Parliament v People?
Friday 22nd February 2019: Labour’s high-handed approach to anti-semitism puts ‘the revolution’ first, not Britain’s constitutional arrangements. But, says Sheila Lawlor*, those who left their parties this week because of Brexit, pose the same danger to ordered freedom by their high-handed refusal to accept the basis for parliamentary authority.
This week 8 Labour MPs and 3 Conservatives left their parties. One reason for the Labour exit was their anger that the anti-semitism that has scarred Labour remains entrenched.
Labour’s anti-semitism became obvious when, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the party refused to accept the full International Holocaust Remembrance Conference definition of anti-semitism, probably to protect those who questioned the very legitimacy of the State of Israel. By then anti-semitism had already spread like a cancer through the local councillors and activists who hold power in the town halls. One of the 8 Labour MPs, Luciana Berger, had been the butt of such anti-semitism, as she and other Labour MPs, Mike Gapes and Gavin Shuker, highlighted this week.
There are two sides to the Corbyn position. On the one hand, his life’s work has aimed, not to preserve the democratic arrangements that protected freedom and sustained the ordered progress of social reform throughout the 20th century sought by both main parties, but to set them aside. For him and his troops, democratic freedom, and the formal arrangements that ensure the accountable, clean conduct of politics, are not treasures to be cherished but an obstacle to be overcome. These beliefs, openly espoused, are sympathetic to revolutionary leaders from East and West, from the members of Hezbollah to Hugo Chavez of Venezuala. Just as anti-US and anti-capitalist sentiment forms a natural part of this agenda, so does hatred of Israel and anti-Zionism, which almost inevitably turns into anti-semitism.
On the other hand, there is an uncomfortable truth for this country, which must be grasped and tackled. Corbyn’s apparent tolerance of continued anti-semitism serves a purpose distinct from, yet linked to, his ideology. Mr Corbyn appears to be making a cynical attempt to garner votes from those of Labour’s local activists who support a radical Islamist agenda. Corbyn’s anti-Iraq war coalition included the Muslim Association of Britain, which has had links with the radical Muslim Brotherhood whose supporters have been openly anti-semitic. His failure to take a strong line against anti-semitism may be an attempt to signal to Labour’s foot-soldiers, including men and women in local constituency politics, that he is on the same page as those who hold a latent antipathy to the western democratic order, to the US and, above all, to the state of Israel. Indeed Corbyn’s tolerance to anti-semitism echoes a more general failure by Labour’s local politicians to crack down on criminality as in the case of the gangs grooming vulnerable, underage girls. It is also of a piece with Mr Corbyn’s most recent demand that Shamima Begum, who fled from her London school to join the Jihad in Syria, should now be brought home, despite the security services’ warning of the threat she poses to lives in this country.
A second reason was given for why many of the 11 MPs left their respective parties applied to both Labour and the Conservatives. They ferociously oppose Brexit despite the fact that a majority of the electorate voted for it. Some want a second referendum, a ‘People’s Vote’, designed to overturn what was decided, others membership of the Single Market. But by refusing to acknowledge that their authority comes from the voters and not themselves, they continue to contribute to a constitutional no-man’s land. The danger is that they too will undermine Britain’s freedoms and the institutional arrangements that protect them as surely as Corbyn’s brand of revolutionary politics.
These MPs do not understand the way in which freedom has been jealously guarded in this country; nor can they sense the pride felt by the quiet, tolerant and patient people of this country in its uniqueness. The freedom they enjoy to shape the laws of the country and elect the people they govern to make the law on their behalf, and dismiss them, does not come from the ether, but a long tradition of scrutiny by ordinary people of the arrangements proposed for governing them.
It was to protect this freedom that many people turned out on 23rd June 2016 and voted to leave the EU. Whatever their own views about the EU, this new group of ‘independent’ MPs should give up belittling the voters, give up insulting their colleagues just as others lower down in the pecking order insulted Ms Berger. They should recognise that imperfect as democracy may be, in Europe, Britain’s alone has remained free because governments are accountable to voters and MPs are not a law unto themselves.
*Dr Sheila Lawlor is Director of Politeia and her 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.