Given the sweeping under the carpet of Leave campaign irregularities by UK authorities in recent days, I feared the worst yesterday, and feared that a ruling in the government’s favour would open the door to the neutering of British parliamentary democracy. So it was an unexpected relief to hear the unanimous conclusion of eleven Supreme Court judges that Johnson’s prorogation was “unlawful, null and of no effect”. Parliamentary democracy lives, and parliament itself returned today to try to head off the looming disaster that Johnson seems determined to bring down upon us.
It’s been galling to hear government figures, “sources” (coughummings) and Twitter apologists suggest that the court’s decision was politically motivated and that they disagree with it, as if former journalists like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson know more about constitutional law than the most senior judges in the country. Johnson, as he keeps reminding us, read Classics at university, and Gove read English, so while they might be able to speculate about what Aeschylus or Shakespeare would have made of their tragic positions, their speculations about the state of UK law are moot: the Court made the law clear, and it’s clear that the government broke it.
Where the politics of the next few days will take us is hard to guess, but one possibility is that some combination of a vote of no confidence, a government of national unity and a combined People’s Vote and General Election might lead us out of the morass. Personally I’d rather we revoked Article 50 outright to give the country the breathing space it sorely needs, even if we had to restart the whole sorry business down the line, but the realpolitik of the situation suggests that another referendum is the only instrument that has a hope of achieving the legitimacy in the minds of Leavers of the first. That doesn’t mean that they’d think that holding one would be legitimate or fair, but a 52%+ Remain result in a second referendum would politically be hard to dispute—in the same way that Remainers like me think that the illegal last-minute overspending by Leave in the first referendum (to say nothing of their covert campaigning) made it illegitimate, but can’t dispute that Leave won it or that it had the political effect of setting us on this current path.
Whatever happens, there can’t be any return to business as pre-2016 usual. If we crash out with no deal, we’ll be putting out fires for a decade; if we leave with a deal we’ll be stuck in trade negotiations for years while dealing with slow economic decline; and if we remain there will be an urgent need for constitutional reform and a serious attempt to address the austerity policies that led us here in the first place. But any post-2019 government that attempts to pander to xenophobes can piss right off.
Yesterday’s news had the effect of burying one piece of good news from the Labour Party conference, which was that its members voted to commit Labour to pursuing a carbon-neutral Britain by 2030. That’s a huge and radical step, and in the current global climate (literally, not figuratively) an essential one. It’s a policy that could tempt me to overlook Corbyn’s crypto-Brexiter stance and vote for a party that he still leads, although Labour’s issues with anti-Semitism are also a solid strike against it. If we do end up in a General Election sooner rather than later, I don’t know where my vote’s going to go; and at a national level, that’s the problem that could see us ending up with another Tory government propped up by the Brexit Party. Britain could be so different if it had an electoral system that reflected its range of political opinions fairly and proportionally rather than as the distorted caricatures produced by first-past-the-post.
Until then, all we can do is take to the streets. On Saturday I put on my EU flag T-shirt, whipped up a sign (based on the bottom half of this), and headed to St Giles to join the March to Remain. It was a smaller affair than London’s, naturally, and a bit too polite, but it was still important to be there, even if the onlookers were mainly bemused tourists. What it lacked in homemade signs it made up for in massed EU flags, waving around on the lawn outside the Scottish Parliament. The speeches were a mixed bag, and some of the songs fell flat, but there were inspiring contributions from MPs Ian Murray and Joanna Cherry, Lord Kerr (the one who helped write Article 50, not the Supreme Court judge), Professor Tanja Bueltmann and others.
I didn’t get a sign together for the Climate Strike march the day before, but popped out of the office at lunchtime to watch it make its way down the Royal Mile, cheering everyone on and keeping an eye out for my kids. It took about 45 minutes for the crowd to finish passing, a huge turnout for Edinburgh. It had a better class of homemade sign than the pro-EU rally, too. I’ve added a few photos of that march as well to the gallery below.