The revenge of the technocrats

Rishi Sunak’s u-turn on scrapping EU laws should worry all who believe in democracy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Brexit Politics UK

So much for the bonfire of EU laws. Rishi Sunak’s government has ditched plans to erase all EU legislation from the UK statute books by the end of 2023. It was his big promise during his leadership campaign in August last year. A ‘Ready for Rishi’ video showed piles of paper marked ‘EU legislation’ being fed into a shredder. ‘In his first 100 days as prime minister, Rishi Sunak will review or repeal post-Brexit EU laws’, the vid said. ‘Keep Brexit safe, vote Rishi Sunak’, it continued. Now he’s backtracked. Now around 800 EU-era laws are due to be revoked, leaving thousands on the books. So, seven years after 17.4million of us voted to leave the EU, we’re still labouring under EU legislation, and will be for a long time to come.

By Sunak’s own definition, Brexit isn’t safe under his premiership. If the pulping of EU law was the best way to ‘keep Brexit safe’, then the retaining of EU law must mean Brexit’s in trouble. It’s an extraordinary state of affairs: a bill designed to rid our liberated land of laws drawn up by a foreign oligarchy will now do the very opposite. The Retained EU Law Bill currently making its way through parliament was set to automatically delete all EU laws at the end of the year, apart from those that ministers expressly decided to keep. Now, in an about-face of epic proportions, thousands of EU laws will remain UK law at the end of the year. As the Independent puts it, the government’s retreat ‘turns the logic of the bill on its head’.

Business secretary Kemi Badenoch confirmed the government’s shift in a written ministerial statement on Wednesday. In response to the pleas of civil servants – who said it was too stressful to have to pore over every EU law to see which should be saved and which should be ditched – the government is adopting ‘a new approach’, said Badenoch. The ‘current sunset in the bill’, which would have voided every unsaved EU law on 31 December 2023, will now be replaced by a list of EU laws that ‘we intend to revoke’, she said. Perhaps if civil servants weren’t working from home and crying ‘bully!’ every time a minister asked them to do their jobs, they could have found the time to do what the new prime minister promised the nation he would do: scrap the laws of that foreign institution we’ve now left.

‘Regrettably, the prime minister has shredded his own promise rather than EU laws’, said Jacob Rees-Mogg, who spearheaded the Retained EU Law Bill when he was in government. The most striking thing about the government’s scrapping of the sunset for EU law is that it’s being done under pressure from political actors none of us ever voted for. First, there’s big business. Firms were complaining that the bill would create ‘significant uncertainty’. Apparently, the capitalist class is breathing a ‘huge sigh of relief’ now that thousands of EU laws are being retained rather than revoked. Then there are the aforementioned civil servants, who reportedly couldn’t get their act together to sort the okay EU laws from the ones we don’t want anymore. ‘The blob has triumphed’, Rees-Mogg reckons. And of course there’s the House of Lords, which furiously revolted against the EU bill.

Peers damned the government’s plan as ‘disastrous’. Chief Remoaner Lord Adonis described it as the ‘worst poisoned pill of Brexit’. It is ‘utterly vile’, he said. Peers – including pro-EU Tories – promised to ‘delay’ the bill. Their revolt was talked up by the Remainer elites as a gallant defence of parliamentary scrutiny against a power-hungry government that was determined to write off thousands of laws in one swoop. ‘Their lordships’ are picking up ‘the baton for parliamentary sovereignty’, said Labour’s Stella Creasy. Nonsense. In truth, peers were yet again seeking to thwart the democratic will. The Retained EU Law Bill passed in the House of Commons with a big majority. Brexit itself of course won more votes than anything else in the history of our nation. For unaccountable peers to try to meddle in the fulfilment of Brexit is not ‘picking up the baton for parliamentary sovereignty’ – it’s wielding a truncheon against popular sovereignty.

And now the government has caved. Which suggests the problem in Brexit Britain is not just the blob, Remoaner capitalists and Brussels-loving lords and ladies, as antithetical to democracy as all those entities have shown themselves to be. It’s also the spinelessness at the heart of power. The inability of the Sunak administration to embody the Brexit spirit, that democratic longing for Britain to be a truly sovereign nation. Yes, the promised erasure of EU law could be seen as something of a token commitment to Brexit on the part of a Tory Party that has often struggled to stand up against the EU elites’ and our own chattering classes’ onslaught against Brexit. But it still matters. It matters that years after we said ‘Let’s leave the EU’, we’re still governed by EU law. It matters that Sunak is reneging on his promised great shredding of Brussels-made law.

We are witnessing a revenge of the technocrats. The liberal elites see in Sunak a stiff, unpassionate politician who can be trusted to throw the waters of pragmatism on the fire of populism. Witness the singing of his praises in capitals across Europe when he introduced the Windsor Framework in February. He is creating a new, more ‘adult relationship’ between the UK and the EU, the bourgeois press chirped. Yes, he’s a Brexiteer, said Le Monde, but he’s ‘hard-working and pragmatic’ and he looks set to calm the ‘endless confrontation’ with Brussels that Boris Johnson and other oafish Brits relish. Sunak’s technocratic leanings are being celebrated once again following his u-turn on scrapping EU law. Once more, Rishi ‘opts for pragmatism over Brexit bombast’, said a delighted-sounding Guardian.

‘Brexit bombast’ – that’s the great dread of the new elite. The populist desire of the British masses for more direct forms of democracy fills them with fear. In their eyes, the end result of such popular sovereignty can only be inexpert, crude policymaking, where the wants of an ill-educated throng would trump the wisdom of well-educated experts. These anti-populists spy in Sunak’s concessions-filled Windsor Framework and his retaining of EU law a dampening down of Brexit and the populism that was its fuel, and they’re right to. We are left with a vision of Britain in which civil servants can’t get their act together to scrap old laws, where elites lack the confidence to make new and better laws, and where a significant layer of the establishment does not trust ordinary people with political decision-making. A creaking, exhausted political class still dodging the great sovereign burden and privilege of making law and heeding the people. That’s not what we voted for in June 2016.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Brexit Politics UK


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