Operation Yellowhammer: political advantage trumps right to privacy

The end of prolonged conflicts can be both brutal and swift. The American Civil War ended with Sherman’s brutal ‘March to the Sea’ and the First World War ended with a near-successful German offensive followed by retreat and defeat. The seemingly impregnable Hindenburg Line did not hold; lessons had been learned and were applied with ruthless efficiency. The long conflicts were over.

Neither end brought lasting peace and reconciliation, but the years of reconstruction of the American South did end the divisions of the United States. But for more than a century the resentment of the secessionists continued, and the section of the US population freed from slavery continued to feel estranged from the promises of the Constitution, even when they moved north in large numbers. Racism was encountered there, too, and to this day both the aspirations of the black communities and the tensions between States’ rights and Federal unity remain hot political issues.

We need not linger over what followed the 1918 Armistice. It did not end well. The second victory in 1945 brought a number of problems, but when Soviet tyranny also fell, Europe entered a better phase for most of its citizens. The difference on these occasions was surely that the defeat of the ideologies was accepted and a new future began to be built upon that premise. In Russia, the promise of glasnost may still not be secure, but the lesson of history is that clinging to defeated ideology does not end well.

The Archbishop of Canterbury may not have had these specific historical examples to mind when he called on those who sought to remain in the EU to accept the result of the EU referendum, but he was surely right to flag up that in a democracy ‘moving on’ after a democratic defeat is a moral and practical necessity.

Those who did not ‘move on’ after the surrender of General Lee’s Army at Appomattox Court House went on the form the Ku Klux Klan. Those who maintained that the German Army was not defeated in the field paved the way to Auschwitz. Misplaced resentment can have dreadful consequences, which is why Justin Welby was right to sound a note of caution, even if he subsequently felt it necessary to soften the terms of his message.

Both General Lee and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis did great service after the Civil War by retiring quietly and having absolutely no truck with those seeking to continue the fight. In the UK, General Douglas Haig spent his later years building the British Legion which was unique in post-1918 Europe in being an ex-servicemen’s organisation which remembered and honoured did not act politically. Elsewhere the meetings of the defeated military malcontents and re-writers of history spawned dreadful extremism on both the left and right of political ideology.

There is nothing wrong with sustaining opinions per se: every political party holds to its principles after electoral setback, and we do not criticise them for that. Lessons can be learned, but so long as the democratic imperative is recognised and maintained no great harm is done.

The problem with which we are currently faced, both in the UK and the USA, is that we have begun to step away from that shared core principle that the people’s vote, once cast, is respected. We may not have the pithy wit to express our frustrations in equal terms to “The People have spoken – the bastards“, but by and large we have prospered by prioritising the contest within the electoral context. Enter another unlikely hero – Richard Nixon.

Historians acknowledge a real possibility that he was cheated of the Presidency as a result of electoral corruption in Chicago by the infamous Mayor Richard Daley, and in Texas, the home of JFK’s running mate Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy’s wealthy father sent a famous telegram to Daley: “Don’t buy a single vote more than you need to – I’m dammed if I’ll pay for a landslide.” Yet Nixon had the grace to resist the advice to litigate, saying: “Our country cannot afford a constitutional crisis.” He was rewarded with the Presidency eight years later. His later resignation in disgrace is what is remembered, but there, too, he retired and kept his peace until interviewed by David Frost many years later. There was at least some dignity in defeat.

It is tragic that a similar lead was not given by Al Gore in 2000, instead of initiating the principle that the first recourse of the electoral loser is to the courts. By all means campaign for better, safer electoral procedures, but it is increasingly clear that hyping the tension by routinely tainting your opponent with corruption and malpractice can make make little contribution towards social peace and unity.

There is much confusion over whether the UK will leave the EU on 31st October. My own suspicion is that we shall, but the means by which the Referendum vote is respected may be by obscure constitutional interpretation and a fair degree of cunning. This may outrage those who have been only to happy to employ such means to prevaricate, frustrate and obstruct.

If Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his chief advisor Dominic Cummings should prove to have either the savage effectiveness of Sherman and Haig, or the cunning of Machiavelli, there will be considerable outrage in the weeks that follow. How that plays out will be important to the UK’s future. When the electorate chose to remain in the EEC in 1975, the result was respected but the arguments for and against membership of what became the EU returned and grew as people learned that “we did not know what we were voting for” – an integrated federal state, or a United States of Europe, with opaque power structures unamenable to democratic control and as impervious to internal reform as the Church of England. Arguing through the existing constitutional settlement is one thing; deforming that settlement to frustrate a clear expression of a democratic referendum is a horse of an entirely different and unattractive colour.

Ultimately the resolution lies with the electorate, and it is telling that the constitutional vandals overturning well established conventions and possibly breaching human rights will be judged by the very people for whom many of our over-mighty rulers have such contempt. Last night MPs backed Dominic Grieve’s motion calling for the publication of all government communications (including private texts, DMs and WhatsApp messages) relating to the prorogation of Parliament, and the disclosure of all documents relating to Operation Yellowhammer, the Government’s contingency plan for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.

I shall be awaiting the howls of protest from Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti to the cavalier invasion of junior employees’ right to privacy by politicians who prioritise political advantage over liberty. If only those junior advisors had been members of Hamas their rights would have received greater consideration.

Archbishop Justin Welby may not have had Davis, Lee or Nixon in mind when he counselled calm acceptance of the 2016 EU Referendum result, but he can surely offer us many examples of unlikely people offering good examples from his own field of expertise and experience. The ongoing overthrow of measured constitutional conventions will not bring peace, and it will not end well.