Two Swords

Thursday, 21 March 2019

This evening the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom chose to speak directly to the British people. To tell us what, exactly? To tell us that she is not to blame for the shambolic omnifuck that Brexit has turned into under her aegis; that she is not to blame for the fact that, across Europe, the the UK has become a joke; that she is not to blame for the failure of her Government, across twenty-four months, to deliver a Brexit agreement with the European Union that is acceptable to Parliament. She offered no new initiatives, no new proposals, no new suggestions. All she did was shift the blame onto Members of Parliament - our elected representatives.

I blame Winston Churchill. Work with me on this. In May 1941, during the London blitz, incendiary bombs destroyed the House of Commons and it needed rebuilt. It could have been redesigned as a modern, forward-looking debating chamber for a future in which Members of Parliament would work together to achieve consensus on forging a great future for this country. Churchill put the kibosh on that. He ordered that it should be rebuilt as it had been: two sets of benches opposing each other and two lines between them, two sword-lengths apart.

Let that thought sink in for a moment. The crucible of Parliamentary debate and decision-making in Westminster is defined by two lines that say, “If we crossed these lines we might kill each other.” If you can think of a better metaphor for tribalism in politics I’m listening. Allied to the first-past-the-post electoral system our Parliamentary structure is encapsulated in a barrier between one side of the chamber and the other. There is the Government and there is the Opposition. There is us and them.There is our side and their side. It is a system that seems designed to prevent cross-party discussion, to undermine any attempt to seek consensus and to turn any and every debate into a cat-and-dog shouting match in which political posturing and point-scoring matter more than reason and persuasion.

Theresa May’s approach to Brexit has embodied this corrosively divisive aspect of Parliament perfectly. She could, before Article 50 was triggered and before the countdown was started, have set up a cross-party commission to agree a consensus on what this country wanted to achieve out of Brexit. Instead she has paid heed only to her own party and, after the catastrophically fought General Election of 2017, the DUP. She could - and should - have engaged with representatives of the devolved assemblies and parliament to ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom were on board with whatever was agreed. That, though, would have meant engaging with the SNP and with Plaid Cymru who were on the other side of the House. She could have offered free votes to the House of Commons on a range of options for Brexit, but that would have meant ceding some degree of control over events to people on the other side of the House.

Then there are May’s personal flaws. There is her intransigence. From the beginning of the Brexit process she set down red lines on which she would not compromise. This is not a mark of strength. It is a mark of insecurity - a sense that, without those red lines, she might wind up losing her shirt as the poker game of negotiation progressed. 

There is her inability to take advice. In this she reflects the worst aspects of British management. We’ve all had them sometimes, haven’t we? The boss that is so sure that their way is the right way that they won’t listen to any criticism. The boss that, when anything goes wrong, is quick to blame the workers but will never hold up their hand and say “Whoops! Sorry!” That was tonight’s address to the nation in a nutshell.

Above all, though, there is her ineptness in dealing with people. Early next week she will bring to the House of Commons, for the third time, her deal with the European Union. Her deal. It has been voted down twice and, if she really wants it to pass, she needs to garner the support of MPs who have previously voted against it. Tonight she could have made a speech to reach out to them, to tell them how important they are to the future of this country, to offer a future in which Members of Parliament work together to achieve consensus on forging a great future for this country. Instead she chose to alienate them by foisting blame for the failure of her strategy onto them.

So we waltz ever closer to the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit conducted by the worst Prime Minister in history, but also the product of a diseased ploitical system.