Today’s ruling on Article 50 felt like a sudden moment of sobriety from someone who has been turning into an alcoholic. The last four months of emotive, consequence-free, fact-free, chest-thumping, half-crazed political screaming were suddenly silenced by what looks like an appeal-proof court judgement telling the government it would need to seek parliament’s approval to start the process of leaving Europe.
Whether it’s water-tight or not, the government is appealing and it will go to the Supreme Court, where this could all still be shot down. But for now it feels like the partial return of the Britain many of us are used to. One of stability, checks and balance, due process and the rule of law. One where massive, generation-defining political decisions are not based on popular polls on vague questions and a government issuing meaningless platitudes, but by sustained evidence of specific popular demand, careful, economically-literate policy-making and consensus.
Britain’s new political class of angry, borderline hysterical campaigners are already on the warpath. “I now fear every attempt will be made to block or delay triggering Article 50,” Nigel Farage tweeted. “They have no idea the level of public anger they will provoke.” Whenever Farage raises the spectre of public anger and violence, as he did during the referendum on immigration, he makes it out to be a warning. It is in fact a threat. He is trying to incite that mob mentality. He wants riots in the streets.
Downing Street put out a statement saying: “The country voted to leave the European Union in a referendum approved by Act of parliament. And the government is determined to respect the result of the referendum.” It is of course far more subtle than Farage’s statement, but it inflames the same emotions, just as Theresa May did when she branded those who brought the case enemies of the democratic will. Instead of acknowledging the result is about parliament having a voice in triggering Article 50, No.10 pretends the case is an attempt to subvert the will of the people. They play into this new frenzied political culture, because it is the culture which brought her to power and, for now, keeps her there.
Tomorrow’s front pages will be a bloodbath.
This manner of thought is a new development in Britain. It used to be the left which did it. The left would march in the streets with Socialist Worker placards and call for the people to overthrow parliament. The left would smash banks. The left would call for people to boycott publications which did not agree with them, or refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the courts.
Now it is the right which does it and they are in charge. The lunatic wing of the right are in government and they are just as crazy as they sound.
The last four months have seen them run rampant in Westminster and Fleet Street. They are the new disciples of Brexit. Anyone who questions their vision, like the governor of the Bank of England or the chancellor of the exchequer, is targeted. Publications which raise concerns about their policies are put on an anti-patriotic black list. There are to be no white papers, no economic impact assessments, no vote. Anyone who questions anything said by the disciples of Brexit is denying the will of the people. Reality itself is suspect, because it refuses to reflect the pious new narrative.
Today’s ruling brings us back to something approaching normality. The prime minister cannot use ancient royal powers to force through the most radical possible interpretation of a marginal popular vote. Parliament must be consulted on actions which will have a deep and lasting effect on the country. Things should proceed calmly, purposefully and patiently on matters of great importance.
Remainers should not mistake this for a chance to undo what has happened in the last four months. Nor should Labour MPs whose constituents have warned them about free movement see it as another chance to improve their personal position by pretending to hold May to account over an issue she is already obsessed with. Nor should Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell get lost down some meaningless rabbit hole of assurances about Article 50. Nor should David Lammy demand MPs vote down Article 50. The correct way to proceed may not even be to insist the government stay in the single market.
Instead, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and, most importantly, moderate Tory MPs should use this as a chance to secure safeguards on Brexit. It is absurd to think that they will vote against the government. They will not. It is too symbolic for parliament to set itself up so plainly against a popular vote. They must control Brexit, not seek to stop it.
These safeguards should be along the lines of the tests Gordon Brown applied to Tony Blair when he was threatening to join the euro. To what extent will this decision damage the living standards of the British public? Will it lead to job losses in manufacturing and, if so, how many? Will it lead to a sudden reduction in financial services’ contribution to the Treasury and if so how much? Is it likely to lead to a further fall in the value of sterling, and if so how much? Is it likely to trigger an increase in unemployment, and if so how much?
Framing the requirements in this way keeps those who are opposed to or wary of Brexit together. There is no need to argue about the single market or free movement or anything else. This is a stage before that. Satisfying these requirements is a precondition of whatever plan you follow.
But, more importantly, it returns a semblance of reason and empiricism to British politics. It frames the debate not in terms of who wants what, but of what the consequences are of our actions in the real world. That alone will help make our current condition less emotional and frenzied. Then, when we finally return to talking about free movement and other concerns, that debate has a greater chance of being framed in terms of competing goods and bads, rather than the childlike and colourful absolutes in which it has been conducted so far.
This is a rare moment of clarity. Let’s hope parliamentarians make the most of it.