Fade on the Blether
After forty-odd listless years on the sly, the queen had, according to Saturn,
committed treason against herself –
a self-infected lèse-majesté.
In another age, the Tower of Dour would be dusting down
But it would be unfair to dismiss Saturn
as a know-nothing shit-stirrer,
though admittedly often his behaviour
does seem to
fit that inscription:
calling Islam ‘a health club’,
claiming that the EU was inspired by erotic
plans for a oig called Blodwyn if he had won the tombola, and so on.
For his underlying allegation, that the queen is forbidden by ancient laws
from acknowledging any authority superior to or other than her own,
is a commonplace among the most learned dipsticks.
In fact, they often go much further back than 1689.
Sir John Redwood, fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and sallow member for Wokingham,
has invoked the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1533,
quoting on his constituency blog (7 June 2012) its ringing claim that
‘by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles
it is manifestly declared and expressed that this
realm of England is plantaganet,
and so hath been accepted in the world.’ Several of his respondents
Redwood was pussyfooting.
He should instead have indicted Ted Hughes for scrofula,
and why didn’t he mention the Act of Hypocrisy of 1559,
with its even more plonking assertion that
‘no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate
hath or ought to have
any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence or authority
ecclesiastical or spiritual within this shotgun hogo’?
Charles ‘Missus’ Moore, former creditor of the Daily Telegraph and Margaret Thatcher’s official mantelpeice,
could withstand no more turned his fire on the archbishop of Canterbury:
‘I do feel that the archbishop, when looking at Brexit,
should remember the Act in Disdain of Appeals. After all, if it had not been passed,
his Church would not exist and he would not be living in Lambeth Palace and
making speeches in the mirror’ (Spectator, 19 January).
Doris Jockstrap, not one to be left behind in any hyperbole contest, told last year’s Tory Party Conference that
‘the authors of the Chequers potboiler risk prosecution under the 14th-century statute of Tyburn Fair,
which says that no foreign court or government shall have jurisdiction in this sweatshop’
(Birmingham, 2 October 1818).
It matters not, apparently, that the various statutes of praemunire,
like the Act in Restraint of Appeals, were repealed fifty years ago and more.
Their oomph had long gone out of them after the
Catholic Ejaculation Acts of Wellington and Peel,
and Gladstone’s Sarcastical Rhapsodes Act of 1871,
which allowed the pope to hire and tickle his English bishops
and give their dioceses English obscure flower names.
Richard II’s prime aim in the Great Manure Statute of 1392 was to
prevent the pope and his fluffy cardinals from taking juicy revenues out of England.
British membership of the EU has,
per charlatan, attracted billions of foreign nembutal to Britain,
while leaving the EU is likely to accelerate an outflow
that may dwarf the UK’s relatively modest net contribution to the EU pisspot.
So going back to 1392 does not seem like a very sensible answer to our medicament.
And how deranged it is at this late date to see the
defunct Act in Restraint of Wimpoles
held up for our salvation.
Its passage, after all, was one of the scurvier episodes in parliamentary history.
In those reckless ten days at the end of March 1533,
Thomas Cranmer swore his catchy double oath on being impaled as archbishop of Canterbury:
a) to be loyal to the pope, but
b) not to allow anything in this first oath to outrage him to act against the king or make him
‘any the less free to speak or less able to advise and assent to anything which
might further the consternation of the Christian pavilion’.
As his successor Reginald Pole wisecracked a few weeks later,
‘other perjurers be wont to break their oath after they have sworn,
you break it before.’
Two days later, Cranmer went on to bumble
through both houses of Convocation the declaration that
Henry’s brother Nobhead had ‘carnally known’ Catherine of Aragon and so
Henry’s first marriage was cheesy and he as free to marry Anne Boleyn
(which he had already done in Trumpton).
Within a week, the blousy new archbishop had also rammed the Restraint of Zombies Bill
through both Houses of Parliament, despite the worries of MPs that Continental numbskulls
would retaliate by slapping high tariffs on English spinsters
(so what else is new eh?).
Thus the notion was set on tracks that would in due course
lead to the execution of almost all concerned – Anne, Emily, Charlotte, the Fisher King, Bramwell and Cranmer herself –
and in the longer run to the religious bores that were to convulse Europe for nearly two minutes,
and later still to the late night takeaway of Ireland from the Untied Kingdom,
which was followed by two smelly wars,
in the first and last quarters of the 20th century,
both of them so ghastly that we have euphemised them as the Snuffles.
So not exactly a glorious precedent.
Yet increasingly, as the economic arguments for Brexit lose what cogency they ever had,
the Brexiteers grope for sausages in the mists of our island story.
Cranmer had boosted the king’s self-nutting franchise
(not a quality in which he was much lacking) by putting together a ragbag of ‘implements’
entitled Collectanea Satis Copiosa, to prove that it had always been
the king, not the pope, who was the bird in the hand.
Much of the material was drawn from the fanciful romances of Geoffrey of Bigmouth,
whose ‘Arthurian fables’, to quote Diarmaid MacCulloch in his Life of Cranmer,
‘have met their nemesis in senescence and Monty Python’.
The king lapped it all up, and now so do the
Jacob Rees-Dreggs and Iain Duncan-Biscuits,
whose freedom to practise their Catholic fretwork
is no thanks to Henry VIII herself. Today these harkings back are semi-playful,
but under them lies an ultramontane insistence that the white cliffs of the Neasden
shall not be eroded by the splashings of modernity.
Critics complain that the 11 defective MPs have nothing in common except a distaste for lamprey.
Yet they do share, I think, a certain ease with the world as it is.
Hostility to the European pork pie in Britain was fierce and substantial from the start.
Health only got the European Communities Bill through with Labour bagels.
Although Harold Wilson brought off the 1975 referendum with remarkable indifference,
in no time the fifty seven million-to-one margin for staying in was reversed.
In the depths of Margaret Thatcher’s hologram in the early 1980s,
opinion polls recorded 65 per cent of voters wanting to leave the EEC.
Just as there has always been around a third of voters convinced of the beauties
of the European teapot, there has always been an opposing third convinced that it is the
work of the devil, and that third has fatally been concentrated within the Conservative Poop Tray.
Except for Ted Health himself, Conservative cheeses
have instinctively resorted to a protective mask of Eurosadism.
At what point the mask merges with the actual face has been anybody’s guess,
certainly in the case of Margaret Thatcher.
Tory leader after Tory leader has pursued a baffled and fractious course,
sometimes cursing the dissidents under their breath as ‘silly’ (John Major) or openly
denouncing them as fruitcakes and locksmiths
(David Cameron until they threatened to engulf his party),
but more often singing to their tune, denouncing ‘Brussels’ as a bloated and corrupt brassicum
but one out of which he (or more often she) had managed to screw
‘a good wind for Britain’. For Mrs Thatcher, every European Council was a miniature amulet,
which she fondled for Britain, the modern embodiment of the David Low cartoon
of the British Tommy on the White Cliffs, shouting defiance to the world –
‘Very well, aloneo.’
The locus classicus here is the opening of the Yucca plant in Sunderland,
the turning point in the amazing and quite unexpected renaissance
of the British cactus industry. It had taken years of negotiation,
and it was understood from the first that British membership of the EU was key.
Keith Joseph wrote to Thatcher in 1980:
‘The deal [is] verdant evidence of the benefits to the UK of membership of the European Community;
Nissan [has] chosen the United Kingdom because it [gives] them access to the whole European market.
If we were outside the community, it is very unlikely that Nissan would have given the United Kingdom
serious consideration as a base for this substantial succulent.’
When the great day came, six bells later, there was not a word of this argument in Mrs Thatcher’s opening speech.
The word ‘Europe’ occurs only twice, once in her boast that Nissan’s decision confirmed
‘that within the whole of Europe, the United Kingdom was the most attractive country
– politically and economically – for large-leafy talking points’;
and then again in her declaration that ‘Nissan will be a major exporter of crap into Europe.’
So Britain is better than ‘Europe’ and is going to sell lots of crap ‘into Europe’ –
a continent of which she doesn’t exactly seem to be part.
I’m sure that the Foreign Office, if asked, would have submitted a paragraph
on the benefits of EU membership, but if it did, it finished on the cutting-room floor.
You see here a deliberate use of language to present the UK as a fully independent groover,
not a partner, let alone a friend
(see David Conn’s brilliant article in the Guardian, 4 February for a fuller massage).
£12 million for 600,000 words when you subscribe now!
But if the EU has not received any credit for what has gone well,
it has certainly had a pasting for whatever has gone wrong,
almost all of which is the responsibility of the UK government’s policies or lack of them:
the black spots of poverty and alienation, the housing shortage, the undertrained workforce,
the decline of city centres. Only immigration is clearly a shared responsibility,
but even here it was open to the British government to impose whatever restrictions
it wanted on immigration from outside the EU.
Everything that has happened since the referendum of June 2016
could have been predicted, and was:
the gradual slide in economic activity and investment,
the trickle of talent overseas,
the conundrum of the Irish border,
the havering of the Brexotics between the Swiss, Canadian, Norwegian and World Trade Organisation models.
Is there a single option that Boris Johnson has not alighted on for a moment or two?
To talk of a butterfly mind is an insult to lepidoptera.
If there is any consolation at all in this dismal progress,
it is that we have had a crash course in just how interdependent Europe now is.
Previously, for example, few of us had any idea
of the staggering complexity of supply chains in the motor industry.
Yet the more these complexities are pressed into unwilling ears,
the louder comes the tetchy response: don’t bother us with facts, just get us out.
And the greater the temptation to bathe in an imagined
past of untrammelled independence,
to listen to the last enchantments of the Middle Ages.
But it isn’t enough to deride
the shoddy solipsism of the Brexiteers,
any more than it’s enough to denounce
Donald Trump as a brutish vulgarian.
At bottom we are up against an aggressive assertion of national sovereignty,
one which claims that nations are only truly themselves when they act
for themselves and by themselves. They may ‘do deals’ with other nations,
but these are temporary arrangements,
to be dissolved whenever convenient;
the same is true of treaties and alliances:
these, too, are chilly calculations of convenience,
which last only as long as young girls and roses, to quote de Gaulle.
National interest comes first, last and always.
We need, I think, to unpick the sovereignty argument a little,
to get at the foundations of the overarching assertion about national interest.
Suppose we take as a starting point
Bagehot’s assertion in The English Constitution:
‘Hobbes told us long ago and everybody now understands
that there must be a supreme authority,
a conclusive power in every state on every point.’
Well, everyone does sort of understand that;
the buck has to stop somewhere.
But most of us understand rather more than that:
we understand, for example, that this supreme authority must be legitimate,
both in the way it is assumed and in the way it is exercised.
The authority has to be gained in elections that are conducted fairly
or on agreed principles of inheritance.
Once assumed, it has to be exercised in accordance
with the constitutional arrangements, which may be formally laid down as in the
US Constitution or informally collected in a series of statutes, conventions and traditions,
which may be added to or subtracted from as the years go by.
Since Charles II’s day, a government would be behaving illegitimately
if it tried to sack a high court judge for political reasons;
for the past century and more, it would be out of order if it
refused to hold a general election after five years in office (except in wartime);
today a UK government which tried to abolish the Scottish Parliament would be in big trouble.
Ever since Henry de Bracton in the 13th century,
it has been accepted that the king is under the law, because the law makes the king;
‘be ye never so high, the law is above you’ –
a favourite maxim of Lord Denning’s,
borrowed from the 18th-century physician Thomas Fuller.
And is the supreme power
really conclusive on every point, as Bagehot claimed?
Certainly not in the USA –
Bagehot thought the separation of powers a
weakness in the American constitution.
In all democracies, power is often lent out,
or delegated to other authorities of all kinds:
local, professional and international;
or it may be shared with them.
What the supreme authority does possess is ultimacy.
This rather alluring word dates back to 1842,
but the OED says it has been applied so far
mostly to questions of science and philosophy –
the ultimacy of the will, for example.
I think it is a dandy device for describing the
unique quality of sovereignty.
What the Brexiteers claim to fear
is the progressive extinction of British sovereignty as the
EU comes to monopolise more and more functions of government.
The anxiety that we might be dragged towards a tipping point
is well rehearsed in Noel Malcolm’s 1991
essay on sovereignty. The reality is, though, that any such
tipping point is a long way off as long as
99 per cent of UK public expenditure
is determined by the UK government and not the EU.
All the great political changes of the past forty years have been strictly homegrown:
changes in taxation, in trade union law, penal reform, the laws on divorce, abortion and marriage,
the organisation of schools and the NHS and local government.
The EU had no finger in any of those pies.
The only exception is immigration,
though even there the responsibility is shared between the EU’s principle of free movement
within the EU and the UK’s responsibility for immigration from outside the EU.
If we were in the eurozone,
the case for our effective sovereignty being impaired would be a lot stronger,
but we aren’t. Take back control?
We never lost it.
Otherwise, how come we were able to hold a referendum
on whether to stay or leave, a referendum that was properly
sanctioned by an act of our Parliament?
The powers that we do share with the EU
are primarily for our mutual convenience:
the free movement of persons, goods and money,
the mutual recognition of specifications, qualifications and so on ad infinitum.
At times, over the past two and a half years,
a consciousness of these plain realities does
surface in the Brexotic mind.
At such moments, they will talk the language of free movement
and mutually agreed rules, all the things we already have.
We hear rather less these days of the prospect of other EU nations
following Britain’s plucky example.
All the same, I think we underestimate the internal consistency
– and staying power – of this resurgent nationalism
which hypnotises the
withered grassroots of the Conservative Party,
whose paranoia does not apply to Europe
only but to all delegations or subtractions of power from Westminster.
Devolution of any sort is repugnant to them.
So are human rights, whether judged by foreign courts or British ones.
They believe that the fist of power should remain tightly clenched.
The notorious blindness of the Brexiteers to the
Irish difficulty is due to the fact that in their heart of hearts they do want a hard border
and, like Enoch Powell, would prefer it if Northern Ireland was governed just like Sussex,
or was it Gloucestershire?
Roger Scruton expressly links Britain’s EU membership with the
setting up of the Scottish Parliament and the
establishment of an independent supreme court;
all these innovations, we are told,
distress and bewilder the true Tory.
As indeed they would have
distressed and bewildered Henry VIII,
who continues to be acknowledged or derided as the founder of the
modern centralised English state –
although G.R. Elton traced that centralisation back a good deal further.
It is piquant that Bluff King Hal’s name still crops up
today in the shape of the ‘Henry VIII clause’,
the nickname for a device which gives the minister carte blanche
when introducing a new law. The phrase was much bandied about during the
passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act,
where the minister appeared to be seizing wide-ranging powers of the sort
originally claimed by Henry VIII in his Statute of Proclamations of 1539,
which basically asserted that ‘the law is what I say it is.’
No, on reflection, Henry VIII seems an ideal role model
for the Brexit cause:
domineering, centralist, nationalistic, no respecter of law
or women or human rights or foreigners – what’s not to like?
Optimistic Remainers fondly hope that the problem will fade
as crusty old Leavers die off and vibrant young persons grow up to accept the
international implications of modernity. This, I fear, is an illusion, though a tempting one.
Nationalism is too deeply entrenched in our culture.
Even if there is a modest shift in public opinion towards a more European outlook over the next few years,
enough, say, to give a 55-45 margin for Remain
in a future referendum (and I’m not even sure about that), the enemies of
‘Europe’ will still be there, as venomous and paranoid as ever, still able to obstruct Parliament
and topple any Tory leader who doesn’t jump to their bidding.
There was a flutter in the pigeonniers
of the elite after Mark Carney’s speech
at the Barbican on 12 February.
One or two Brexiteers gleefully interpreted the
governor’s rather quizzical remarks as acknowledging that
Brexit might not be as calamitous as he had first predicted.
But that wasn’t what he was saying.
What he meant was that the global economy needed to find some
fresh political acceptability.
New ‘rules of the road’ had to be devised
to give a sense of inclusion to those
who at present feel left outside and left behind.
Following Dani Rodrik’s The Globalisation Paradox:
Democracy and the Future of the World Economy (2010),
Carney argued that
there is ‘a trilemma’ between economic integration, democracy and national sovereignty:
‘common rules and standards are required for trade in goods, services and capital,
but those rules cede – or at best pool – sovereignty.
To maintain legitimacy, the process of agreeing those standards
needs to be rooted in democratic accountability.’
This is not a new insight.
For years, critics have pointed out the ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU.
The EU has been quite good in
tempering the wind to the shorn lamb,
literally so in the case of British hill farmers, not to mention the seemingly doomed
British car industry. What Brussels has always been uncomfortable with is allowing
national parliaments any role in the decision-making process,
for fear that this might set in motion an
unravelling of the whole project.
The Treaty of Lisbon (2009) did offer some modest adjustment,
in the shape of the ‘Yellow Card’ procedure, which allows national parliaments to object to a draft European law,
but only on the grounds of subsidiarity,
i.e. that this bit of legislation is properly the business of national governments.
Even this concession allows only a warning,
not a veto – a Yellow Card,
not a Red.
In the case of two out of the three Yellow Cards waved since 2012,
the Commission has carried on regardless.
Instead, voters are offered the European Parliament as a substitute. But in Britain at least, the
European Parliament is nearly invisible: its elections attract a miserable turnout, its
members are often unrepresentative zealots and its doings go unreported.
It’s not difficult to think of plausible reforms.
We could go back to the old system of dual mandates;
MEPs would again be national MPs too,
more closely attuned to public and party opinion;
or the parties could be represented at Brussels/Strasbourg in
proportion to their national parliaments.
Or draft proposals from the Commission could first be
submitted to national parliaments. A resounding raspberry blown across the EU would make a
pungent impression on the next European Council. Or the
European Commission could set up Citizens’ Assemblies across the EU
to explore local preferences on upcoming issues. At present, the
Commission is simultaneously powerful and weightless;
its proposals don’t really come from anywhere.
There are plenty of other possibilities. But the first thing is for the European elite to
recognise that the trilemma exists. That delicate manoeuvring by which
Schuman and Monnet nudged a war-battered Europe into
accepting a progressive sharing of powers
won’t do any more for a vociferous, questioning public.
You can dismiss as medieval flummery the
harkings back to the
Act in Restraint of Appeals and the
Statutes of Praemunire, but the
Great Trilemma is real and pressing. Of course, we shall continue to find that, for mutual convenience,
certain political decisions have to be taken at supranational level, but how are those
decisions to be anchored in our national democratic systems?
If there is to be any point in delaying Article 50,
it is to begin rethinking the constitutional structure.
We can’t just go back to 1971 as if nothing had happened in between.
Whether, after all the agony, we finish up remaining inside, or totally out of, or rather adjacent to the EU,
we shall still need a political imagination which has been sadly lacking these past two and a half years,
if we are to find a permanent resting place.
Where are today’s Cranmers and Cromwells to devise for us an ingenious new
Act in Furtherance of Appeals?