It is a reflection of my age that one of the first records I can ever recall is ‘Things ain’t what they used to be’ sung by Max Bygraves. You can question my father’s musical taste in buying the record. You can also be sure that this one fact indicated that he was a small c conservative. What message he thought this might be imparting to a child I do not know. But the song’s title resonated with me this morning. Things aren’t what they used to be.
Once upon a time Prime Ministers who had lost six parliamentary votes in a row, spectacularly lost his majority, and had then lied to the Queen to illegally prorogue parliament, which fact had to be pointed out to him by a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, would have resigned, immediately. Johnson very clearly has no intention of doing so. If that is not indication that we live in a different political era from that I was brought up in, nothing is.
The question is, does it matter? The dividing line on this appears to be a person’s position on Brexit. But I wonder if that is also true, even if some paper’s might suggest that the Supreme Court’s decision is merely an anti-Brexit plot. I strongly suspect the paper’s are not an indication of popular sentiment on this issue. What the real dividing line is, I would suggest, relates to a desire for effective government.
Those like me who celebrate the decision do so because it confirms that there are checks and balances on the use of prerogative power that we have always known should exist, and which we also know always did exist simply because prince ministers and others respected that fact without having to be reminded of it. We therefore think that yesterday was about the reinforcement of effective government.
And those who think, with Jacob Rees-Mogg, that this is a constitutional coup also want effective government, but of the form that just gets on with things, that as many will recall governments once did because they enjoyed majorities that could survive any parliamentary challenge. Those are, of course, now history.
What unites the sides is, then, a desire for things to happen. What divides them is how that is to be achieved. I would argue that yesterday was a victory for due process (and thank goodness for that) which felt like a snub to the ‘just get on and do it’ brigade, fuelled by a referendum result that we still know was inappropriately secured.
How to resolve this? I am not sure there is a way to do that at present. Things are not the way that they used to be. But, for the sake of good government we do need a continuing respect for the rule of law, in both its spirit and letter. Yesterday we got that. And some do not agree. Rather bizarrely, those wanting to ‘take back control’ wish to do so in ways never used, and without there being appropriate checks and balances on that control to ensure that those meant to benefit from it might really do so. That’s the paradox that we face.
We can agree we have moved on. We cannot agree where we are. And we have no idea where we’re going. And for England (and I make the point deliberately as for Scotland and Northern Ireland the trajectories are very different, which might also be the case for Wales in due course) that is unknown territory. The country that once, as a result of its assured self-confidence seemed to rule much of the world, now has no common vision of what it wants to be. It’s sense of purpose has vanished. And one of the supposed competing visions appears to lack any vision at all.
No wonder we’re in a mess.