Friday 16th November 2018: At the root of this week’s crisis in government is the failure to respect Britain’s proven institutional arrangements, says Politeia’s Director, Sheila Lawlor*.
The prime minister’s Brexit deal has not gone to plan. As events unfolded this week it became clear why. The attempts to decide the country’s future and transfer to Brussels greater powers than now were ill received by a number of ministers. Though entrusted with the government of one of the world’s oldest and most iconic democracies, the deal had all the hallmarks of being made in Brussels, not Britain, with the reality of collective cabinet responsibility by-passed until the cabinet was summoned to decide its future. Now many MPs, whether leave or remain, believe the deal is flawed, not least because it could leave British people without a say in the laws under which they are governed, its commitment to the customs union could shackle the economy and the prosperity of its people.
Ministers, on whom collective responsibility falls for the executive conduct of affairs and the future of this country’s constitutional and economic well-being rest, seem to have been excluded from the detailed preparation of the text. That was the preserve of an unelected civil servant, the prime minister’s negotiator, who appears to have, with his EU opposite numbers, called the shots working things out behind closed doors in Brussels. Despite a government manifesto promise to honour the referendum pledge, and to leave the EU and its Single Market, Customs Union and legal jurisdiction, the negotiators, apparently with the prime minister’s blessing, were moving in a different direction. That dynamic led to the notorious July Chequers meeting when ministers were summoned to the prime minister’s secluded country residence to rubber stamp the proposal to keep the UK under the Single Market for goods production, and the UK under swathes of EU law. Although many had been kept in the dark, this was, we were told at the time a ‘collective’ decision. It led to the resignation of two senior cabinet ministers and the public, polled at the time, rejected it by two to one. Instead of changing course, a far greater surrender to Brussels was on the cards, probably because in September the EU made clear at Salzburg that Chequers had not gone far enough.
After that the final plans were prepared, the text made ready in Brussels to roll off the press as soon as the prime minister had rubber stamped it through the cabinet. The agreement duly rolled off the presses on cue.
Only on Tuesday night, on the eve of the fateful cabinet meeting, was a selection of ministers summoned to Downing Street for a preview of the 585 page text. They had no real opportunity to read it through, study the detail and analyse the implications or test the hypotheses for the impact on peoples’ lives. None had the chance to take independent legal or specialist advice on the secret text – and though technically a withdrawal agreement, its commitment to the customs union could decide the future of the world’s fifth largest economy and oldest democracy.
What a contrast with Britain’s past! One of the hallmarks of its successful democratic system of government has been its transparency, its accountability. Its great leaders won respect by themselves respecting both the formal institutions of which they are custodians and on which democratic government in this country rests and the people who put them in power.
Churchill, despite the need for tight wartime security, reached the decisions for which he and the government were responsible, by discussing, testing, learning and deploying the collective knowledge of ministerial, defence or other authorities at daily or twice-daily war cabinet and defence committee meetings, consulting and listening. That respect and trust was built on another responsibility, the position of trust in which he and they were placed by the electorate: as one of his predecessors reminded MPs, It is the country that returns you, it is the country that will judge you.
*Dr Sheila Lawlor is Director of Politeia andher background is as a 20th century British political historian. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War and for Politeia she is the author of Deal, No Deal? The Battle for Britain’s Democracy and Ruling the Ruler: Parliament, the People and Britain’s Political Identity.