Tuesday, 17 July 2018

To The Lifeboats, As Quick As You Can

A recent headline in a Swiss tittle-tattle newspaper caught my eye. The headline declared that sales of inflatable dinghies are through the roof. It turns out that Swiss people are buying inflatable dinghies at higherto unimaginable rates. They jump in their dinghies on hot days and float down the river. Pages 2 and 3 were devoted to the most popular dinghies, where to buy them, the most popular routes and tips for keeping your beer at the perfect temperature. I live beside a river and see this all the time. Some people opt to dispense with the dinghy altogether and just float along with the current. They float along the Limmat river to a town called Dietikon, where they board the train back to Zurich and begin all over again. Being cursed with Scottish skin I have to be super careful in the sun so I've never done this myself. On the really hot days I tend to go for hikes through the woods in the Jura hills. With everyone splashing around far away in the river it's quiet enough to hear the wild boar honking away in the distance. 

Switzerland flooded by rubber boats!
I know this is a stupid, nothingy article but it caught my attention because summer is the time for stupid, nothingy articles. We're supposed to read frothy nonsense in the summer because it is a time when our lives are hopefully filled with frothy nonsense. If I cast my eye towards the UK I see a completely different picture. What I see over there is a country losing its collective mind. Tittle-tattle newspapers in the UK are full of stories about saboteurs and traitors; violent racists are taking to the streets in numbers not seen since the late 70s; there are marches and demonstrations and political uncertainty. The unthinkable is being thought on a daily basis. How could two countries be so different?

It's summer so let's see some of those Jura hills for good measure.
Switzerland is not immune to the recent rise in populist politics. Despite that, I am not terribly concerned. There are a few reasons for this but they all boil down to the way that power is distributed through discrete and separate layers of governance and then overseen by powerful institutions. It is very hard to "hack" Switzerland because it would involve "hacking" the Community, the Canton, the Federal Government, Swiss courts, Swiss institutions and the Constitution itself. If we ask who is in charge of Switzerland then we'll be starting a complicated debate that will never come to a firm conclusion. It might be reasonable to suggest that the people are in charge in a direct democracy. However, even that would be the wrong answer because there is no legal obligation to implement the text of a referendum question. It is merely the case that the government has to respond to the referendum within a timeframe and that parliament must ratify the proposal. We saw that with a recent referendum on immigration that aimed to impose a quota on EU nationals. The outcome was an enormous fudge that signally failed to impose a quota on EU nationals. Parliament took the view that nobody voted to trigger the guillotine clause in the EU/Swiss bi-laterals because that would have led to the closing of the border and left everyone poorer. Nobody ever votes to be poorer, except in the UK.

In Switzerland no single person can be said to be in charge. In the UK, however, the Prime Minister is most definitely in charge. The Prime Minister is in charge but subject to the approval of Parliament. The system in the UK works because there are discrete layers of scrutiny provided by the two separate chambers. If Parliament is to to give or withhold permission for any of the government's actions then it can only do so if it feels that it has the power to do that. What we're seeing now is that Parliament no longer feels it has the permission or the power to do any of that. MPs are enfeebled because they are held hostage to the will of the people. This is a genuine constitutional crisis aggravated by the weakness of the UK's institutions and a sorry lack of a codified constitution.

What is the point of a referendum? Why have one at all? The point of a referendum is to let the people decide that which parliament cannot. Scottish independence is a perfect example. Parliament does not feel it has the power to make decisions for Scotland because it is configured to oversee UK-wide policy choices. What about Brexit? This is surely a job for Parliament. If Parliament does not feel emboldened to make basic decisions about immigration or foreign policy or the regulation of digital payment systems then we are in serious trouble. Hang on, that is exactly what is happening right now. We are in serious trouble.

The EU referendum took power from parliament. The result, meanwhile, stopped Parliament taking that power back. It's worse than that, though, because Parliament was a willing supplicant in all of this. Parliament voted to let the people decide on policy areas that ought to be the meat and veg of an MP's professional life. In doing so, it signalled that it no longer wanted to have power over these policy areas. The result of the referendum was a signal to Parliament that it had been habitually making the wrong decision, that it cannot trust itself to fulfill its democratic role. We are in serious trouble.

There have been many calls for a second referendum on the EU. I'm in two minds about this, if I'm honest. I actually want Parliament to reassert its authority because democracy depends upon it. We're in a situation where democracy itself is failing on a daily basis and the repercussions of that are much, much bigger than Brexit or an unwanted visit by Donald Trump. A second referendum would be another kick in the teeth for parliamentary sovereignty. It will be an admission that parliament cannot and should not decide anything. A vote to Remain might solve the immediate crisis but create another one even bigger than the first. A vote to Leave, of course, just puts up even more firmly in the mire.

We might hope that Parliament will reassert itself when the UK leaves the EU on 29 March, 2019. We might hope that because the "will of the people" ought to expire when the "will of the people" is implemented. When that happens Parliament will have its role restored. Is this likely? I don't think it is. The "will of the people" has been so bent and twisted out of shape that it now means almost anything. In the minds of ardent Brexiters a vote to leave the EU was a vote about ending human rights law, curbing immigration, new forms of fantastical international trade coupled with increased protectionism and an end to technical oversight of digital payment systems. They might have made all this up in their feverish and foolish minds but their arguments have silenced MPs. There is no will of the people to join EEA or to leave it yet Parliament feels that any decision on the pros and cons is beyond its competence. The role of Parliament will not be restored on 29 March, 2019.

Parliament will only have its role restored when it is filled with new MPs elected only after the UK departs the EU. In the meantime, the really big battle over the next few years will be about the UK's future relationship with the EU.   Leaving the EU is a process, a pre-determined procedure albeit one with theatrical flourishes. The UK will leave the EU but it can then embark on a lengthy and costly programme aimed at replicating almost every aspect of membership. It can do that if it is Parliament's will. We can be fairly certain that is Parliament's will because Parliament would never, ever have voted to leave the EU in the first place. It might be Parliament's will but there is close to zero chance that it will exercise its will. Whatever outcome transpires we can be fairly sure that it will be despite Parliament rather than because of it.  The problems  we're seeing now are that none of the available choices can garner the support of MPs because they are cautious to be seen supporting almost anything.

So, I've thought about it a bit and it turns out that I'm all for a second EU referendum. We can already see that Parliament will anyway not reassert itself when it matters. A second EU referendum will hardly make any difference to an institution already battered to death by anti-democratic forces unleashed by Farage and Banks and Wigmore. We might as well have a second EU referendum because it is the only way to avert a disaster and can barely make Parliament any weaker than it already is. If Parliament refuses to decide then we need to decide ourselves. Sure, there are pros and cons but the pros so easily outweight the cons. In snooker terms, it is a shot to nothing. 

What are the chances of a second EU referendum? They are as close to zero as can be measured by a micrometer screw gauge. They are close to zero because Parliament needs to make that decision yet it cannot make any decision lest it undermine the "will of the people". A referendum requires an act of primary legislation to be approved by Parliament. It requires ministerial judgement expressed as secondary legislation and for that to be scrutinised by committees of MPs. It requires a bold move, decisiveness, effective government. We have none of those things. None of these things are likely to emerge in the next few years, either. Yes, I know the timeframe is an issue but the bigger issue is Parliament itself. Parliament is now a casual observer of an unfolding catastrophe that it created back in 2015. We can expect nothing from it. We'll get nothing from it. It might as well cease to exist.  

I set out to consider the merits of a second EU referendum.  Along the way, we discovered that Parliament is a quivering wreck, unable to make any substantive decisions. We discovered that the only escape route is a second referendum but also that any EU referendum requires Parliament to get its act together.  That is not going to happen. There is no path to an orderly Brexit. Crucial deadlines will pass and all we'll have is Labour abstaining and Tories yelling at each other.  What a mess.

A Scottish friend is wary of independence because they look at the fools and blowhards in Scottish politics and conclude that having them in charge would be no better than the status quo.  Back in 2015 I thought that was a powerful argument but with each passing Brexity day it loses its might. If you're minded towards the same argument please cast your eye over Westminster for just 5 minutes and observe the logjam of idiocy and cowardice, xenophobia and nativism. Nothing can be worse than that, not even Scottish Labour.

I'm Scottish. I desperately want Scotland to extricate itself from this quagmire by achieving independence. My wish for Scottish independence is not a wish for anything specific, however. I don't want independence because it will be a socialist utopia and I don't want independence because it will magically unleash a latent business acumen. Right now, I only wish to be a national of a country with a functioning democracy.

Over and out,

PS One of the reasons I support EU membership is that it also distributes power. The question "who is in charge of the EU" is difficult to answer because power is shared through nation states and institutional oversight.  I'm a big fan of this model.

PPS I would hope Scotland would opt for a codified constitution. It's unthinkable that Switzerland would find itself in a Brexit-style mess - its codified constitution is a big part of that. The fixed nature of EU rule-based law is the closest the UK ever got to a codified constitution and we'll quickly learn its value after departure. Suddenly, everything will be up for grabs. Can we expect Parliament to defend our rights? No, because whatever happens we can be fairly certain that Corbyn will abstain.


  1. I can only say you are absolutely right in every respect in this post. As you know, I now conduct my in depth research and attempted influence on events round the pub.
    I detect a slight movement in the direction of sanity, but there are many who will not engage.
    Se non ora, quando?
    For some, never. Maybe there's some who will. I've been in Italy, France and Spain this year, and I think some understanding of Scotland's situation is emerging. Spain is a problem. I was in Sevilla, and sensed a strong anti Catalonian feeling....how widespread is that, and does it affect understanding of Scotland's position? Dunno.
    I'd be interested to know if anybody in Switzerland is interested enough to express an opinion on Scottish independence, and if so what it is.
    Scotland in Europe is my hope. The U.K. Deep state is my nightmare.
    Keep up the good work.

    1. The pub is the best place to gauge opinion. Poor opinion can always be offset by quality drink.

      I don't know anyone here who has particularly strong opinions about Scottish independence but hardly anyone I know can understand how we failed last time. There is a small nation mentality here that allies with other small nations. I was in Macedonia the day after the 2014 indy ref. Locals were just incredulous at the result. It was difficult to explain, even to myself.

      I see lots of Yessers conflating Catalonia and Scotland but I'm not so certain these are issues that have all that much in common. I can't imagine there being strong feelings either way in Spain about Scotland's future. Spain is very pro-EU so maybe that is something that makes them sympathetic to our predicament. Scotland poses no existential threat to the Spanish constitution or anything like that. Rajoy is also gone now, thankfully.

  2. First of all, I'd like to apologise here for the intolerable nonsense on the last thread of Munguin's Republic (no, not the post!!). I found it embarrassing. Hopefully it has terminated.

    I always enjoy reading about how another country organises itself because it seems to be that, almost invariably, they do it better than we do.

    Switzerland appears to have a relatively mature democracy. And the systems it has set in place work for it, in all its linguistically, geographically and culturally, diverse cantons. I remember my uncle who lived there for many years explained that almost everything is decided by referendum at some level or another.

    I'm not altogether sure that Britain has much democracy about it.

    It isn't democratic to have an hereditary head of state, who actually has real power (not to mention the power of her eldest born).

    It isn't democratic to have an upper house of parliament populated by aristocrats, placements (donors and party hacks) and bishops/archbishops of only one religion.

    First past the post isn't even vaguely democratic in a multi party country. (At the 2015 UK election the SNP won 94% of the seats from Scotland on only 50% of the vote.)

    I'm sure most countries have whipping systems, but the UK one seems particularly strict, and the aforementioned upper house is a carrot that is dangled in front of those whose behaviour with prostitutes or rent boys doesn't give the whips a serious hold over them.

    Privy Council powers, statutory instruments, Henry VIII powers... and nothing written down so it's all a matter of "convention" which they appear to be able to alter at the drop of a knighthood, I mean hat.

    No one really knows whether referenda are binding or not here. Cameron said, in information sent to each household, that the government would implement the decision of this particular referendum, but who knows if that was the truth?

    No one controlled what was said in the campaigns; there was no control over the veracity of the promises/threats made, and it seems that at least one side cheated in various different ways, particularly financially.

    Can we have another referendum now? Yes. Should we? I dunno.

    As it happens Stuart Campbell did a good piece on this (link in your sidebar). According to his findings it would bring the same result as the last one. Indeed a General Election wouldn't make much difference.

    There is no solution to the Brexit problem.

    It's always going to be difficult when you have a near 50-50 referendum result. Yes, you can argue that 50% +1 is a win. It doesn't make it a happy win though or a win that it is easy to sell to the population.

    It's made worse when you have 50% of 4 countries wanting one result... and 50% wanting the other.

    If a second referendum brought the same result we'd be not farther forward. The Tory party are split; Labour is split. (The Liberal Democrats don't bother to turn up for crucial debates because they are off on yet another rant about homosexuality and religion.) The SNP are ignored/laughed at. The only minor party that counts is the one that (using our money) May bought.

    Basically the poeple wanted to do what Boris suggested they could do. Have their cake and eat it. And maybe in Boris's world of privilege, that is possible. Most of the rest of us know that it is a pipe dream.

    Sorry... I ramble and said nothing much that you don't already know.

    As you've said before, we as Scots, have a way out of this mess.

    I really hope we take it.

    1. The lack of agreement exposes a fundamental weakness in the UK's constitutional arrangements. It doesn't know what to do and there is no provision for what to do in the event of a lack of agreement. Politics is unable to solve this so we need to fall back on constitutional procedure but, uh oh, there isn't one. Round and round we go.

      I read the article over on Wings. The "people" want contradictory things but they only want what they were promised. Again, we would hope for provisions to deal with a corrupted referendum process but, uh oh, there are none.

      I was recently reading about George Blake and his imprisonment after being exposed as a Soviet spy. The other spies were treated with kid gloves because nobody could believe that "one of their own" would betray them. Blake, of course, grew up in the Netherlands and did not come from a society family. Likewise, UK politics seems to depend on trust and an assumption that they are all cut from the same cloth. There was no need to formally deal with liars and charlatans because the social pressures of the ruling class would rectify any problem with minimum fuss. If trust was a feature in the past, it certainly isn't one now. There appear to be no systems in place to deal with liars and charlatans and cheats. The system is antiquated. It is not fit for professional politicians, especially not when they behave unprofessionally.

      We're kind of stuck here. There is no serious chance of constitutional reform in the UK. Even the party system is not fit for purpose yet the chances of a realignment are non existent. There is only one way out for Scotland.

      Please don't worry about the kerfuffle over at your blog. These things happen on the internet. The real Terry Entoure would be furious but the new touchy-feely replacement is totally chilled out about it.

    2. That was me again. For reasons unknown, I keep posting here without logging in. Let's put it down to the summer heat.

    3. Oh, do pay attention, Terry. We're depending on you to be on your game and sort out his complete clutter whatsit and that's hardly likely to happen if you can't even log in...


    4. The heat has melted my brain. Unfortunately, that was last summer and I am yet to recover.

  3. Exiting the EU with no deal is a very high probability now. Only something absurdly left-field can prevent it, like the Queen using her Xmas speech to object to Brexit, dissolving parliament and then abdicating on the grounds she doesn't wish to be the Queen regnant during the end of the UK.

    "Our dear loyal subjects, clearly Our Government and Our Parliament is filled with fuckwits. We have dismissed them. Kindly elect another with sense for dear Charles. Best regards, Liz, Regina Emeritus. God save the King."

    1. It is indeed hard to see how the NI issue can be resolved. The UK made a commitment but seemingly did not understand what that would involve. They've almost worked it out now but refuse to pay the political price of honouring their commitments.

      I completely agree - it will take an extraordinary sequence of events to achieve an orderly departure. It is not unlikely that extraordinary events lie ahead but nobody knows if or when or what they might be.

  4. "The system in the UK works because there are discrete layers of scrutiny provided by the two separate chambers."

    It works in as far as one is a pack of self serving wolves and the other sly foxes; both are the visable front facade of an Establishment of the few, acting for the few.

    A Constitution has no chance of being enacted this side of a revolution, just look at the way the UK Parliament does its daily business. It's not old fashioned it's prehistoric..!
    Could you imagine Bern being run like this?

    Tristan describes the problems quite well so I'll not elaborate too much.

    Apologies for posting under unknown on the last article (the guy skylarking round the world) but I cocked-up the "How to do it" thing.

    Graf Midgehunter

    1. There is no chance of the UK adopting a codified constitution. Tony Blair attempted a relatively simple reform of the House of Lords and quickly came unstuck. His leadership was orders of magnitude better than anything we have now and he had a whopping majority.

      Prehistoric is the right word. The arrangements of parliamentary votes and the pomp and pageantry involved are odd, to say the least. They are also a colossal waste of time.

      Hope you can carry on skylarking around the world.

    2. Whenever they try to effect any kind of change to the constitution it is painfully slow and painfully little.

      Over 100 years ago Labour wanted to abolish the House of Lords... and this week another Labour Lord took his seat.

      They managed to introduce life peerages at some stage and Blair managed to get the long term aristos down to 2 +90 elected aristos. But we still have Churchmen from ONE church sitting in parliaments as a right... not to mention the people who buy their place by contributing money or whatever, to political parties. I mean Michelle Moan for heaven's sake.

      His devolution was cack-handed, as we are now seeing played out in the Supreme Court.

      So much needs to be done to take the UK into the 20th century before it even thinks about joining the real world of the 21st.

      Don't even start on the royals... all 40+ of them to be fed, housed, transported, clothed and generally kowtowed to.

      Grrrrr, when there are people living in cardboard boxes.

    3. I'm always amazed that CofE gets guaranteed seats in the Lords. One thing we have in common with Iran. Michelle Moan's appointment is just extraordinary. What did she actually do? She ran a marketing campaign for a small business that made modest profits and then sold it for an undisclosed sum. I'd guess every small business owner has done that.

      I would imagine that UK constitutional change is really hard. Everything is entangled with everything else in a way that isn't transparent or obvious. Changing one thing necessarily means changing everything. Maybe it would end up just as easy to start again as it is to attempt reform of what we have. I don't think there is any real appetite for fundamental change, though, especially not in England. If anything, they probably want to roll back the limited reforms and bring back hereditary aristos.

  5. I think some of the Tory visits were impressed with erm certain of Joan's erm... attributes, shall we say. That and the fact that she ran down Scottish independence.

    Her other claim to fame, as I recollect, was that when her husband tired of her and took up with a younger model, she ripped all his very expensive clothes and trashed his VERY expensive car.

    1. There is a clear path to lord and ladyship and that appears to be no more than to make yourself available to do their bidding for a limited time. Beckham thought mentioning the Union on a chat show would help his chances of a knighthood. I'm sure plenty of the 100 "great and good" who wrote the anti-indy Times letter back in 2014 thought it would do put a deposit in the MBE bank.

      I'd forgotten that story about trashing her ex's car. But now I remember. Good times.

  6. Damn tablets and predictive text.

    Tory grandees... And Moan's.


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