Now that the Yellowhammer document has been placed in the public domain, one understands why there might reasonably have been a reluctance to do so by any responsible government at this particular point of negotiations with the EU.
Giving such a speculative scoping document to an in increasingly desperate and partisan parliament which has been throwing normal conventions and circumspection to the winds was never going to assist everybody’s declared purpose of ‘getting a deal’ with the EU, and its effects have been rather like giving the keys to the car and the cocktail cabinet to 16-year-old boys at their end of term party, except they might have chosen to amuse themselves by listening to grime instead of singing ‘The Red Flag’.
The wise and fragrant blogger Sr Catherine Wybourne has summoned up her energy while recovering from cancer treatment to offer us advice that ought to be compulsory reading for the entire nation in these febrile times. She observes the world from the quietness of her Benedictine community in Herefordshire and, as is so often the case, brings more wisdom and concern for the public good than many claiming and paid to pursue it.
Her post ‘On being tired of contention‘ expresses the concern of all of us at the division (and may I add sheer nastiness) we see around us in public life, and she offers a different practical perspective:
For a Benedictine, schooled in the art of the chapter discussion and what management theorists often dub ‘conflict resolution’, there is always the possibility of invoking silence, of pausing, of deliberately not speaking in order to allow someone else — hopefully, the Holy Spirit — to do the talking. I don’t think that would cut much ice with Parliamentarians or many other people; but if, like me, you are wondering where all the anger and the wordiness are taking us, perhaps there is a case for spending a few moments today just sitting before the Lord, like a dumb ox, letting him direct the conversation.
I always listen to Sr Catherine – albeit not enough – but I promised her that I would let her wisdom influence what I was about to write, so let me do so.
A period of quiet reflection is not a bad idea for everyone. Much has been said in Parliament, sometimes well, sometimes not. Few new insights have emerged of late, and no minds are being changed. As the endgame of negotiating Britain’s independence from the EU plays out, there may well be wisdom in prorogation for non-partisan reasons.
“Don’t just do something – stand there,” Ronald Reagan is reputed to have told staff as they became overly energised on a subject, so it not only the religious who recognise that calmness is a virtue. Sr Catherine’s calmness was directed toward their Foundation Day:
What I think is clear is that a Foundation Day is not merely for looking back on the past with gratitude and, where appropriate, sorrow and repentance for any failures we may be aware of; nor is it a case of rejoicing in the graces of the present or expressing hopes for the future. Of course we pray for the well-being of the resident community itself, our oblates, friends, benefactors and online community. Of course we pray for renewed fervour and zeal, for everything that will make us better Benedictines and more pleasing to God.
Perhaps a similar approach might have been wise in Parliament. Speaker John Bercow has been ‘innovating’ within (or without [ed.]) our constitutional settlement. Before doing so, and before being acclaimed by the beneficiaries of the experiment, it is a shame that Parliament did not pause reflect and perhaps have a prior debate designed to “look back on the past with gratitude”, and remind itself that getting one’s own way in the present may be at the expense of something much more important.
The UK Constitution defines and defends the ‘separation of powers‘. When Labour introduced the Human Rights Act in 1998, strict adherence to that doctrine made us alter the ancient role of the Lord Chancellor. He had previously sat as the Leading Judge in the House of Lords (Supreme Court) as Speaker of the House of Lords and at the Cabinet table as a member of the Government. Although there had been few occasions when this was thought to have proved problematic, it had to change under the reforms in order to protect the separation doctrine. Up to that point, Lords Chancellor had been men of experience, proven integrity, wisdom and experience, but after centuries of constitutional settlement it became apparent that his multiple roles and fused competences represented a tension, if not an incompatibility, with the separation doctrine.
Fast forward to 2019. Parliament did not like that the Government was intent on fulfilling its pledge to the British people to abide by the law it had overwhelmingly passed, to leave the European Union on a fixed date if no comprehensive agreement could be reached. In a knee-jerk reaction it promptly “seized control of the order paper” and stepped over an important line.
The intent of separation of powers is to prevent the concentration of unchecked power by providing for “checks” and “balances” to avoid autocracy, over-reaching by one branch over another, and the attending efficiency of governing by one actor without need for negotiation and compromise with any other (Wikipedia).
What they did not do was pause to reflect on the full implications of such a constitutional shift. It has indeed brought in an autocracy, for those intent on having their own way cannot be required to submit to the people’s judgement even though a majority of parliamentarians voted for it. There are currently no checks and no balances. The Legislature has become the Executive and there is no mechanism to call them to account; they have blocked a general election. We have become an autocracy.
Formerly, a government heading out of control could be halted by a vote of no confidence, but in these febrile times this is being refused – purely out of partisan self-interest. They have absolute power and do not want to lose it. Who can express ‘no confidence’ in Parliament when they govern the country with broken promises and a refusal to submit themselves to the judgment of the people? This is a dreadful constitutional position, and the harm may prove considerably greater than any issue arising out of our relations with the EU.
Sr Catherine takes us back to a calm reflection:
But ultimately that commitment comes down to the individual’s readiness to make the community’s life her own; to kneel before God many times every day and reaffirm the commitment to follow the Lord wherever he leads; to be what Benedict calls a utilis frater, a reliable brother or sister (RB 7.18), who prefers nothing to the love of Christ. (RB 4. 21).
MPs ought to be reliable servants of the people. Currently they are not. A man cannot serve two masters. Members of Parliament cannot simultaneously be taking instructions on how they should act from the electorate and from their EU allies in Brussels. At present it seems they love the one and despise the other.
The Yellowhammer project was a scoping exercise to identify where the problems might lie in a dynamic situation. It was not and cannot be read as reliable prediction. Each of those individual problems are specific, logistically solvable and short-term. The risk to the country by shortsightedly trashing our constitutional settlement is infinitely more serious, and the prorogation period – however long it lasts – might usefully be spent considering whether this is wise and in the public interest.