I SPENT MUCH of this week in the House of Commons press gallery not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Theresa May laying out the case for her deal on Tuesday, her voice so hoarse that it could hardly be heard and her body hunched, was a moment of both personal and national humiliation. The chaos on Wednesday, when Tory MPs were first told that they wouldn’t be whipped and then, at the last moment, that they would, sending them scurrying hither and thither, was a moment of high farce. And what are we to make of Thursday, when Stephen Barclay, the Brexit minister, spoke in favour of a government motion at the dispatch box and then marched off to vote against it?
But before we lose faith in British democracy entirely it’s worth remembering two things. The first is that there were some fine speeches among the craziness and dross. Kenneth Clarke, the Father of the House, was the most statesmanlike. He made a good case that what the British people voted for in the referendum was to leave the political structures of the European Union but remain within the common market and suggested that this might provide the template for a compromise. He also had a merry time mocking Brexiteers who probably didn’t know what the WTO was a few months ago but who now think it’s the fount of all wisdom. (One of the oddities of the Brexit debate is that the WTO is now being praised by protesters rather than denounced by them.) Anna Soubry, a former Tory who has joined the new Independent Group, was the most withering about the Brexiteers who have taken over her party. (Shortly after listening to her I queued up for a cup of coffee behind Peter Bone, one of the leading Brexiteers, who has taken to wearing dirty old trainers, as if he is preparing for a career as a beggar.) Hilary Benn pointed to the logical contradiction at the heart of Mrs May’s policy: why is it reasonable for her to keep putting the same question to the House, when it has been rejected twice by huge margins, and not reasonable to hold a second referendum after a relatively narrow vote in 2016? And, on the government side, Michael Gove, secretary of state for agriculture, proved, yet again, that he is the best debater in the House.
The second thing to remember is Walter Bagehot’s dictum about parliamentary government being “government by discussion”. Discussion can make narrow minds narrower and fevered minds more feverish: this week Sir Christopher Chope, another arch-Brexiteer, even told the House that, if Jeremy Corbyn were to bring a vote of no confidence in the government, he would consider voting in favour, a move that might bring about the collapse of his own government and lead to the election of the most left-wing prime minister the country has ever had. Madness! But it can also make broad minds broader and reflective minds more reflective. I’m struck by the number of serious people who are having serious thoughts about some of their most basic beliefs: former Thatcherites who are thinking about the failures of the free market that produced so much alienation in the north; former Blairites who are thinking about the cosy political cartel that deepened that alienation; and former establishment types who are thinking about how to revivify British democracy. There is more serious thinking about the importance of things like devolution, place-making and community-building than there has been for years.
The political class has focused obsessively on the formation of a small new independent grouping of MPs. But there is something bigger and more interesting going on in the broad centre of British politics: the collapse of old certainties and a desperate attempt to produce a new synthesis. The great question is whether the emerging centre ground can get its act together in time—or whether the future belongs to the likes of Messrs Corbyn and Bone.
DURING THESE debates I often found myself pondering an article by Matthew d’Ancona in the Guardian about what Britain’s greatest historian of “that marvellous microcosm, the House of Commons”, Sir Lewis Namier (pictured below), might have made of the latest parliamentary shenanigans. Sir Lewis had no time for the idea that politicians are moved by abstract things like political ideologies, let alone nonsense about the good of humanity. They are moved purely by self-interest—by the desire for place, position and preferment, and by the endless play of faction and connection. One of the reasons why this Jewish émigré from Poland liked Britain so much is that it was more honest than other countries about the scramble for preferment. And one of the reasons why he was so preoccupied by the House of Commons was that he regarded it as the perfect cockpit for “battle, drive and dominion”.
At first blush the Brexit crisis proves that Sir Lewis was wrong: a growing list of Conservative politicians have given up high office (and the chauffeur and salary that go with it) in order to fight for an abstract ideal of sovereignty. But I wonder? The striking thing about the Brexit rebels is how puffed up they are: look at Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson marching off to Downing Street to lay down the law to the prime minister or Sir Bill Cash delivering long perorations to parliament about sub-clause “Z” of the European Treaty.
A Namierite analysis of the Brexiteers suggests that they consist of three different groups of people who, for different reasons, have decided that their egos are best served by defying their own government. First: has-beens. Mr Duncan Smith was one of the most disastrous leaders the Conservative Party has had. Sir John Redwood’s attempt to become leader is now remembered only for the picture of his supporters, looking like inmates from a lunatic asylum on an away day. Having been put out to pasture they have now discovered a way to get themselves back on the television and radio. Second: low-flyers. The likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Steve Baker and Mr Paterson were never going to reach the heights of the regular Conservative Party, Mr Rees-Mogg because he’s too absurd and Messrs Baker and Paterson because they are too mediocre. But the establishment of a parallel party structure has given them a chance to wield power and peacock around. Third: ambitious types such as Boris Johnson and Johnny Mercer who think that they can ride the tiger of populism to the heights of power.
I THINK ONE of the great themes of modern politics will be the struggle between the super-rich and the middle classes. Old British families will seethe when they see places in the best public schools and houses in the best parts of London being brought up by oiky foreign oligarchs. One of the biggest problems facing the Tory Party (presuming that it can avoid being torn apart by the madness of Brexit, a big assumption) is the hollowing out of the middle class. You can already see journalists at the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator, who would normally sing the praises of free markets in education and property, complaining that they are being forced to send their children to state schools and live in garrets. Conservatism flourishes when you have a broad middle class with roots in the country (and the countryside), not when you have a global oligarchy which treats the world as a shopping mall (Eton for secondary school, Yale for university and a chalet in the Alps for skiing).
It is also a huge opportunity for the far left. The more intelligent Corbynistas realise that the biggest thing going for them is “status dysphoria”: all those young people who have seen their parents get richer throughout their lives, with soaring house prices, solid pensions and plenty of money for foreign holidays, but who, having done all the right things, worked hard at school and graduated from university, find themselves clinging onto the edges of the corporate world and living in a bed-sit in Clapham, or further out, while executives pocket multi-million-pound bonuses and newly built tower blocks in the centre of town sit largely empty, acting as Swiss bank accounts in the sky for foreign investors.
ANOTHER GREAT struggle that will define the future is the struggle between the super-rich and the merely rich. We can see this in the vicious fight between Tate Modern and the residents of four glass-walled flats next to the gallery. Tate Modern has constructed a viewing platform that provides a “unique, free, 360-degree view of London” (pictured). The owners of the apartments are understandably furious that the platform allows the tourists to watch them getting dressed and eating their breakfast. Having spent £4m a flat so that they can live in glass boxes in the sky, with spectacular views over London, they are now reduced to the status of animals in a high-rise zoo. The Tate administration has suggested that the residents can simply draw the blinds to avoid unwelcome eyes and a High Court judge, in ruling that the residents’ impressive views come “at a price in terms of privacy”, has suggested that they can always buy net curtains. In other words, take that you super-rich bastards, we museum curators and High Court judges are on the side of ordinary people!
I don’t have a dog in this fight but I think I’ve come up with a way for the super-rich to fight back: why not project hard-core pornography onto the walls of your glass eyrie whenever you’re out at work, filling your coffers with yet more money, or flying around the world? This might make Tate Modern think twice about funnelling tourists onto its viewing platform. As an added bonus it might force the mandarins of modernism to engage in an agonised debate about what can be described as offensive in our benighted times.