As an almost lifelong political junky, I have to confess that for the last week I have been riveted, mouth open in amazement, in the proceedings of the House of Commons in London, as they agonizingly struggle to find a way of passing Britain out of the European Union.
As I am writing this, the debate drones on, with commentators saying that nothing like this has ever been heard of before in British Parliamentary memory. I have to admit it is unusual, because my experience with Parliaments has convinced me that invariably the result of any debate, on no matter how serious a subject, is known in advance. I cannot remember any vote in which I took an interest that violated that rule: essentially, the debate turned out to be fire and brimstone, signifying in itself, little enough. I even remember a debate in the House of Lords on one of those intense social policies of the 1960s in Britain, abortion or capital punishment ---I tend to think it was the latter, but am not sure of it --- in which the Archbishop of Canterbury, a member of the Lords, spoke in favour of the proposed policy and then voted against it. A sort of reducio ad absurdum of democratic politics.
For years I was able to say that the only political vote I ever witnessed in which the result was not known in advance, took place within the British Labour party, at their annual conference at the beginning of the 1960s, and concerned the effort made by supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to have the Labour party accept their aim “to ban the bomb”, as party policy. They succeeded, in a manner of speaking: they won the vote taken following the debate, but it made no difference to party policy. When Labour was elected to government in 1964, they never implemented their avowed anti-nuclear weapons policy, but continued to use imported American nuclear weapons, which they have to this day. So, is Parliamentary democracy just full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Good question….
Today’s debate is a good test of that question. Britain’s Conservative government held a referendum on whether the country should continue to be a member of the European Community, or leave it. They expected to win, but lost it. Prime Minister David Cameron scuttled off with his tail between his legs, and the party elevated the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who set about the arduous task of negotiating the terms of quitting the grand European project.
At first she was hoping to be able to achieve the withdrawal without having to seek Parliamentary approval, but eventually it was forced on her, and this week’s debate has been billed as the moment of decision --- a five-day debate on a deal May has achieved with the European bureaucrats and politicians that she has presented as not only the best deal on offer, but also the only deal available.
Having watched, so far as I could, the first three days of the debate with a certain admiration as to its tone, quality and politeness, I was looking forward to the last two days building to an exciting vote --- which would have been the first occasion to my knowledge that the result of a Parliamentary vote would have been uncertain until the vote was counted. But when I turned on the TV in the morning I was greeted with the news that Ms. May was expected to cancel the vote. All was confusion: some of her staff were still telling reporters no cancellation was in prospect, but others were claiming they had it on good authority….etc….
As I had experienced so many times in the 1960s, a big occasion in the House of Commons usually manages to live up to its billing, When the chamber had to be rebuilt after the war, Winston Churchill advised there should be fewer seats than Members, so that on the great occasions the excitement would be heightened by the corridors being full of standing Members who were not able to find a seat.
He was right: the chamber was filled to capacity, with Members coming and going, forcing themselves through the standing phalanx just inside the entrance, as ordinary business was being conducted while waiting for the Prime Minister. A moment or two after she took her seat, the Speaker rose and called on the “Rt Honourable the Prime Minister, a statement.” She said she had carefully listened ---- loud groans from the Opposite benches --- to honourable Members, both inside and outside the House, and it had become clear to her that if the preferred deal were to be put to the vote, it would be lost by a considerable margin. (More groans and shouts of agreement). Mr. Speaker rose to his feet: he said his intention was to call every person who wished to question the Prime Minister, “but she must be heard.” And asked them to quieten down.
She said she had decided to postpone the vote, and to return to Brussels to attempt to get further clarification about the so-called Northern Irish backstop, the most important item to which so many members took exception. She said this in spite of the fact that she had spent weeks telling them all that no further changes were possible to the proffered deal.
From the beginning I have found this concept of the “backstop” --- a saying from the cricket field --- confusing and puzzling. A short explanation of it is that it is a position of last resort, designed to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland in the event that the UK leaves the EU without securing an all-encompassing deal. At present, goods and services are traded between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland with few restrictions. The UK and Ireland are currently part of the EU single market and customs union, so products do not need to be inspected for customs and standards.
Even more bewildering is the fact that both sides would hope that the backstop need never be used, and on the British side, they want to be clear that it is a temporary measure; otherwise, it would amount to their having to stay within the EU indefinitely. The backstop has been described as an insurance policy, but --- I am now quoting The Guardian explanation --- “The EU still requires a ‘backstop to the backstop’ – effectively an insurance policy for the insurance policy. And they want this to be the Northern Ireland-only solution that they had previously proposed,” May told MPs. Raising the stakes, the prime minister said the EU’s insistence amounted to a threat to the constitution of the UK: “We have been clear that we cannot agree to anything that threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom,” she added. Maybe readers will be more perspicacious than am I, and will understand what the above two paragraphs mean.
When she finished, the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn rose to say the government had lost control, and was in an absolute shambles. If she couldn’t do better than she had done, she should give way to allow someone else to try.
This debate has held a number of surprises for me, not the least of which is that Ms. May was on her feet, or at least up and down on and off them, for more than three hours, answering the comments made to her by Members. The first person called after Corbyn was a young woman, from the Scottish National Party, Kirsty Blackman. She looked like a teenager, and made such a brilliant three or four minutes demolition of the government’s position that I couldn’t help but wish we had some like her in our own House of Commons.
After a couple more intervenors, Mr. Speaker Bercow rose to say that after 164 Members had already spoken in a debate that promised to come to a conclusion with a vote, it was discourteous to them that the vote should be cancelled. The best way to deal with it, he said, would be for a Member of the government to move a motion to adjourn the debate, so that the motion could be debated and the House could decide whether it wished to have the vote ending the debate as planned, or not.. “I would be happy to accept such a motion,” he said. But the government was not listening to him: Ms. May carried on answering objectors just as if Mr. Speaker had not spoken. Soon the BBC cut away to give one of their veteran reporters the chance to say that he had never heard a Speaker condemning a government so strongly on the matter of how it was handling Commons business.
When I turned it on later in the day, the Chamber had only a scattering of Members present, but they were still fulfilling Mr. Speaker’s promise to hear everyone who wanted to speak, and most of them did.
An expert interviewed by the BBC gave it as his opinion that had she allowed the vote to go ahead, she could have counted on roughly 200 Members, of the more than 600 in the Chamber. He had never heard of a government being defeated by such a huge majority.
The leaders of the European Community, in response to these surprising events, reinforced what they had said before: that hey were not prepared to negotiate any changes in the deal they had already signed off on.
As some said today, “we shall see.”