It is notable that Theresa May has chosen to commence her Prime Ministerial governance, with a clear demonstration of her leadership style: the fast-tracking of the vote upon the renewal – or not – of the UK’s Weapons of Mass Destruction carrier fleet, a decision otherwise known as the “Maingate” phase. Ms. May’s timing is politically impeccable and in the style of a true Machiavellian.
It has been suggested by some that the decision to bring forward the Maingate decision is a bold step on the part of Theresa May and one which demonstrates her decisiveness and leadership and even, her capacity to unite Britain.
In reality, this decision is backdoor politics at its worst.
The Maingate decision was originally timetabled to be voted upon by the House of Commons in October 2016, this being after the traditional round of Autumn Party Conferences, September – October, and during which, party leaders from both sides of the house will receive the mandate, at least of their respective party memberships, and contentious or divisive policy decisions will be settled.
In defence of the decision to bring the Maingate vote forward, now to be held in a mere 5 days time, Monday, 18th July 2016, Mrs. May said:
“A lot of parliamentary business has, for obvious reasons, been put on hold until the leadership election is complete and a new prime minister is in post.
“But when it comes to the nuclear deterrent, the national interest is clear, the Conservatives are united, and we have waited long enough.⁽¹⁾”
This impatience on the part of Mrs. May belies the gravitas of the Maingate decision. Further, it assumes righteousness on the part of Her government.
Earlier this week, the Guardian commented:
“What makes a May premiership interestingly unpredictable is that she has always been driven less by ideology than by morality, a very personal sense of right or wrong.⁽²⁾”
The question of the UK’s decision to renew its status as a manufacturer and possessor of WMD is of both national and international importance, with far reaching and enduring consequences. A decision in favour of renewal will tie up the next two generations, and billions of pounds of UK expenditure, in addition to irreversibly shaping the UK’s relationship with the world at large. There is no evidence that the UK’s Trident system functions as an effective deterrent on the world stage; this claim is speculative. There is evidence that our renewal of Trident may kickstart a global nuclear arms race and with devastating consequences upon our national security for future generations⁽³⁾.
It follows that effective parliamentary scrutiny is not only essential, but critical and ought to be welcomed by any responsible, democratic government.
This is a decision which demands a mature, measured and balanced deliberation.
In contrast, May has opted to impose this momentous decision upon the UK Parliament in the middle of a political and financial meltdown.
Ironically, this blustering through Parliament of WMD-related policies echoes the Blair administration’s equally arrogant pushing through of the Iraq ‘WMD’ War vote, and as pronounced upon last week by release of the Chilcot Inquiry.
The Chilcot Inquiry is a damning indictment of the state of modern British Politics.
- Firstly, it emphasises the fallibility of Government’s: even democratically elected governments are capable of engaging in potentially corrupt practices in order to secure their places in history, whether by design, or – as claimed by former PM, Tony Blair – by virtue of ignorance.
In short, Government’s are not all seeing and all knowing; they are as capable of error of fact and judgment as the rest of us, and to include flawed decision making in relation to national security and WMD.
- This brings us to Chilcot’s second indictment: the failure of Parliament to effectively scrutinise Government policy.
Against this background, it is thus disturbing that Theresa May – already noted for her illiberal policies and open disregard for civil liberties and rights – should now choose to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny on the question of the UK’s WMD status.
In short, the planned timing of this Maingate decision is aimed at shaping her government’s agenda and orchestrating responses to take political advantage of arising events. It is not a decision founded upon national interest, nor to facilitate a greater quality of debate, nor to better engage the populus, nor to unite the nation, nor even to bring people along, feeling they have participated.
Rather, the timing of this decision serves only the narrow political advantages for Theresa May and to cement Conservative Party hegemony.
Such manipulative practices do not make comfortable bedfellows with the concept of a responsible, accountable and democratic government.
In his examination of government “blunders”, Sir Ivor Crewe noted that:
“Almost all of the blunders were gestated largely in-house, within the executive branch. The Government did not deliberate with the people most directly affected, with those whose job it is to apply a policy, with independent experts, and with those who were opposed, before arriving at a decision.⁽⁴⁾”
The increasing practice of governments to manipulate Parliamentary procedures to avoid effective scrutiny is concerning, whether by way of limiting the powers or the effectiveness of the other branches of state: the judiciary; the legislature, or by the misuse of parliamentary systems, such as the system of delegated legislation, to fast-track government policy and agendas with minimum or no scrutiny.
In 1976, Lord ‘Quintin Hogg’ Hailsham, prophetically noted:
“We live under an elective dictatorship, absolute in theory, if hitherto thought tolerable in practice …
Lord Hailsham continued:
“… I think the time has come … to recognise how this nation, supposedly dedicated to freedom under law, has moved towards a totalitarianism …
“[O]ur constitution is wearing out …”
– and which constitution ought to protect us from the excesses of government –
“its central defects consist in the absolute powers we confer on our sovereign body, and the concentration of those powers in an executive government formed out of one party which does not always fairly represent the popular will.⁽⁵⁾”
Theresa May is not alone in the eroding of our democratic values and procedures.
In the past three weeks, Britain have witnessed:
- A Britain divided by the EU referendum, caused in part by the blunderous failure of the government to implement the internationally traditional caveat of requiring a clear two-thirds majority on decisions pertaining to constitutional matters.
- A UK now facing a repeal of the Act of Union, 1707, and the consequent breaking up of the UK into its component, constitutional parts.
- The Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn – elected by the largest mandate in the history of any UK political party – being subject to an attempted coup by his own Parliamentary party acting in the face of that mandate, and at the same time, jeopardising the functioning of Parliament per se, through the tying of the hands of an effective opposition.
- The shaming of the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair by virtue of his information-gerrymandering in his own driven pursuit of a war with Iraq.
- And, the appointment of a new Prime Minister, Theresa May, without the mandate of either the electorate or indeed, her own party membership, and which unelected Prime Minister, is now charged with the governance of the most historical events in British political history for over 200 years, the consequences of which will shape our world for generations to come.
In response, there have been calls for a second referendum on Europe. And, calls for Parliament to exercise its duty to vote upon the triggering of Article 50, this being the first step towards Brexit. At the same time, Labour – according to its own constitution – will be holding a leadership election; Tony Blair apologised for his part in the Iraq War, whilst at the same time justifying it; and all the Opposition parties are calling for an early election; and Theresa May? Well, in the meantime, she is – from today – running the country.
Of all that has happened, that which is most striking is the realisation that in practical terms, a British constitution does not exist in any meaningful sense.
Rather, all the checks and balances of Parliamentary procedure and observance of so-called constitutional norms have, and are simply being swept aside where and when it is been convenient for the executive to use Parliament and its sitting MP’s to do so.
It is also striking that had such constitutional norms been in place, and capable of being relied upon, much of that which has now leads to bitterness, both within the political parties and the country as a whole, might have been avoided.
And yet, Britain shies away from a written constitution. We are encouraged to do so by our Politicians. Written constitutions and Bills of Rights and indeed, international treaties are often viewed with suspicion by Britain at large: such deeds are unnecessary bonds, and an interference with our Sovereignty.
Of the English attitude towards the idea of a constitution, Thomas Paine, wrote, 1792:
“[Mr. Burke] says: “that the people of England utterly disclaim such a right [to a constitution], and that they will resist the practical assertion of it with their lives and fortunes.” That men should take up arms and spend their lives and fortunes, not to maintain their rights, but to maintain they have not rights, is an entirely new species of discovery, and suited to the paradoxical genius of Mr. Burke.⁽⁶⁾”
This hostility is unfounded. Constitutions are not made to ease the exercise of power by those who seek to wield that power, elected or otherwise. Rather, constitutions exist for the protection of those who are subject to that powers.
Britain’s constitutional watchdogs are concerned:
“The British system of governance is in need of reform. Weak parliamentary scrutiny of government bills threatens the quality of legislation, thereby leading to poor and unintended outcomes. Moreover, scrutiny of legislation is an integral element of holding the executive to account. Parliament must therefore have the structures and processes in place to effectively perform legislative scrutiny.⁽⁷⁾”
Such reform can only reasonably and reliably take place within the context of a written British Constitution, and its essential adjunct, a British Bill of Rights.
In the meantime, it remains to be seen as to whether the now current Prime Minister⁽⁸⁾, Theresa May chooses to utilise her many talents to become a leader who unites Britain, or – and as feared by many – she continues to pursue divisive political agendas which erode Britain’s democratic values and civil rights – ranging from the rushing through of the Maingate decision to the “Snooper’s Charter” or the repealing of the Human Rights Act, with or without the promised British Bill of Rights⁽⁹⁾.
⁽¹⁾Trident replacement: Theresa May calls for Commons vote, BBC, 5 July 2016
⁽²⁾Theresa May: unpredictable, moralistic, and heading to No 10, The Guardian, 11 July 2016
⁽³⁾Does the Rest of the World Need the UK to give up Trident, Scisco Media, May 2016
⁽⁴⁾Why is Britain badly governed? Policy blunders 1980-2010, Sir Ivor Crewe, 2013
⁽⁵⁾Lord Hailsham ‘Elective Dictatorship’, The Richard Dimbleby Lecture The Listener, 21 October 1976
⁽⁶⁾Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine, 1792
⁽⁷⁾How to Run a Country; A Parliament of Lawmaker, Reform UK, March 2015; See also: Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government, The Institute for Government, Dr. Hannah White; Towards a New Act of Union, Constitution Reform Group, July 2016
⁽⁸⁾Theresa May gets a cautious welcome from the national press, The Guardian, 13 July 2016
⁽⁹⁾Theresa May could launch huge attack on privacy and internet surveillance protections as prime minister, campaigners warn, The Independent, 13 July 2016; Investigatory Powers Bill 2015-16 to 2016-17, UK Parliament, 11 July 2016
The Trident Nuclear Submarine, HMS Victorious, Faslane, Scotland
Former British prime minister Tony Blair: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
American Constitution, We the People & Quill
The Great Debate: Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, and the Birth of Left and Right