Thursday, 28 October 2021

Talking to the hand


Whether the pre-budget announcements of all the bits that the Chancellor thought would be well-received was a brilliant idea or a case of foot-shooting is yet to become entirely clear. The planned outcome was that there was a week of ‘good news’ stories leading up to the budget itself yesterday. On the other hand, it meant that, instead of unravelling in the day or two following the budget (a process which has become something of a tradition for Tory Chancellors in recent years) parts of it started to unravel before they’d even been properly announced, such as the revelation that an end to the public sector pay freeze doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone will get a real terms pay rise at all. It also, of course, took some of the pressure off the opposition leader, or in yesterday’s case, his substitute. Normally, they are given only hours to prepare a response; Sunak kindly extended that to days, and Labour did a reasonable job of taking advantage of that.

The Speaker of the House of Commons and his deputy were left to express their ire at the breach of protocol, both in the days ahead of the budget and on the day itself. The Speaker’s warning a few days ago drew the response from Downing Street that the government “recognised the importance of keeping parliament and the public informed when decisions are taken”. The Chancellor proceeded to carry on regardless. The Deputy Speaker’s rebuke to Sunak before the Chancellor started speaking led the Chancellor to say, “Madam Deputy Speaker I’ve heard your words and those of Mr Speaker. I have the greatest respect for you both. And I want to assure you that I have listened very carefully to what you have said”. They both sounded a lot like “Talk to the hand, because the face ain’t listening” to me. The whole episode underlines one of the problems of a set of ‘rules’ which aren’t rules at all in any meaningful sense of the word. They’re just conventions, protocols, long-standing custom and practice; an unscrupulous government with no respect for norms can and does ignore them with impunity. The Speaker, selected very much for his indications in advance that he would not attempt to be as creative or imaginative as his immediate predecessor in seeking to protect the rights of parliament, turns out to have neutered himself. He is a toothless tiger.

Similar thoughts crossed my mind when David Attenborough said earlier this week that we have a “moral responsibility” to act on climate change. It’s hard to disagree, but when dealing with a PM and government to whom the words ‘morality’ and ‘responsibility’ only ever apply to other people (and then only if they can apply their own ego-centric definitions), he is simply wasting his breath. The English constitution and parliamentary system are broken, and badly so. Their operation has always been dependent on the invalid assumption that those in power would be ‘decent chaps’ for whom the unwritten rules were as important (if not more so) than the formal, written ones. It’s never actually been true, but it takes a special degree of amorality and self-interest to expose the extent of that. I suppose that’s one thing for which we should be, at least slightly, grateful to Johnson. The question, though, is what is the mechanism for changing it? As long as a sufficient proportion of English voters (a majority is not required) continue to accept – or even positively welcome – a government which plays to their prejudices, even if it ignores the rules on which democracy is based, there is no mechanism for changing it at UK level. That doesn’t need to be the case for Wales or Scotland, though – we have a practical and readily available escape route if we choose to use it. The problem with England’s descent into autocracy, kleptocracy, tyranny, and international piracy is that it is happening one step at a time, and it is always possible to argue that none of the individual steps is significant enough to warrant action. But each step (removing the right to protest and reclaiming devolved powers for London are obvious examples) actually makes it harder to act. Mankind has been here before though; if we learn anything from history it is that it is better to act while we can than be swept along until we can’t. The to date distant prospect of independence needs to become an urgent imperative, before it’s too late.

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