2017: in the shadow of the Civil War
This year, parliament pitted itself against the people.
Over the past week, two clips, of two very different people, from two very different backgrounds, airing two very different points of view on the state of our democracy, have been liked and shared and retweeted across two very different sections of social media.
One clip was of House of Commons speaker John Bercow. In the wake of the press backlash received by 12 Tory rebels, who defied the whip and helped secure a ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal last week, Bercow (a Remainer, incidentally) gave a speech aimed at reassuring his colleagues:
‘In voting as you think fit, on any political issue, you as members of parliament are never mutineers, you are never traitors, you are never malcontents, you are never enemies of the people. You are dedicated, hard-working, committed public servants, doing what you believe to be right for this country.’
The other clip was of a working-class Leave voter from Barnsley, speaking from the audience in an episode of Question Time the day after the ‘meaningful vote’ was secured. He said Labour was ‘stabbing us in the back’ for pushing for a Soft Brexit and collaborating with ‘those treacherous rebels’ in the Tory Party.
Addressing one of the panelists, who said the ‘meaningful vote’ was purely about maintaining parliamentary sovereignty, and allowing MPs to scrutinise the Brexit process, he said: ‘The people are the sovereign to put the representatives in a parliament, and we made our decision.’
This is the new divide in Brexit Britain. It’s no longer between Leavers and Remainers, nor is it just between Hard Brexit (aka Brexit) and Soft Brexit (aka Not Brexit). The divide is between those who think parliament exists to temper, sometimes even defy, the people’s will, and those who believe it exists to implement it.
Between Bercow and Barnsley, we see the great unanswered question of British political history – who rules? – coming back into focus. The reason Bercow thinks MPs can never be enemies of the people is because he doesn’t think they have to do what voters say. An idea that our man in Barnsley, and millions more, don’t take kindly to.
This year, as Brexit has had its first brushes with the legislature, parliament has often been explicitly pitted against the people, held up as a means through which Brexit might be stopped. We started 2017 with the Supreme Court insisting that Article 50 can only be invoked via an act of parliament – another ‘victory for parliamentary sovereignty’ that was being cheered as an opportunity to stop or dilute Brexit.
The Commons and the Lords may have rolled over in the face of the Article 50 bill. But since the snap election, in which Theresa May lost her majority, Rearguard Remainers’ tails have been up. And after the ‘meaningful vote’ victory, members of the unelected Lords have once again began publicly plotting against the Brexit bill.
The initial fury of MPs (70 per cent of whom voted Remain) after the referendum result, the cries to ‘end this madness’, the insistence that they cannot govern via ‘crowd acclamation’, has been pushed under the surface. Today they dress up their plots against democracy in the name of parliamentary sovereignty. They conflate ‘democracy’ with their power rather than ours.
To voters this may seem perverse. But this is a profound contradiction in our system that stretches back to the English Civil War. Parliamentary democracy as we know it today was built not only on the calling into question of monarchical rule, but also on the defeats of the more radical democrats on the parliamentarian side who pushed for a truly representative system, against those who felt the masses must be kept in check by their representatives.
In 1647, having ousted the king, Cromwell’s New Model Army met in St Mary’s Church in Putney to discuss the future constitution of the nation. Cromwellians thought too much democracy would lead to an anarchy of the ‘rude multitude’. The Levellers, the more radical section of the New Model Army, argued for a more direct form of democracy, emphasising popular sovereignty.
The Levellers later laid down their ideas in their Agreement of the People, a proposed constitution for the nation. They argued for the right to vote, for the enfranchisement of all firm-minded men, and, most crucially, limits on parliament so that it could not defy the people’s wishes or encroach upon our liberties. If this ever happened, they argued, then the power entrusted to parliament by the people must ‘returneth from whence it came’.
This radical vision was never realised. The Levellers were locked up and executed one by one by Cromwell’s forces, and the movement effectively ended in Banbury, Oxford in May 1649, when a Leveller mutiny was brutally crushed. But over the centuries, even as the franchise has been slowly, begrudgingly extended, this central schism, this unfinished business of the civil war, casts a shadow still.
You see this in the historic, red-hot language that has crept back into our politics, talk of ‘betrayal’ and ‘popular sovereignty’ and ‘enemies of the people’. This doesn’t mean we’re on a slippery slope to mob rule; it simply means that the battle over what our representative democracy means, whether it is a way to give form and force to the people’s will or a way to temper it, is being waged all over again.
What side would you be on at the Battle of Marston Moor? For centuries, that question has been central to our politics. Would you side with parliament or the king, with liberty or subjugation? Going into 2018, as MPs plot to use the power we lend them to undermine our wishes, perhaps we need to ask ourselves a different question. Which side would you be on at the Banbury mutiny? With Cromwell or the Levellers? With parliamentarians or the people?
spiked knows which side it’s on.
Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
Picture by: Getty