Can you remember what it was like to read the morning’s headlines with anything other than dismay? The past few months have been truly grim – Brexit, Heathrow’s new runway; species extinction; Trump, the gang’s all there, making every new day feel slightly more precarious than the last. It’s difficult not to feel entirely defeated. After all, what can one person do in the face of such escalating madness? Take for example, this choice headline:
The paper then decided to add the following detail to their coverage: “The judges who blocked Brexit: One founded a EUROPEAN law group, another charged the taxpayer millions for advice and the third is an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer.” “Openly gay”? When did voices like this become a legitimate part of our national dialogue? Where do we even start to un-do some of the damage caused by this sort of journalism?
This week, despite stiff competition from the past couple of months, has been particularly bleak. To recap:
(1) A remarkable woman called Gina Miller took the government to court over Article 50. To be clear, her case had absolutely nothing to do with reversing the referendum on 23 June – yes she voted remain, but this was, and is, a question of constitutional law rather than politics.
Her argument is that Theresa May cannot trigger Article 50 (which sets Brexit into motion) by relying on Crown Prerogative (a centuries’ old right which essentially gives “the Crown”, acting through the Prime Minister, the right to by-pass Parliament). Instead, she ought to take the decision to Parliament – on the grounds that triggering Article 50 will remove some of the rights we currently enjoy as a result of a piece of UK legislation (the European Communities Act 1972).
The fact that the referendum ended with a victory for the Leavers should be irrelevant in this context – to quote AV Dicey:
“The judges know nothing about any will of the people except in so far as that will is expressed by an Act of Parliament.”
The judges ruled in Miller favour – not because they are part of a metropolitan elite trying to thwart Nigel Farage, but because this is a well-established rule of constitutional law. And it is an absolutely fundamental one – we fought a civil war over this. No King, Queen, or, as it is in 2016, Prime Minister, can go rogue and make crucial decisions about rights conferred by legislation without first taking that debate to Parliament. This is not a fascist state. Our leaders are held accountable by our MPs. And ironically, as lots of people have already pointed out, Parliamentary Sovereignty was precisely what the Leavers claimed to be fighting for.
For her pains, Gina Miller has been subjected to a barrage of racist and misogynistic abuse. I know the UK isn’t alone in being home to some pretty vile trolls, but what’s so particularly sickening about all of this is that that response has been legitimised – by the palpable silence of our Prime Minister, and by the conscious intervention of the right-wing press. Grim.
(2) Gina Miller wasn’t the only victim of the Great British Public this week. Lest we forget, the Daily Mail chose to run that headline the day after the ruling was handed down by the High Court.
Leaving the bizarre personal attacks on the judges aside, the point is that they have done nothing other than uphold the law. They’re not trying to frustrate the sinking of the Titanic (heaven forbid) – instead, they are protecting a rule at the heart of our largely unwritten constitution.
Liz Truss eventually made some half-arsed comments about the ruling which fell far too short of calling articles like this out, and after a long silence Theresa May offered some mealy-mouthed comments about the freedom of the press whilst deciding to take the case to the Supreme Court.
That doesn’t just demonstrate a disappointing lack of leadership, it’s genuinely quite frightening: as Dominic Grieve said yesterday, the government’s response (or lack thereof) to the sorts of articles which incite a hatred of our judiciary is chillingly reminiscent of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. That’s an extraordinary thing to try to comprehend.
And Liz. Mate. The only things you’re responsible for as Lord Chancellor are protecting the rule of law and standing up for the judiciary. You’ve essentially just become the political equivalent of the Dinosaur Supervisor in Jurassic Park.
(3) And then of course, there’s the assertion made by the Mail et al that this judgment is the work of the “metropolitan elite”. Ah, the elite – the right’s target-du-jour. According to sections of Fleet Street, UKIP and parts of the Tory party, anyone who opposes Brexit is an elitist traitor ignoring “the People.” And for good measure we’re also guilty of tearing the country apart with our “Remoaner” resistance to Hard-Brexit.
Of course there’s some truth to the fact that university graduates generally fell into the Remain camp, and that by definition, the country’s most senior judges are at the top of their tree. But the hyperbole of the demagogue is an extraordinary thing.
Because according to that logic, the 48% of people who voted to remain in the EU are all part of some kind of “elite”. Now I don’t know about you, but if I got VIP tickets to something I’d be pretty hacked off to find sixteen million people coming along with me. We’re not an elite, we’re almost half the people who turned out to vote – more than that, if you consider the proportion of Leave voters who (i) weren’t actually voting to send the UK hurtling back into the 1950s and/or (ii) think it’s important to respect the constitution. Not to mention the fact that the people actually calling us elitists are:
(I) Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail and landowner – who’s received £460,000 in EU agricultural subsidies since 2011
(II) Nigel Farage who, back in 2009, was reported to have received £2m of taxpayers’ money in expenses and allowances as a member of the European Parliament
(III) Arron Banks, the businessman and Donald Trump apologist who apparently pumped over £7 million into the Leave campaign
They might not be in the same intellectual league as the judges they’re vilifying so enthusiastically, but wealth like that looks pretty elite to me.
Ultimately, if the Prime Minister genuinely thinks she has any hope of reuniting a country wracked with division, suspicion, disappointment and economic uncertainty, she might want to rein this nonsense in. We need to be talking to one another to understand our differences, not sneering at the distraught group of Brits who lost the referendum and undermining the judiciary for good measure.
(4) In the meantime, the natural world continues to get a hammering. While our newspapers are filled with endless political train-wrecks, stories about us being on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020 get relegated to the back pages. We need to be focussing on implementing the Paris climate deal; addressing the fact that scientists think we’re living through the Sixth Extinction; finding renewable energy solutions rather than burning through fossil fuels. If the nation’s attention is devoted to averting constitutional disaster, and if every new right-wing development compels us to extricate ourselves still further from global cooperation, then how in the world are we supposed to work together as an international community to sort these problems out for the next generation? The fall-out from Brexit is a disaster not only because of what it’s doing to our sense of national identity but because it’s preventing us from engaging in the issues that truly matter.
For now, I’m not sure what to do. I suppose staying engaged is the key – even if it’s deeply depressing – so that we’re ready to work towards a solution once this toxicity has abated. And in the meantime, as my Dad always used to say, don’t let the bastards grind you down.