I don’t normally blog about English politics, but the political turmoil south of the border is creating havoc up here, too, so here are a few modest observations and a possible solution.
My observations are these:
The Liberal Democrats seem to have found their mojo again, but many people will never vote for them again because of the way they sold out of their principles to enter into government with the Tories. This means that they cannot become a large party in the foreseeable future.
The Labour rebels who are planning to vote against Brexit are afraid to break away from Labour because of the failure of the SDP in the 1980s.
The few Tory rebels clearly don’t feel tempted to join either the Lib Dems or Rebel Labour.
And yet, there is a huge need for a party to represent the 48% who voted Remain in England – in the other nations of the UK, we have plenty of parties that will stand up for us.
Surely the solution is to create a new party, based on the Liberal Democrats but with enough changes to ensure that voters won’t hold them responsible for the Coalition Government. As for the name of this new party, it would be natural to resurrect the Whigs – they were known to emphasise the supremacy of Parliament (which Theresa May and her merry Brexiteers clearly aren’t too keen on), and they were of course the Tories’ old foes.
Pro-Brexit Labour can then merge with UKIP, but I expect the Conservative embrace of Brexit means they’ll struggle electorally.
The Whigs can then become England’s natural progressive party, and hopefully it could adopt a constructive attitude towards the SNP and perhaps even start supporting the right to self-determination for all the nations of the UK.
Ever since the Brexit referendum, I've kept thinking that the hard Brexit plans surely must be due to a lack of understanding of the consequences, that the Tories would eventually opt for a much softer outcome (such as the Norwegian solution) or at least apply for a decade-long transitional deal to give them time to negotiate new trade deals and all that.
I simply couldn't see any benefit in causing utter devastation to so many people and businesses across the UK, so I kept believing the people opting for a hard Brexit must be ignorant or deluded.
Then two things happened. Firstly, the leaked memo showed that people in government do seem to realise what they doing and what the consequences will be. Secondly, I started reading Naomi Klein's “The Shock Doctrine”.
Parts of this book are now a bit dated (it's from 2007, so from before the crash), but the bits where she explains why it's only possible to implement radical neoliberal reforms after some sort of societal crisis are just as relevant today:
It was in 1982 that Milton Friedman wrote the highly influential passage that best summarizes the shock doctrine: "Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." [...]
What [Friedman] understood was that in normal circumstances, economic decisions are made based on the push and pull of competing interests – workers want jobs and raises, owners want low taxes and relaxed regulation, and politicians have to strike a balance between these competing forces. However, if an economic crisis hits and is severe enough – a currency meltdown, a market crash, a major recession – it blows everything else out of the water, and leaders are liberated to do whatever is necessary (or said to be necessary) in the name of responding to a national emergency. Crises are, in a way, democracy-free zones [...]. [p.140]
If this is true – which I fear it is – a hard and chaotic Brexit will be a huge opportunity for the Tories to completely abolish the welfare state. They'll be able to get rid of the NHS, free education, unemployment benefits and whatever else they don't like. They'll be able to do this while looking immensely sad, saying that it's all the EU's fault for denying them the package they wanted (but quietly always knew wouldn't be acceptable to the other EU member states). They'll blame everybody else for the economic collapse, but use it to create a neoliberal wonderland where only the strong survive. Eventually people will realise what has happened, but by then it'll be too late to reverse.
Britain is about to experience a toxic mix of weak law and strong lobbying. It is tantamount to switching a country off and on again. Except that it will not revert to its original state. It will revert, in all likelihood, to a low-tax, low-regulation laissez faire economy, more akin to that of Singapore or Hong Kong than the countries on the Continent. [p.161]
More than three years ago, I warned that many people in England wanted to go down that Singapore-style route:
In their book Going South: Why Britain will have a Third World Economy by 2014, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson claim the UK needs to make a fundamental choice: Should it move in the direction of a Scandinavian welfare state (similar to the Common Weal ideas currently being discussed in Scotland), or should it become a low-tax state based on free trade (called "Freeport Ho!" and "Freeport Britain" in their book)?
They don't really discuss Scottish independence in their book, and they seem to think that the UK must make the choice as a whole.
However, it appears to me that Scotland and London have already chosen. Scotland wants to go down the Common Weal path (and what we're really discussing in the independence referendum campaign is whether we can convince the rUK to go down that road with us, or whether we should do so alone), and Greater London has practically decided to become a global free port (which is why so many people in the South-East want to leave the EU, dismantle the NHS, and all that).
What I didn't foresee back then was that the Tories would be able to use the chaos created by their hard Brexit to implement this vision, which is so utterly different from the vision of an egalitarian society based of solidarity and fairness that the vast majority of people in Scotland share.
If we can't stop the Tories from administering their neoliberal shock therapy, we need to get out before it's too late. We're about to witness something that'll make Thatcher look like a cuddly socialist in comparison.
It's now abundantly clear that English politics is a mess (to some extent this applies also to Wales, but not to Scotland and Northern Ireland because they have quite separate political systems):
Labour is split between the Corbynites and the Blairites, and although the latter are losing, they don't dare start a new party because of the historical lessons from the 1980s.
The Tories are split between the Brexiteers and the "modernising" wing, but the latter have been used to being in power (like the Blairites), and they now have no idea how to regain command of the party.
The Lib Dems are down because they lost all their left-wingers due to the Coalition Government, so they're now lingering on less than 10 percent in the opinion polls, which is a disaster under FPTP.
UKIP have achieved everything they wanted, so they're collapsing.
The Greens are being held back by FPTP, and many of their natural supporters are quite happy with Corbyn's Labour.
It's quite clear to anybody who listened to the recent Brexit debate in the Westminster parliament that the Blairites, the Lib Dems and the Tory modernisers are quite similar, and they seem to agree much more with each other than the Blairites do with the Corbynites or the Tory modernisers do with the Brexiteers.
If Westminster used proportional representation, these people might feasibly form a new party together, but FPTP are keeping them in their old parties. However, even if the politicians are too feart to do anything, it seems the voters might be starting to change, by doing the only option open to them: They might start voting Lib Dem.
At least that's what I think the Witney byelection shows. There was a 23% swing from the Tories to the Lib Dems, and Labour lost votes, too.
I don't think the Lib Dems will ever regain their youthful left-wing voters, but perhaps they'll souk up those Tory and Labour voters that are horrified by the way their parties have been taken over by the old radical fringes.
However, in the absence of large number of Labour and Tory MPs crossing the floor and joining the Lib Dems, this will be a slow process. The Tories will probably still be the largest party after the 2020 General Election, and I find it unlikely they will lose power until 2025 at the earliest, by which time Brexit will be done and dusted and practically irreversible.
I therefore don't think this is anything that can possibly save Scotland from Brexit, and it's all very speculative anyway. The only safe way for us to avoid the xenophobic-economic collapse that Brexit entails is to hold a new independence referendum soon and leave the UK madhouse.
I simply hope that England and Wales will slowly regain their senses once they've experienced the hard Brexit devastation and then start voting for a pro-EU party that will make them rejoin the EU, but this time as a constructive full member that leads from the front instead of being a girning passenger that never wants to do the same as everybody else. Maybe seeing Scotland being a positive and proactive EU member state from 2019 onwards will help them to see the folly of their ways. I really hope so.
People have started talking about the post-factual society, mainly in despair. Basically voters have stopped listening to "facts" and will now form their opinion based on feeling, which is for instance why England voted in favour of Brexit in spite of practically all serious politicians and academics being against it.
It's a natural development, however. When politicians started hiding behind spin doctors and got extremely good at never answering a question with a straight answer, at the same time as the media stopped doing costly investigative journalism and started reprinting press releases most of the time, things started falling apart.
Politicians and spin doctors might truthfully say that they never actually lie, but if they cover up their intentions up in so much spin that only the 2% of the population actually understand what they're saying, they might as well be lying. For instance, if a politician makes it sound as if they're about to restrict immigration, does it really matter they're actually saying they're unable to do so for many good reasons if hardly anybody gets it? If the vast majority of voters believe that the politician said they were going to restrict immigration, what will they think when the politician admits five years later that immigration figures are up instead? That the politician was lying, of course.
(Because of all grants academics have to apply for these days to keep their job, it's now sadly also often hard to get a straight answer out of them, and similar things apply to most other people in the media.)
The result is, of course, that most voters sadly think that politicians are lying bastards and that you cannot trust a word they say. And of course, in that situation you might as well listen to the ones that are fun or say something different.
Also, if you think of politicians as part of the elite, you can even get the idea that if they're all in favour of something, it must be a secret elitist plan, and so it must necessarily be in the interest of the rest of us to vote for the exact opposite.
The problem here is that Brexit will most likely be a complete disaster, a wasted decade (if not a century), a source of xenophobia and missed opportunities, and in general just the opposite of what normal people need. The elite will be fine, but it'll be harder and dearer to go on holiday abroad, there will be fewer jobs, and nobody will stop the Tories from taking away our human rights. In this case the voters ought to have listened to the politicians and to the experts, but how were they to know they're weren't just spinning.
I blame the spin doctors. They created this post-factual society.
We live in a real world, however, and eventually the chickens will come home to roost.
I really worry what will happen in England once the Brexit voters realise that they're the ones who'll have to pay the bill. Will there be more racist attacks? Or even riots?
I just hope Scotland will get out of the UK before the Brexiters realise what they've done. Time is short.
I'm completely in agreement with the idea that English affairs should be determined by parliamentarians elected in England. Why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on laws relating to education or health in England, when these areas are fully devolved to Scotland? However, the way to achieve this would be to create an English Parliament and an English Government separate from the UK institutions, not the EVEL plan that the Tories have put in place.
As Lallands Peat Worrier has argued, EVEL really doesn't implement English Votes for English Laws but English Vetoes against but not for English Laws. This sounds rather innocent, but EVEL has evil consequences for all MPs representing non-English seats and any parties that rely on them.
The purpose is to give the Tories a perpetual veto at Westminster. The consequences might be minor during this parliament. However, as Iain Macwhirter has pointed out, EVEL will suddenly become important once a (possibly Labour-led) government relies on non-English MPs to pass its legislation: "It would leave UK Labour ministers for health, education and justice unable to implement the policies on which the government was elected. How could any prime minister pretend to govern when he or she can’t implement their manifesto pledges over 85 per cent of the UK population?"
A useful way to think about it might be so say that we currently have Tory governments in both England and the UK so there are no conflicts; however, if after 2020 we have a Tory government in England but any other government in the UK, EVEL will suddenly spring into action. (Holyrood politics was also a bit boring while Labour was in charge both there and in the UK and only really got interesting after the SNP got into government.)
It is now unrealistic for MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to reach the top. Positions such as Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretaries of State for Health and Education and the Home Secretary will now require the holder to represent an English seat, as pointed out by Wings over Scotland. The problem is that most politicians move up through government by advancing to a more important post from time to time, so it becomes almost impossible to create a reasonable career path if you are restricted to military and foreign affairs.
It might also shut non-English MPs out of a lot of the committees (where a lot of the real law-making happens) -- see for instance this story about Tommy Sheppard's seat in the fracking regulations committee. This is all a bit odd because English MPs don't seem to have been removed from the Scottish Affairs Committee, which has plenty of members not representing Scottish seats.
Of course, there's also the worry that EVEL will be extended in the future. Currently it's just implemented through a Commons standing order, which a future government can easily change. It'll be interesting to see whether the current government after a couple of years tries to make it much harder to change by putting it into law once the dust has settled.
It will also be interesting whether the Tories will try to lump together legislation to make it impossible for Scots to block. For instance, English fox hunting legislation is now subject to an English veto, but Scots can still take part in blocking it in the final stage if it's a close vote (i.e., if a lot of Tories rebel). Might the Tories add a Scottish sweetener to the bill to make it unattractive for Scottish MPs to do this?
It's also worth bearing in mind that EVEL isn't a symmetrical response to Scottish devolution. The way to determine whether something is devolved to Holyrood isn't to ask whether it only affects Scotland but to check a long list of reserved matters. For instance, broadcasting is reserved to Westminster, so Holyrood cannot simply create a new Scottish TV channel; on the other hand agriculture is reserved, so Westminster cannot pass a UK-wide law in this area without Holyrood's consent. It would have been straight-forward enough to attach a similar list of reserved matters to the EVEL standing order (which is surely what they would have done if they had set up an English Parliament), but instead it's been left to the discretion of the Speaker.
It's hard not to get the impression that the Tories have made the first version of EVEL deliberately vague so that nobody gets too bothered about it yet, and by the time people really realise what it was all about, it will already have been part of the UK's uncodified constitution for years. That's EVEL.
As many people have pointed out (e.g, Lallands Peat Worrier and The Huffington Post), the Tories' current plans for English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) actually are pretty meaningless at the moment -- they would simply give the English MPs the power to block laws from being passed by a majority involving Scottish MPs if the subject area is devolved (like when Scottish MPs were happy to introduce tuition fees in England under Tony Blair), but they wouldn't allow English MPs to create or modify laws on their own (such as the current relaxation of the English fox-hunting law).
In effect, the EVEL rules would basically not have any effect during this parliament (given that the Tories have an absolute majority that doesn't depend on their sole Scottish MP). They might of course become very important under a future Labour government (if we don't get independence before that happens), but then they could just abolish the EVEL rules again, given the UK Parliament is sovereign.
I have a feeling that many ordinary Tory voters aren't aware of the current impotence of EVEL, but once they realise, they might get pretty angry and will demand that an even better variety of EVEL is introduced (let's call it EVEL-ER, borrowing the Chinese word for 'two', 二 èr).
So what would EVEL-ER look like? Presumably it would actually exclude Scottish MPs from voting on certain laws altogether. Rather than forcing the Speaker to exclude the MPs at random times, it would probably be easier to assign days to each voting group (e.g., English MPs on Mondays and Tuesdays, English and Welsh MPs on Wednesdays, all MPs on Thursdays). In effect, EVEL-ER would set up at least two new parliaments (an English one and an English-and-Welsh one -- I'm not entirely sure where the Northern Irish MPs come into the picture), but sharing MPs and facilities with the House of Commons.
The new EVEL-ER Parliament would thus be a matryoshka parliament -- a large parliament containing a smaller parliament containing an even smaller parliament.
EVEL-ER would raise a lot of questions, however. For instance, would the English MPs have their own matryoshka ministers, or would the UK ones simply wear a lot of matryoshka hats?
I can't help thinking it'd be simpler to set up a proper English Parliament (but then I'm not English) or to split up the UK once and for all (but then I'm not a Unionist).
It's a well-known fact that Scottish Labour MPs played a crucial part in imposing tuition fees on English students, feeling safe in the knowledge that their own constituents wouldn't be affected directly.
Many voters did notice, however, and it surely played a part in the downfall of Scottish Labour.
So I was a bit surprised when I read the following in a long article in The Guardian called "The Clegg Catastrophe":
Many senior figures [...] warned that supporting a rise in tuition fees would be disastrous. [...] Danny Alexander, who had taken over from Laws as chief secretary to the Treasury, insisted the party should go along with the rise in tuition fees. Alexander, who participated – alongside Clegg, Cameron, and Osborne – in the “quad” meetings where coalition policy was hammered out, was less interested in the politics of the issue than the economic impact; he believed it was a necessary step to reduce the deficit. Far from being abolished over six years, as the Lib Dem manifesto had promised, fees were to treble over two years. [...]
In December, on the eve of the Commons vote to raise fees, Martin Shapland, the chairman of Liberal Youth, went to see the chief whip Alistair Carmichael to make a final attempt to persuade the party to change course. “I told him the damage was going to be permanent and he disagreed,” Shapland said.
It would appear the Scottish Lib Dems repeated the errors made a few years earlier by Labour: They assumed they were safe because Scottish students wouldn't have to pay to attend university (thanks to the SNP), and so they were much keener to toe the party line and treble the fees than their English colleagues.
Were they really too naïve to understand that the consequent lack of trust in the Liberal Democrats would affect them, too?
It's odd how Unionist politicians often are much worse at understanding the dynamics of post-devolution politics than the Nationalists.