Options for Phase II of England’s Crisis
Let’s try it on Brexit.
The EU’s economy remains much larger than the UK’s. The structural power in trade relations comes from relative size, and all the UK’s cards are 2s, 3s with the odd 7 – the Europeans hold face cards.
The structure and timing of the talks, the settling of the bills, the rights of EU citizens and the Irish border all went the EU’s way – ‘nothing is agreed until everything is conceded’.
In Phase II there will be a great regrouping of illusions. The Brexiteers are consoling themselves that we are moving towards sensible regulatory alignment. In this world the UK plans its regulatory regime, the 27 plan theirs and there is a meeting of equals and some give and take.
Reality remains they will give us rules and we will take them – aces beat 5’s.
Regulatory alignment means we will align to their regulations. The ‘no hard border’ fallback of Phase I hangs like a sword of Damocles over the fantasy Brest-Litovsk neither-border-nor-no-border proposals for Northern Ireland.
Phase II is a series of choices between another concession and no deal. It has a certain hypnotic alcoholic charm: “just one more?”
The new great constant of what-is-to-come is legislative congestion: 12,000 pieces of acquis communitaire – and not time enough for parliament to remold them.
You could make more time by introducing electronic voting. The Orders In Council currently gets up to 90 minutes of debate – followed by a 20 minute vote – instead of the 30 seconds at Holyrood.
Parliament has two houses – the other chamber could be used differently and creatively – doubling the number of eyes on the work. The MEPs could be reconstituted domestically could have their place to play.
You could extend the transition.
You could clear the Commons of English domestic business by devolving health and social security to elected regional bodies – England has regional governmental infrastructure already.
But there is this constant – a morbid fear of constitutional conversation.
The pretense that there is no problem that cannot be addressed by constant and whirling reform outwith Westminster and zen-like calm in her hallowed halls.
The inherited patronage of the House of Lords was ‘reformed’ into expiry-on-death – it merely trebled the rate of patronage. The Lords remains prized for its ‘experience’ and neutered by its illegitimacy.
After the 2014 Indyref the no-change-change of English Votes For English Laws (EVEL) substituted a small technical procedural adjustment for thought about what the Union meant in light of its near death experience.
We see the same with Brexit. The first thoughts for Northern Ireland in 1972 was a combined military-political leadership like Aden, Malaya or Kenya: a General as Governor General.
Reason prevailed and we got Direct Rule by Minister of the Crown using Orders In Council, temporarily of course, but somehow still in place 46 years later.
The Brexit bill hands out decree powers to all Crown Ministers with very little constraint.
A cabinet which has not discussed and agreed a Brexit is supposed to will consensus and a working approach by departmental decree.
Orders In Council are not the ‘solution’ to lack of parliamentary time but the very symptom of it – a recourse to a constitutional device and institutions that hail not from Henry VIII but are much older, crossing the channel in 1066.
All eyes are currently on abroad, but it is the looming crisis in English domestic politics that matters most.
Politicians mostly choose between options. Options framed and presented by the civil service, by consultation and procedures – they choose what is expedient, what they most desire, what they can get away with from a menu.
Brexit frames that menu – the all pervasive lack of parliamentary time structures all choices for English domestic legislation (us pernickity Celts with our pretendy-Parlies will have proper bills, scrutiny and functioning domestic politics).
We have hints of the future. In the Brexit referendum a large donation for advertising in English newspapers was routed through the DUP to take advantage of anonymity offered to political donors in NI – as a measure of protection against extortion.
This anonymity was intended to expire and, with Stormont suspended, it fell to the Westminster government to make that take effect. Given the choice between putting the necessary regulation in front of the whole House or pushing it down the Order In Council route – the less embarrassing way was taken.
Only sharp action by the SNP at the Delegated Legislation Committee surfaced it – but a committee of 15 where the Government has an automatic majority is easier ‘fixed’.
English politics for the foreseeable future will look like this. Parliamentary time will be as rare as hens teeth, politics will intrude, the pressure of events, the lack of slots in the timetable and the broad powers of Orders-In-Council in arms reach, usable on all and any ever kissed by the EU. The nationalist crisis of institutions that is Brexit remains the English crisis.