Motto: Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
(from ‘The Solution’ by Bertolt Brecht)
The UK Parliament has been prorogued from the 9th of September to the 14th of October 2019 – days before the UK’s scheduled exit from the European Union. On its final day before suspension, the Parliament acknowledged Royal Assent on the Benn Bill (which effectively turned an act blocking No Deal into law), made a formal request to the Government to acknowledge obeying the rule of law regarding Brexit, and passed a binding motion for the Government to disclose private communications concerning its decision to prorogue Parliament and its No Deal plans.
Whether the final day of parliamentary proceedings has been a moderate triumph or an unmitigated tragedy depends on whom you ask. For opponents of the Government, what really happened is that MPs defeated an abusive PM six times out of six within six days. For PM Boris Johnson, what really happened is that the Parliament took away a crucial card the UK might have played in its negotiations with the EU, making the threat of No Deal no longer credible.
The existence of different views, of winners and losers, and of mixed blessings is a fact of democratic life that does not merit special reflection. The more worrying trend regarding differences in interpretation has been that in the past week such disagreements have ranged over an alarming number of factual issues. Trick questions include: Is Parliament suspended for 2 weeks or 5 weeks? Does proroguing parliament facilitate or impede pursuing the Government’s new agenda? Is the prorogation constitutional? Would No Deal be ‘a clean break’, or merely the beginning of a long process of negotiation? And – though ultimately it did not come to this – when does Wednesday end in the House of Lords when under threat of filibusters?
The answers to such questions map onto increasingly polarised lines. Conservatives loyal to Johnson point out that the prorogation is in reality for only two weeks as party members usually take a three week conference recess in September anyway, and that such a break is needed for a clean start of the Government’s new agenda. They also regard the prorogation as a ‘perfectly normal’ and constitutional procedure, and instead, as MP Steve Baker did on SkyNews yesterday, that in reality the Benn Bill is the unconstitutional one.
Opposition MPs, however, claim the prorogation will in reality hamper their activities for the full 5 weeks, given that Parliament was planning to cancel the recess period. MPs also, understandably, express doubts that the best way of speeding up Parliamentary discussion on the new Government agenda is by suspending Parliament, and claim that in reality the motivation behind the prorogation is a desire to remove Parliamentary scrutiny at a critical time. If confirmed by evidence retrieved through the motion passed yesterday, such a motivation would be a decisive argument that the prorogation was in reality unconstitutional and, as John Bercow called it upon leaving Parliament at 1.30 AM on the 10th of September, ‘not a standard or normal prorogation’.
This contestation of what happens ‘in reality’ shows a worrying rift within the interpretative community of UK representatives. Instead of a common reality providing a framework for mitigating differences and adjudicating disagreements between contesting parties, the debates of the past six days seem to have gone the other way around: not from a common reality to reducing disagreements, but from different commitments to weaponised differences in the ‘reality’ that each faction perceives. Each side has carved out pieces of reality to fit its own interpretation and has even – in the case of the Conservative party – carved out members who refused to comply with it.
This rift of the interpretative community is problematic in itself, both for the polarisation it ushers in and for vindicating concerns of an undemocratic loosening from a commitment to tell the truth. But what is more, such a rift is particularly problematic given the way the show-down between the Government and opposition MPs has been framed – as one of People vs Parliament.
The reason for this is that the meaning of the will of ‘the people’ is highly volatile. Indeed, this volatility has allowed Johnson to insist on contradictory interpretations: on the one hand, that the will of the people is clearly for a No Deal Brexit, requiring no further consultation; on the other, that we must urgently ascertain the current will of the people on Brexit through a general election. Conversely, opposition MPs regard it as urgent to ascertain the will of the people through a referendum on the final Brexit deal, but less urgent to organise general elections as required by Johnson. Yet another possibility, hinted at by John Bercow in his passionate defense of the Parliament as an institution during the speech announcing his imminent resignation, is to give less weight to the ‘will of the people’ as expressed through a referendum. This is implied by his assertion that MPs are ‘not delegates but representatives’, i.e. act not merely as mouthpieces for constituents, but as potentially a corrective force on ill-informed preferences of the kind that might be expressed in such a referendum.
This volatility of meaning of a central concept in the debate interacts dangerously with the quick dissolution of shared norms of the interpretative community. In a situation of partisan interpretations, each side can claim to act on behalf of a bedrock democratic principle while further carving out the ‘real’ will of the people to suit their agenda. Combined with the tendency to present ‘the people’ as a force under attack, such differences in interpretation diminish the possibility of dialogue and consensus, by linking the grounds of disagreement to a principle that is not negotiable. This can lead to a political landscape in which each faction paints itself as the purveyor of truth and legitimacy in a way that is by definition opposed to the others. For this reason, when following the fate of ‘the people’ as decried by the UK Parliament or Government it is important to ask which version of ‘the people’ is being erected – and which is being dissolved.