Westminster Reflections: Bernard Jenkin MP discusses our different revolutions
I will be out on the campaign trail by the time you read this. Prime Minister Theresa May called this general election to consolidate her strong leadership, to secure the economic progress the UK has made in recent years, and to give her the strongest possible position in the forthcoming negotiations with the EU. This is the British Conservatives’ response to the revolution that the Leave vote in the EU referendum represents. Remain had all the advantages but still could not win. This is testament to how far the EU has fallen in UK public esteem. It also explains why the result has been so readily accepted by the British ‘establishment’ which lost the vote.
If the Conservatives win, this election represents the transition between two kinds of democracy. The UK has a long tradition of representative democracy, within which the direct democracy of a referendum still seems an alien device which conflicts with the idea of our sovereign Parliament. The government has an obligation to implement the result of the binary referendum question and a mandate to trigger Article 50, but no representative mandate for how the UK will actually leave the EU. In particular, the government has no mandate for the new legislation, which it is essential to have on the statute book well before the conclusion of the negotiations. This election sets out to give the government the authority to demand that the policies spelt out in the Prime Minister’s speeches and government White Papers are implemented by both Houses of Parliament.
So we have had our revolution, and it’s over, and it looks like the party in government whose central policy was overthrown by the referendum will continue in office. This is very different from what is happening in other countries. Yes, President Trump was elected as a Republican, but the Republican Party hardly embraced him in the way that the Conservatives now embrace Brexit. And in France, we have seen the astonishing spectacle of both the main parties excluded from the final vote of the French presidential election.
I apologise to readers from other countries, who might feel I am boasting about my own country, but every public servant is paid to do exactly that to some extent. What you are seeing is the UK’s still largely uncodified constitution in action: the same constitution whose legal foundations are embedded in our 1,000 year history. The political culture it reflects, and which has nurtured it, has a peculiar characteristic of flexibility. I can imagine that politicians, civil servants and judges in countries with formal written constitutions, like in the US, or in France, or like the German Basic Law, would feel adrift and vulnerable without the foundation of the written word to decide everything. And it is surprising to find how much of importance has no written foundation in our system. Most of the discretionary powers of government, known here as the Royal Prerogative, are not written down. When you ask: why is it done this way? The only answer is: because it has always been done that way, except there is constant invention and innovation to adapt to the present circumstances. We enjoy this flexibility, even if it does sometimes feel dangerous.
This culture of adaptability has not always existed, most notably in the 1640s, when a dogmatic monarchy refused to accept that it was subject to the law of Parliament. The English Civil War killed one in ten of England’s male population, and after the King’s trial by a revolutionary court and his execution (which Cromwell described as “cruel necessity”) we had 11 years under the rule of a seventh century English version of today’s Taliban – Protestant zealotry, cruel and unusual punishments and no dancing in public. But ever since, British rulers have been careful to avoid losing touch with those whom they rule.
At first, many like the famous Parliamentarian and philosopher Edmund Burke supported the French Revolution, but not after the horrors and carnage unfolded. Thereafter we have always been careful to avoid such a thing ever happening here. So our revolutions are bloodless, and we listen carefully to dissidents within Parliament and mass political movements outside. This is also a particular characteristic of the Conservative Party, which tends to adapt very quickly, while other parties grow up and then die. So ended agricultural protection during the Irish Famine in the 1840s, which had been the bedrock of Conservative policy until the sudden pivot of the then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. Similarly, Disraeli, who had opposed the principle of wider suffrage in the Great Reform Bill of 1832, quite suddenly became the champion of universal male suffrage in 1867. It was the same with women’s suffrage at the start of the last century, and with the transition to the policy of free trade.
Fast forward to the EU issue in this century. The Conservatives have adapted and look set to thrive again, even in Scotland and Wales, in this election, while UKIP is suddenly redundant, and Labour more deeply divided than any can remember. But this adaptability extends deep into the fabric of our constitution. A week after the EU referendum, I greeted our top civil servant Sir Jeremy Heywood for breakfast, expecting a beleaguered and crestfallen Cabinet Secretary, but he had a beaming smile. “Everything has got to change,” he said. “We’ve got to turn the whole government on a sixpence. But that is what we do.”