Brexit - some notes for historians

Last night the government lost its majority and control of parliament. Today we had yet another unprecedented day of drama. As I sat watching the debate from the public gallery yesterday, I kept thinking “who is lying and why?” I used to wonder a similar question but with different assumptions, “what is that MP trying to achieve and for whom?”

Historians of the future trying to explain what happened in the years after people voted to leave the EU will need to become procedural and constitutional experts. Most of those commenting on what is going on currently have to endlessly explain the rules of the game – how parliament can be prorogued, how quickly laws can be made and how to use standing orders to do what you want – and they do so brilliantly (see Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society, Hannah White of Institute of Government, Anand Menon at Kings College and Meg Russell at the Constitution Unit, UCL as well as many Commons’ parliamentary clerks/library researchers). Many of them are members of the Study of Parliament Group, so follow SPG on twitter and you'll find a procedural treasure trove.

But if asking why Brexit drove us into a political frenzy, then you need to look further back. I’d suggest studying four trends in the relationship between politicians and people that have been emerging in the last 50 years:

  1. Rebellion: MPs have been getting less inclined to obey their party leaders over the last 50 years. Why? As deference declines, MPs’ relationship with constituents gets closer, and digital media reveal the inevitable inconsistencies, contradictions and disingenuity of politicians, so backbenchers are more and more prepared to defy their leaders and their disciplinarians, i.e., the whips (see the work of Phil Cowley). In our current situation, threatening to remove 'the whip' and deselect MPs sounds old school and out of sync with the way parties have been run for 20 years. Everyone knows that Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition party, was the second most rebellious MP when his party was governing 1997-2010. This increase in rebellion, plus various reputation-saving measures to give backbench MPs more power after the expenses scandal, and a government with no majority translates into a weak PM.
  2. Austerity and inequality are more controversial causes: arguably the massive cuts since 2010 have infuriated huge swathes of our population. We became accustomed to the idea that the state had various responsibilities, only to find that our assumptions crumbled under other imperatives. Claims on the state increased with the ageing population and the failure to grapple with the complex needs (for mental and physical health and social care, chronic inequalities, action on climate change etc); more people coming into the UK was perceived as a further pressure on services. Our expectations of a more egalitarian society were undermined by the continuing dominance of white private-school educated men in government. People want to leave the EU for different reasons, but some argue that for these privileged white men, taking control back from Europe (the slogan of the leave campaign) means the freedom to further shrink the state.
  3. The digital revolution has contributed to the mix by helping leavers win the referendum in the first place. Plus, since 2016 various social apps have enabled backbenchers to organise rebellion against the main parties. And digital communication – leaking, insulting, arguing on social media – rachets up the pace and intensity of fury and distrust, so that the hostility between politicians (and others) is attaining new heights from which people seem to be struggling to climb down. (My new project is about political communication in six parliaments so I’d encourage a look at the work of the Global Research Network on Parliaments and People to see what we come up with in the coming years).
  4. Constitutional changes: it is in this area that we can see most clearly how small changes can change a party, a parliament, a country, their neighbours and even the world: -
  • I mentioned that backbenchers were given more clout. In 2010 Select Committee Chairs and members were elected not selected by the whips and backbenchers were given control of time each week to hold debates. Aside from giving the impression that backbenchers should step up the intensity of their scrutiny of parliament, this meant that backbenchers across parties formed new more meaningful and effective alliances. You might argue these reforms were provoked by the expenses scandal and that wouldn't have happened but for the well-intentioned actions of an honourable MP introducing a new rule demanding receipts for expenses (see my new book on expenses.)
  • Devolving power to the three nations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, without nurturing the relationships between our four parts of the UK, has created struggles and tensions. Arguably this is meant that an English-dominated UK government (and the main Opposition party) have both been weakened by their failure to recognise and work with the decision-makers in the other nations.
  • Then in 2012 Eric Joyce headbutted a Tory MP in Strangers’ Bar, leading to his resignation and the Labour leader Ed Miliband to change the rules for leadership elections (from an electoral college to one-member-one-vote and to make membership possible for only a few pounds). These changes in the rules led to the election of Jeremy Corbyn a life-long Eurosceptic as Leader. His election lurched the leadership of the opposition to the left, while the majority of MPs stayed in the centre, possibly provoking an equivalent reaction among the Tories.

It was the journalist Jim Waterson who argued recently in a radio series about the political butterfly effect that Brexit was caused by Eric Joyce’s headbutt on 22 February 2012. Others will see the critical relationship breakdowns, ruptures and hinges at different critical moments. 

History is not an even current and what can appear as if they are small events can provoke hugely significant change. Politicians would be wise to get better at anticipating the future without pretending that they can predict or control it. The challenge for historians will be how to take account of the millions of different views in Westminster, the four nations of the UK, and the 28 countries of the EU in identifying the critical characters, moments and processes and how they inter-relate through the Brexit drama. It is reassuring that this story will not be controlled by one scholar but thousands of experts  because the way we tell this history will have its own impact on the relationship between parliament and the people.

Scrutiny of blame shifting

The orientation of politics has shifted even further from present to future, as politicians anticipate how events and messages will ‘play’ in the court of public opinion. Boris Johnson’s camp have got in early with their claims that if we leave the EU on 31stOctober with no deal (or don’t leave), then it will be the EU’s fault not his, assuming he becomes PM next month (BBC Radio 4 Today programme this am). Last week Mr Johnson denied that his intervention in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was his fault (when he said she was teaching journalists which was then cited as evidence that led to her imprisonment in Iran). The blame lies with the Iranian government, he cried.

We seriously need to take a closer look at what constitutes responsibility, and therefore blame, in political world. If you have a highly individualised view of the world, where responsibility for action lies only with indivdiduals, then you might indulge in fantasies that one person (or entity like a government) can achieve or commit actions on their own. But that makes no sense in relation to our experience. It is surely more logical to acknowledge that our individuality works simultaneously (even paradoxically) along with the social nature of human existence bearing in mind that we interact with others continually and create recognisable patterns in relationships, behaviour and meaning-making. You can’t pretend that these patterns are merely the aggregate of individual impulses because they vary between cultures in partially predictable ways. But this does not mean you can blame ‘the culture’ for the actions of individuals or groups, because cultures don’t have agency – only people do.

The blindingly obvious conclusion of this is that responsibility is both individual held – and those in more powerful positions should feel and take that responsibility most keenly – but also shared across groups. So Mr Johnson may share responsibility with key actors in the Iranian government, and the latter may have a bigger share in Zaghari-Ratcliffe's case, but that doesn’t mean he can shrug off his culpability for committing a grave error. On the case of Brexit, if we leave the EU with no deal, after he says again and again and again in his leadership campaign that it is possible to broker one before October, then on that occasion he will be the individual with the greatest responsibility for the consequences post October 2019. But he will share it with those who voted for him, and even more those who campaigned with him, to be PM.

I can hear my grandchildren (Inshallah) asking me in 25 years time, when Britain (minus NI and Scotland) are beginning to recover from the economic disaster of no deal, “why did your generation allow Mr Johnson to become PM knowing he would do this?” I might say, “it wasn’t my fault. It was Conservative MPs and members who chose him,” but what if they reply, “yes but did you do enough to warn them?” To counter that I am an academic so have to remain neutral, and anyway have no influence, sounds a bit lame. So I too am anticipating the future and wondering how my actions will play in the court of my grandchildren’s opinion. Here's to hoping that one flap of a gnat's wings can stop a hurricane.

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