Clearly, the Brexit story is going to be full of drama. In the last week alone we have had an appeal to the High Court on behalf of the sacred sovereignty of the British Parliament – and Marmitegate. Neither of these things was what it seemed.
The solemn court action, couched in the high-flown language of British democratic principle, was just a peculiarly brazen attempt by irreconcilable Remainers to appropriate the most powerful argument of the Brexit campaign for their own purposes.
Meanwhile, the manufacturers of Marmite were playing a familiar version of poker with retailers called Let’s Rip Off the Consumer. And both of these charades were blatant political ploys in Project Fear Mark II.
Let’s look at the more “serious” farrago: that splendidly pompous court action. In a quite shameless volte face, some of the people who had been most insouciant about the relegation of British parliamentary authority to European Union powers, were now arguing passionately that the government cannot trigger Article 50 without the permission of Parliament.
Apparently confident that no one would notice the contradiction with their previous attitude toward the matter of sacrosanct parliamentary power, the legal campaign launched with a burst of self-regarding publicity. The official actor in the case, investment fund manager Gina Miller, told Sky News: “We have a parliament that is sovereign. We have a functioning democracy.”
She went on, “Are we now saying that we can go back to … 18th century politics where governments can overrule parliaments which will happen when we leave the EU? For me that is a very dangerous place to go.”
Seriously? Where were Ms Miller and her Remain friends when parliamentary power was routinely being subsumed under the EU treaties and handed to the European Commission which doesn’t have the virtue of being elected by anybody. Oh please.
Absurd and transparent as this is, there is a risk that it could pull the public debate into a siding which would be a monumental waste of time and energy. The referendum was not a glorified opinion poll.
While legally, its status was “advisory” – because we do not make law in this country by plebiscite – its function as an instruction to government was explicitly accepted in the act of parliament which initiated it. Therefore, there should be no issue here: the executive, whether you like it or not, has the right to carry through the decision of the electorate which parliament agreed that it should consult.
Because the mechanism of referendum is exceptional, there are ambiguities which can be exploited by interested parties but this is as obvious a case as it is possible to imagine of an attempt to deny the clear intention of the original parliamentary act that called the referendum.
The lack of absolute clarity about the relative power of the executive and parliament is often attributed to Britain’s lack of a written constitution.
But in countries with elaborately detailed, legally binding Constitutions such as the United States, there is endless litigious dispute about who has the legitimate right to overrule whom in a system in which two branches of government are elected and the third (the Supreme Court) is appointed by the executive and ratified by the legislature.
In truth, having an unwritten constitution is a blessing in a fast-moving world, allowing a responsiveness to changes in public feeling that can put cumbersome, inherently conservative written models to shame.
Britain, for example, was able to enact a law against sexual discrimination with alacrity when the mood of the times demanded it, while in the US – the home of modern feminism – the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution never passed into law because it failed the laborious process of ratification by the necessary number of states.
A written constitution is an instant antique, framed inevitably in the terms and the attitudes of the generation which composes it – which is why it never occurred to the drafters of the US constitution that there was anything wrong with owning slaves.
So no, there is nothing inherently unsatisfactory about the present British arrangements – and nobody of good will and fair mind could possibly doubt what was intended by Parliament when it approved the Referendum bill, or what must follow from the result of it.
But legitimate argument is not what this is about – just as the fall in the value of the pound was not the cause of Marmitegate. They were both attempts to create a miasma of confusion, anxiety, obfuscation and delay during which, it is hoped, the British public will lose its nerve and retract its command to the government to carry on with Brexit.
The Marmite case, hilarious as it was, reminded me once again how useful it is to have a long political memory.
You too may be old enough to recall that back in the day when we were asked to vote in a referendum on the Common Market, the most heated popular issue was the cost of food. Those opposed were adamant that food prices would rise as a consequence of losing our special trade relationship with the Commonwealth: dairy products and lamb from New Zealand, and particularly cane sugar from the West Indies, would have to be replaced by more expensive versions from European member states. Enthusiastic Joiners adamantly denied this.
Result: we stayed in and food prices went up (and we didn’t even get the cheap wine we’d been promised as a consolation).
Moral of the story: when people are determined to accomplish a political end, they will say almost anything. The native wit and scepticism of the British electorate must be on full alert.
Much of the huff-and-puff coming from the EU is blatantly political and self-serving: what Francois Hollande and even Angela Merkel are saying now is tailored for the home market. They are both facing difficult (in Hollande’s case, terminal) election periods and Brexit is a threat to the stability of the EU which they could do without.
The uncritical, unquestioning coverage given to their pronouncements by the intransigent Remain sections of the British media is pure mischief. Some of this may be motivated by sincere despair over the referendum outcome but at least a portion of it is sheer domestic spite: the Friends of George Osborne who are determined to make this a fight to the death.
That brings me to the third bizarre intervention of the week. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, added his contribution to Project Fear Mark II with a textbook threat: so terrible for Britain will be the consequences of Brexit negotiations that the country will beg to be allowed back into the club.
No softer options, no loosening of ties, no friendly agreements to maintain civilised relations: there can only be “hard Brexit” or “no Brexit”, and when we glimpse the full horror of that pitiless wasteland outside the boundaries, we will repent and reverse our decision to leave.
But wait – I thought it was impossible to retreat once we started the clock ticking with Article 50. Wasn’t that the original warning? There’ll be no way back, no way of cancelling the outward trajectory after you start the process, blah-blah? So which is it? Will we inevitably be cast out on our fundaments or will we be allowed to crawl back on our knees?
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the British are brave to the point of perversity. Trying to bully them is entirely counterproductive.
They also have a sardonic sense of the ridiculous which, rather like a taste for Marmite, is incomprehensible to those who do not share it.