2. I am usually all in favour of visionary transport infrastructure projects. I rather liked the idea of the Boris Island Airport, and still regret that he didn’t make it part of his leadership campaign. I also think high speed rail is a good thing.

However, I still don’t think the business case for HS2 has really ever been properly made.  Capacity is clearly an issue on parts of the West Coast main line, but it seems to be the Manchester trains which suffer, rather than the Birmingham ones.

The Prime Minister is clearly minded to cancel the whole project, and hopes that the review announced this week will give him political cover. Quite how he will explain the waste of upwards of £7.2 billion I don’t know, but presumably the saving of a further £80 billion will be used to show how other parts of our transport system could be improved.

Of course, if HS2 is cancelled, one would quite reasonably wonder whether the third runway at Heathrow might be next on the list for a prime ministerial cull.

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A new Kantar poll puts the Conservatives on 42 per cent, with Labour trailing on 28 per cent and the Brexit Party on only five per cent. The Liberal Democrats were constant on 15 per cent.

So, a 14 per cent lead for Johnson. Is this a “Boris bounce”? None of the other polls have shown a lead anything like this big, so everyone should treat with a huge degree of scepticism. But since it is widely believed that there will be a general election by the end of November, this is not a bad place to start from.

But as ever, a Conservative election success surely relies on us leaving the EU on October 31st. If we don’t, quite a few of those per centage points will be shaved off by Nigel Farage.

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Talking of Farage, he has made clear that, if the Prime Minister signs up to any form of deal with the EU, the Brexit Party will stand candidates against every Conservative candidate up and down the country. The only way to avoid that would be for us to leave on 31 October with no deal.

That outcome seems ever more likely as each day and each exchange of letters with Donald Tusk takes place. But as with Farage, I have a feeling in my water that the prospect of a last-minute deal hasn’t entirely disappeared. Yet.

The purists may hate it, but in the end, we have surely to remain of the view that a good deal is better than no deal. The trouble is that few can see what would actually constitute a good deal from the UK viewpoint. We can all see what a bad deal looks like, of course. But how we get from that to a good deal is anyone’s guess. –

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The ‘N’ key to my laptop has come ustuck. Makes me thik a ew computer may be i order. I could stick it o agai , I suppose. But where’s the fu i that?

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This is my first and only week’s holiday of the year. I’m spending it in Norfolk doing nothing at all – apart from writing this, and two other columns.

And watching box sets. I’ve finished Designated Survivor on Netflix and have now started the Korean version. I’m quite used to watching programmes with subtitles, but normally I can pick up a few words of the language. Not Korean. It’s almost impossible to follow.

I’m also reading Andrew Roberts’ brilliant thousand page biography of Winston Churchill. I always find these doorstops of books incredibly intimidating, mainly because I normally only read before I go to sleep, and therefore only manage three pages a night. So I’m pleased I’m already on page 200. Right, time for another chapter…

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A big question about Hong Kong – and even bigger ones about migration and China

We have been here before – at least, in a manner of speaking.  In 1989, the then Conservative Government granted British citizenship to some 250,000 people from Hong Kong.  There was a paradox to the decision: Ministers’ intention was not that they should enter Britain under the scheme.  Rather, this was that it would encourage them to stay in Hong Kong, by giving them certainty about their future, thus halting a mass exodus.

The gambit was sparked by doubts about whether China would honour the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, under which the two countries agreed terms for the transfer of Hong Kong, and which was due to come into effect in 1997.  It worked.  Tensions simmered down, and there was no mass take-up of UK passports.

But there has always been a giant questionmark against China’s honouring of the “one country, two systems” provisions within the declaration.  It is highly visible now.  Two years ago, the country’s Foreign Ministry described the declaration as an “historical document, [which] no longer has any practical significance, and does not have any binding effect on the Chinese central government’s management of the Hong Kong”.

It is unlikely that China will presently send troops into Hong Kong, and formally tear up the commitments enshrined in the join declaration.  But the possibility exists, now or in the future: it is currently showing videos of troops massing on Hong Kong’s borders.  This is part of its response to pro-democracy protests, which were concentrated originally on opposition to an extradition bill, under which suspects could be sent to China for trial.  But the aims of demonstrators spread wider: they demand the free election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and legislature.

In essence, the settlement left by the joint declaration is unstable. For example, Hong Kong has a legislature of which only half the seats are directly elected.  And although China has powerful incentives not to tear up the “one country, two systems provisions” – which would do its Belt and Road initiative abroad no good – the people of Hong Kong cannot be sure what the future will hold.

Hence the proposal by Tom Tugendhat and others to grant British citizenship to the 169,000 or so British Nationals Overseas in Hong Kong.  Some want a bigger offer: the Adam Smith Institute also proposes to “open up the application process to the 4.5 million Hong Kong nationals”.  Some, a smaller one: the Sun wants Britain to admit “the best and brightest in the small territory”.  It might be that such a scheme would have the same effect as that of 1989: in other words, to encourage people to stay in Hong Kong rather than leave for the United Kingdom.

Then again, it might not – either now or, far more likely, in future.  And the context in Britain has changed since 1989.  Some, very largely but not exclusively on the left, support all migration, pretty much.  Others would welcome a big influx of hard-working, family-orientated, Hong Kongers: this has an appeal for parts of the right.  But even though public concern about immigration seems to have eased off recently, there is reason for caution.

As the Migration Observatory puts it in one of its headline findings: “British views are not favourable towards immigration and a substantial majority would like immigration to be reduced”.  Furthermore, Government policy is in flux.

Boris Johnson wants to scrap Theresa May’s unmet pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, and promises Dominic Cummings’s fabled Australian-style points system instead.  But it is far from clear what numbers this plan would produce – and numbers, though not everything in immigration debate, are much.  And the system faces a daunting challenge in any event.

The Government now says that in the event of a No Deal Brexit – arguably now the most likely outcome – free movement will end immediately, which would certainly be popular with many voters.  However, it isn’t apparent what system will be used to distinguish between EU nationals who have applied for the new settlement scheme and those who haven’t, to name only the most obvious of the problems bound up with immediate change.

In 1989, Norman Tebbit led a backbench revolt against the passport plan for Hong Kongers. It was less successful than advance publicity suggested.  But there is no guarantee that the outcome would be similar this time round, were the more ambitious of the Hong Kong schemes to be tried.

Ultimately, the problem of how to respond to China over Hong Kong is a sub-set of the problem of how to respond to it more broadly – which points to the wider debate over Huawei, China, our infrastructure and national security.  We could and should, as in 1989, offer some passports to Hong Kongers.  But, as then, the should and must be strictly limited.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that the Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty, registered at the United Nations.  Which means that third parties have an interest in upholding it, however distant.  In the case of Donald Trump, this might not be remote at all, given his stance on China.

Boris Johnson is due to see Trump soon – and frequently, given the mutual interest in a trade deal.  The former ought to put Hong Kong on the agenda.  Admittedly, the President is no fan of more migration to America.  But it just might be that there is an Anglosphere offer to be made to Hong Kongers on a bigger scale than Britain could make alone.

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