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Monday, June 27, 2016

How letting party grassroots choose party leaders has left Britain leaderless in a crisis

The announced departure of David Cameron as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of its Conservative Party, in October, is a brutal illustration of the damage that the modern fashion for parties outside Parliament, by whatever involved process, choosing parliamentary leaders has done to parliamentary government.

Cameron is right to go. His campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union was based largely on the argument that Britain can’t leave the EU. It is now the principal task of the Prime Minister of the UK to take Britain out of the EU. He’s not the man to do it.

But the reason he must go is the reason why he should go now, not in four months.

The reason he won’t go now is that in common with many parliamentary democracies, with Canada leading the way, Britain has handed over the the role of choosing who should lead the parties’ members in Parliament to party members outside Parliament.

It wasn’t always so. Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 because King George VI was persuaded he was the man most MPs wanted. He only officially became leader of the Conservative Party some time later.

When Sir Anthony Eden resigned in 1957 and Harold Macmillan in 1963 the Queen was persuaded by Conservative elders that Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home respectively had the support of most MPs and appointed them Prime Minister.

When Sir Alec was defeated in the 1964 election and resigned as leader he set up a procedure for Conservative MPs to choose a leader, to save the Queen from the embarrassment of having to figure it out herself. By this procedure Ted Heath was chosen leader in 1965 and then, famously, Margaret Thatcher in 1975. And, perhaps even more famously, Thatcher was replaced in 1990 by John Major, by a vote of MPs.

After Major’s defeat by Tony Blair in the 1997 the Conservatives went through three leaders chosen by various procedures. One of them Ian Duncan-Smith, a Brexit champion, was the first chosen by a procedure involving party members. It took three months. Previously it had been a matter of days. He lasted only two years and never even got to lead his party in an election. Finally in 2005 a mish mash party procedure chose David Cameron as the bright boy who knew how to win.

Cameron had already announced he would step down before the next election, scheduled for 2020. He never said he’d step down if Britain voted to leave the EU, as that risked making the referendum about him rather than Brexit. But as he proved in the referendum to be not a winner but a loser he had to go.

Pandering to vague concepts of grass roots democracy while the Conservative grass roots have shrunk from a peak membership of near three million in the fifties to around 150,000 now the Conservatives will choose their new leader by letting MPs choose two candidates and the fluid membership choose between them. The process should take three months. Hence Cameron’s long goodbye.

In the meantime, during perhaps Britain’s greatest crisis since the war, it will be effectively leaderless, all to assure that the dwindling grass roots should have their say while the MPs voters elected cool their heals in waiting.

It is hard to imagine a similar situation arising in Canada, but a year ago few in Britain imagined its situation now. As we have allowed that not MPs but some months to year long party shenanigans should choose party leaders and even Prime Minsters or Premiers we have ceded the power of the MPs we elect to choose party leaders and who will govern us and must wait on party proceedings to know who are leaders may be.

Churchill used to like to observe when he met with Roosevelt and Stalin that he was the only one who could be replaced in a day, as he had become Prime Minister in a matter of days. Had present practices applied in 1940 it would have taken three months to be rid of Chamberlain and Britain might never have had its ‘finest hour.’

When in the ordinary round of politics leaders step down after an electoral defeat, or retire or drop dead, it all seems to work, though it produces dictatorial leaders, of which many rightly complain, but when leadership is most needed it can leave parties and governments leaderless.

There is nothing undemocratic about letting MPs choose their leaders. We elect them and their biggest responsibility is supporting a government or an alternative government in an opposition party. For that they are answerable to the voters.

There is little democratic in allowing a small amorphous subset of voters to intervene and choose leaders. To whom are they answerable?

The Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn was chosen by about 400,000 Labour ‘supporters,’ less than 1% of the electorate, to lead MPs most of whom can’t stand him. The party is falling apart.

So Britain is not just without a leader. I doesn’t even have an opposition. And Parliament at Westminster will for the next few months have less say on how Britain is governed than the sham European Parliament at Strasbourg.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The unreality and reality of the BREXIT vote

Until polls a few days ago began to roil the markets the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union had an air of unreality about it.

Everyone understood that David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on BREXIT was a ploy to smother divisions in the Conservative party between Eurosceptics, who don’t like the EU, and Conservatives who either think the EU is wonderful or just something post-imperial Britain must live with. Cameron and smart people expected Britain would sensibly vote to remain and the Eurosceptics would be put in their place. Somewhere round Coventry.

Cameron undertook to negotiate a deal with the EU to placate his Eurosceptic wing, but, as the prospect of a BREXIT was not taken seriously and Cameron had no serious ideas about what would make the EU less objectionable to Eurosceptics, all he got was a vague letter from the former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk who fancies himself as the President of Europe.

In Britain and abroad the referendum has seemed to be about the economy and immigration. For the Leaves the fact that around 500 million Europeans are free to come and live in Britain with practically all the privileges of those who were born there is upsetting. Add to which, Germany’s admission of upwards of a million migrants opens the prospect that anyone any country in the EU chooses to welcome may before long turn up in Neasden.

For bien pensants in Britain and the rest of the world this makes Leave supporters bigots and the issue is immediately settled.

The Remain campaign has argued that BREXIT would be a disaster for the British economy. They seem to be saying that Britain simply can’t leave the EU. Which raises the question why the voters are being asked whether they’d like to. Ask a stupid question and you may get a stupid answer they might have thought.

The question is not whether Britain should leave Europe, as it is often put. Europe is a geopolitical fact. The question is whether Britain should leave a particular institution, the EU.

Undoubtedly Britain’s leaving the EU would be a great disruption and how it would work out is uncertain. Markets hate uncertainty and that is enough to explain their recent behaviour. But it does not settle the question of whether Britain would be worse off, better off, or much the same economically outside the EU. That all depends.

The case that Britain would be worse off assumes that on leaving the EU it would be cut off from much of its trade with the rest of the EU. But that assumes that the EU without Britain would follow Bonaparte, the Kaiser and Hitler in trying to put Britain down by cutting her off from trade with Europe. Hardly an assumption that does much credit to the EU.

The idea that the world’s fifth largest economy could not survive on its own is rather a stretch particularly as, on its own, it would be both forced and able to adapt to the world economy in ways that its membership in the EU inhibits.

The uncertainty of BREXIT is compounded by the fact that in the event of a Leave victory it would be Cameron, who seems to believe it is impossible, who would have to negotiate BREXIT. Were he De Gaulle he’d have put his job on the line. But that would have led many who want to be rid of him to vote Leave just to be rid of him. As it is, the referendum has led to acrimony amongst Conservatives that may hasten the departure he plans before the scheduled election in 2020, hoping to cash in as fabulously as Tony Blair has.

But neither the economy nor immigration is the real issue. The real issue is whether 28 countries and 500 million people should be governed by an unaccountable bureaucracy headquartered in Brussels.

We in Canada with our provinces and Ottawa and some sense of who does what and a regular choice in elections of who they should be cannot imagine how the EU works. Most Europeans haven’t a clue. Their national governments apparently continue to function and elections take place and for most of the history of the EU and its predecessors back to the Common Market prosperity with freedom and peace has been general. How far this is because of the EU and how far a coincidence has never been carefully considered. For much of this century the prosperity has been challenged and freedom compromised as Brussels has in some countries effectively chosen who should govern, or at least how those in office should govern, whatever voters may have wanted.

For European elites this if fine. Able bureaucrats and politicians ejected from office in their own countries beaver away beyond the interfering scrutiny of national media, and voters are distracted with increasingly meaningless national politics, while Brussels sees that all is for the best. But increasingly, and not just in Britain, Europeans are thinking they are not getting what they want, whatever may be best, and BREXIT, if it happens, or even comes close, may give a shock to the whole European project.

Many outside Britain, from Barack Obama to the Pope and Justin Trudeau and most commentators, have said Britain should remain in the EU. They would be more circumspect in saying whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom or Quebec leave Canada. They should ask themselves how they would like to be governed as the EU largely governs Europe.

That’s the real question voters in Britain are faced with on June 23.