THE past couple of weeks have been extraordinary. A new Prime Minister, elected by only a minuscule minority of the electorate, loses his first vote in the House of Commons, threatens an election that he has no power to call (without the assent of two- thirds of the House), and removes the party whip from 21 MPs. Democracy at work? Genius strategic thinking? Or a dog’s breakfast of political vindictiveness at a time of national crisis?
What we know is this: the Prime Minister is determined to come over as a strong leader. He talks tough, although seems not to realise that the people he speaks about toughly can all hear him. In the European Union and further afield, the astonishment no longer has anything to do with the referendum decision to leave the EU, but everything to do with the chaotic and destructive incompetence of the process since 2016. I think “incredulity” is the word to describe competent onlookers who once respected the Mother of Parliaments.
We can probably predict with confidence that a General Election will be held before too long. The terms on which that election will be fought are likely to be — certainly from the Government’s perspective — “Parliament versus the people”. And here we come to the heart of our problem: parliamentary sovereignty is not the same thing as national (or popular) sovereignty. If the referendum truly was about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, then that aspiration went out of the window a long time ago.
The two systems have clashed, and we now have the impasse. We have a parliamentary (representative) system that has been compromised by a popular vote that our parliamentary representatives are now to negotiate — not as delegates or puppets, but people elected to use their judgement on our behalf about the best interests of the country and all its people.
THE real questions facing the country go beyond and behind the apparent challenges, however. One way or another, Parliament will resolve its current crisis. If it goes well, this will happen via parliamentary processes and decision-making. It may not go well. But the questions that will persist well beyond the immediate are fundamental to who we think we are as a country, and to who we want to become.
I’m afraid it is about language again, and about the relationship between truth and trust, for which language is essential.
When the PM announced the proroguing of Parliament (News, 30 August), he clearly had the power to do so according to the constitution. Why? Because the uncodified constitution depends on conventions and respect for the rules of behaviour, and these conventions can be ignored or set aside. But at what cost?
Once the PM did this (having lied repeatedly about not doing it), the cat was out of the bag. If his behaviour is acceptable, what happens when a far-Left PM decides, “in order to get the job done”, to suspend Parliament at will? The constitution is only as strong as the respect shown it by all parties; it must be sustainable in all circumstances, regardless of who holds the keys to No. 10.
I used the word “lied” — a strong accusation. But the question about the PM is: how can anything he says be trusted when he has lied and misrepresented so much? Leaving the red bus to one side (and his colleagues’ claims about “the easiest deal in history”), the latest was the deliberate confusing of “proroguing” with “recess”. Apparently, the prorogation of Parliament will add only a few days to recess; so what is the fuss about? Well, the fuss is because, in recess, all the work of Parliament continues; after prorogation, it ceases completely. They are not the same, and there is a democratic deficit in deliberately talking as if they were.
SO, TO echo Pontius Pilate’s question (which Jesus left him to answer for himself), what is truth? If we are close to getting a deal, why do those with whom we are supposedly negotiating apparently not recall the negotiations? Are we totally resistant to looking through the eyes of our neighbours at who we are?
If the language of “getting Brexit done” is accepted, then what currency did the old promises have whereby this was “the easy bit”? Brexit will not be “done” by leaving the EU on any date. The easy bit will be over, but then the decades-long hard slog of re-relating will begin — and how well is that likely to go when we have demonstrated that we cannot be trusted?
Amid the parliamentary game-playing, does it matter that a defecting MP accuses the Government of “bullying, lies, and manipulation”? What place do we give to ethics, honesty, and integrity? Or doesn’t it matter? None of this is new. These questions have been raised again and again during the past four years, but they have largely been ignored. They will demand a response at some point.
Let’s look at it this way: if the country finds it pragmatically acceptable that lying, manipulation, and misrepresentation are acceptable in public life and political discourse, then we will need to look at the consequences of this.
Essentially, what we have seen in the current political tactics is a decision to enshrine utilitarianism: the ends justify the means. But, if we are to be consistent, we must allow that, in the future, the same ethic might apply, and we will have little ground for objection. Is that acceptable, morally or politically? If we think it is, then we must own up to the consequences for democracy in the future, when “getting the job done” is all it takes to justify playing fast and loose with the rules.
ALLIED to this is the fact that, as I articulated in the House of Lords last year, lying has become normalised, and our discourse has been corrupted (News, 2 February 2018). Maybe it is the loss of shame as a social check that lies at the root of this. There is an argument that, once shame is removed and any social sanction is discarded, we can lie with impunity, because, as long as we achieve our end — obtaining and holding on to power — the lies that we tell to get there simply do not matter.
Or hypocrisy? How is trust in politics or in politicians to be recovered when five leading members of the Government swear blind that they would not agree to the proroguing of Parliament, and, within a month or two, (a) agree to it, and (b) refuse to justify or explain that turnaround in public? It is possible that there is a strong and clear ethical justification for a change of mind; but, in public leadership, there should be a right for the public to hear it. Otherwise, we are saying that commitments made in public which help shape the approval of an electorate can be discarded once inconvenient, and that’s OK. Is it?
Truth-telling lies at the heart of public trust in our institutions. And trust is a casualty of lying or misrepresentation (the point of the ninth commandment). Take the focus off the current spate of deliberate lying (proroguing is not the same as recess, and those justifying it as “adding just a few days to it” know that they are lying), and it is not hard to see that the future of our politics will be shaped by what we agree is acceptable now.
These questions are not partisan. The answers to them will shape our political culture for decades to come. Once integrity has been diminished as an essential element of democratic discourse and behaviour, it won’t be long before we reap the fruit of our moral contempt.
The Rt Revd Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds.