Powerless on Total Drama Island
The enervating spectacle that has been going on for about six months bloomed into full-farce yesterday. The Johnson debacle displayed all of the pure elements of a broken Britain: rolling broadcast media coverage dissecting everything but saying nothing; an inert and lifeless opposition mouthing in desperation in the background; a constitution that creates no checks and balances on unhinged and out-of-control politicians, while all the while a very old lady sits in a palace. Mandatory impotence is the only way to describe the condition of 21C British politics. No-one can do anything about anything so we all just watch in bored amazement.
Ever since Allegra Stratton (wife of James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator) blubbed on telly and unleashed the horrors of #Partygate we’ve been in a daily news cycle of daily meltdown, with a flood of allegations and a torrent of hilarious/grotesque abuses of power from minor indiscretions and micro aggressions to large-scale examples of corruption and thievery. Every day a new scandal would be uncovered, denied then subsequently admitted and apologised for until it became entirely routine.
The ever-presents cast of thousands are paraded before us like a circus: Big Dog, Nadine, Steve Bray, Carrie, Femi, Priti, Michael Fabricant, James O’ Brien, Angela Rayner, Cold War Steve, Alexander Lebedev, Suella Braverman … occasionally Farage patrolling the English Channel like Captain Birdseye gone a bit fash.
So there’s a spectacle to all this that offsets the fundamental reality that we are all powerless. There seems to be no way to remove from office someone blatantly unfit to occupy it. Even when he is forced by his colleagues he still doesn’t actually leave, instead he starts appointing a new Cabinet going further down and down the rungs of incompetence from a party already gutted for what passed for talent. The opposition are (seemingly) powerless to do anything even in the face of a rolling constitutional crisis playing out before them. There are no constitutional checks and balances, no impeachment process, no mechanisms for censure at all. It just goes on and on an on.
This sense of powerlessness pervades British society. It’s this emptiness and passiveness that defines being Subjects. It’s probably the reason why Take Back Control had such resonance.
We’re familiar with the Scottish end of it. There’s no way for Scotland to elect a UK government. Even when there are 45 out of the 59 MPS elected support independence it makes no difference whatsoever. Now we are told that Labour will block an independence referendum even if the SNP wins more than 50 per cent of the popular vote at the next general election, Sir Keir Starmer has pledged. And, according to Ciaran Martin (Professor of Practice in the Management of Public Organisations at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford):
“The tactical heart of Nicola Sturgeon’s proposal is to refer her own referendum bill to the Supreme Court. But even a win following a referendum bill, however unlikely, doesn’t mean a referendum that would deliver independence. Westminster could change the law and make a vote unlawful. Or it could refuse to act on the result in advance, bolstered by a unionist boycott. The Supreme Court can choose to rule Holyrood’s referendum bill lawful, but it can’t require the United Kingdom Government to dissolve the British state.”
He goes on:
“The First Minister’s Plan B can similarly be blocked off. There is no result at the next general election, however impressive, that can compel London to begin independence negotiations…”
Martin’s analysis is devastating if true, and I’m not sure everyone has woken up to the realities and the consequences. He writes:
“What it will in effect rule, though the wording will be crucial, is that — in law — Scotland is not really a nation, and certainly doesn’t have the legal right to secede from the United Kingdom. Scotland is part of a unitary state, not a voluntary union that one party can leave.”
“The critical constitutional fact is that for now, even though the principle of Scotland’s right to self-determination is accepted rhetorically, there is no longer any lawful, democratic way for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom.”
What he’s saying is that the Union — the Precious Union — isn’t a Union at all. This is bad. But it might be good.
It will be interesting to see what all elements of Scottish and British politics make of this and how they respond. The attempt to defend a broken and hopelessly undemocratic Union is one thing but the idea that you are effectively permanently captured is another.
Is it possible that Sturgeon might do that most un-Scottish thing and seize victory from the jaws of defeat, by being effectively beaten?
As we watch this hellscape unfold its worth focusing on the fact that’s its this country we’re tethered to. This really is it. If Johnson’s regime was born from chaos, the strange potent mixture that was the Brexit campaign, it is also something that is now settled. Labour have decided unequivocally to leave Brexit alone. Whatever happens, however socially, culturally or economically destructive Brexit proves to be, it will be protected.
So two really clear things emerged in the last week, aside from the Johnson sideshow. First, Being part of Britain means being out of Europe forever. Second, “there is no longer any lawful, democratic way for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom.”
‘Bullish to the point of delusion’ was how one person described Johnson, the figure we have all been amazed and mesmerised by. But like the ‘cast of thousands’ the concentration on the personal individual is a deception. The media circus of these strange individuals allows us to divert our gaze from the systemic problems that British society and British politics suffers from.
After all this — after half a year and more of continual drama — after all of the blatant corruption, the suitcases of booze (and cash), the endless lies and distortion — the dozens of cases of sexual assault — after all this?
The brighter among you will have noticed that Boris Johnson didn’t actually resign at all.
It’s ten days before Westminster shuts down for the summer. Nobody can recall Parliament except the Prime Minister. Nobody can call the Prime Minister to account for nearly three months. We’ll probably all have forgotten about all of this by then.