William Davage reflects on a summer of political unrest
“Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me,” shrieked Kenneth Williams in “Carry on Cleo”. In the wake of the result of the Referendum, for a few weeks political life threatened to descend into a Carry-On film. The Prime Minister resigned. There were serial resignations from the Shadow Cabinet, and the Opposition collapsed. As the Conservative leadership election began its ordered and seemly course, the most egregious political assassination of modern times took place and the golden boy of the Tory Party, Boris Johnson, duly fell. His assassin, Michael Gove, launched a bizarre and short-lived election campaign and was rewarded by his miserable humiliation in the second round of the election, managing to win fewer votes than in the first. Even stranger was the bien pensant march of Andrea Leadsome’s supporters to launch her woeful and doomed campaign. Even before her unfortunate remarks about motherhood and apple pie, her inexperience and her wild-eyed champions did not bode well. And as no political crisis could happen without some sexual misbehaviour, the hapless ‘sexter’ Stephen Crabb duly obliged.
Meanwhile, it was difficult to know whether Jeremy Corbyn was a limpet of remarkable staying power or a deluded leech sucking the life-blood from his party. While there was farce enough from the Conservatives there were shades of darkness and violence from Labour ranks while the battle over the rule book was waged. And if matters could not be worse, the self-righteous Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats (remember them?) demanded a General Election, notwithstanding the fact that it was his own party, when in power, which insisted on the legislation instituting a five-year parliamentary term of office and making it extremely difficult to trigger an election before then.
During this fascinating farrago, I was reading the excellent biography of Castlereagh by John Bew. Lord Castlereagh and his great opponent George Canning fought a duel on Putney Heath, and perhaps that is the way forward for political discourse. Even at twenty paces my money would be on the steely Theresa May. She eventually emerged from the melée and set about a brutal reconstruction of government.
These engaging human dramas tend to obscure important shifts in our political and constitutional arrangements. Referendums are a relatively new aspect of our constitutional government. Since the first Referendum on the Common Market to the latest on the membership of the European Union – both of which owed their genesis to internal divisions in the Labour and Conservative parties – there have been eleven, national and local. Their status is advisory and not binding on the Government or Parliament. This maintains the fundamental principle that the United Kingdom is a representative parliamentary democracy and Parliament, in particular the House of Commons, is supreme. Whatever the constitutional theory, in practice the nature of the beast means that referendums cannot be gainsaid and they are definitive. They seem to have acquired the status of a constitutional convention. We are now in a position that a Parliament where there is a large majority to remain in the European Union seems to be under an obligation to implement a policy against the political conscience of its members. This also lies at the heart of the turmoil in the Labour Party where a serial rebel against party policy wants MPs to follow the diktats of the members. Comrade Corbyn, indeed.
There no longer seems to be an Edmund Burke to articulate the basic principle of a representative democracy: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Through the ballot box, this latest Referendum may have brought about a very British Revolution. There has been a constitutional coup by the electorate.
Some have suggested that a second Referendum ought to be held, to ask the question “Did you really mean that?” A petition to that effect attracted over four million signatures. Given the number of the total votes cast, the majority was a relatively narrow 51.9% to 48.1%. It would have required some 980 votes per constituency to change sides for the outcome to be different. It had been open to the Government or the House of Commons to restrict the binary effect of the Referendum by insisting on a minimum turn-out of the electorate (that a quarter of the electorate did not vote is disappointing even with a turn-out of over 70%) or requiring a two-thirds majority to be definitive. Those possibilities were not included. There is some precedent. In 1979 the Scottish Devolution referendum on whether there should be a Scottish Assembly required that 40% of the electorate had to vote ‘yes’. The majority achieved fell short of the threshold.
Others, however, have seen the result as decisive – because in our constitutional arrangements a majority of one is enough. Jim Callaghan’s ministry fell by one vote in a vote of confidence. Our system has other quirks. Twice in my lifetime the party which won the majority of votes in a General Election failed to achieve a majority of seats in the House of Commons and did not form the Government.
Meanwhile, as the constitution seems to have been rewritten in one way, in another we saw an attempt to reassert a constitutional doctrine that has been lately neglected. There was hiatus in the political turmoil when Sir John Chilcot delivered his long-awaited Report on the Iraq War. The Report’s exhaustive narrative on the process by which the Government arrived at its decision – which was approved by a vote in the House of Commons – concluded that it should in future be impossible “to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavour on such a scale and of such gravity without really careful challenge analysis and assessment and collective political judgement”.
I have not read the whole Report but I have read the section that deals with the process by which the Government came to its conclusion. The Report details, in effect, the abandonment of Cabinet Government and collective responsibility. As one of the lessons to be learned, the Report stresses “the importance of collective Ministerial discussion which encourages frank and informed debate and challenge”. These had been markedly lacking, as the Report details. I remember the newspapers and airwaves reporting three days of full cabinet discussion under Mr Callaghan when new Trade Union legislation “in Place of Strife” was hotly contested. I cannot remember anything subsequently to match it.
It may be significant that neither Tony Blair nor David Cameron had any Cabinet experience before becoming Prime Minister, and both – despite early protestations by Mr Cameron that he would return to Cabinet government – slipped into the Blairite “sofa government”, the Coalition pre-Cabinet discussions, and the “Notting Hill Set” that pre-empted full debate in Cabinet. This was not entirely new. The policy that ended up with the Munich Agreement in 1938 was pretty much decided by Chamberlain, Halifax, and Geoffrey Dawson, Editor of The Times. Harold Wilson had his “Kitchen Cabinet”. Perhaps Mrs May’s bloodbath will herald a revival of Cabinet Government and collective responsibility. As Asquith once said, we must “wait and see”.
The Revd William Davage is a former Priest Librarian of Pusey House, Oxford.