Steve Freeman and Phil Vellender consider the importance of Irish republicanism in the fight against Tory Brexit and how we should answer Tory populist slogans about ‘parliament versus the people’.
The Tories had set the coming general election as a confrontation between the ‘parliament and the people’. Boris Johnson planned to represent the ‘will of the people’ and champion the fight against the liberal elites blocking Brexit. Her Majesty’s Government will deliver Brexit and pump money into the police and the NHS and order the employing class to raise the living wage offering to bribe us with billions of (our own) taxpayer’s money. The Queen read the Tory Brexit manifesto from the throne.
The essence of Tory Brexit is to leave the single market and customs union. Nobody voted for this. It was not on the ballot paper. Yet the Tories stole the mandate and refashioned it into a weapon for their master-plan of neo-liberal ‘global Britain’, for trade war against the EU and class war against the working class.
Leaving the single market and customs union opened up a fundamental contradiction between an open border within Ireland and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This peace treaty accepted Northern Ireland would remain in the UK with a peaceful economic and social integration of Ireland through the institutions of the European Union. Ireland has always been the major stumbling block for Tory Brexit.
Theresa May’s version of Tory Brexit was defeated by the combination of Irish republicanism and Her Majesty’s Opposition. Corbyn took away May’s majority in the 2017 general election and put her government in hock to the Democratic Unionist Party. Since Sinn Fein is absent from the Commons, Irish republicanism appears in the guise of its mortal enemy, as a party whose raison d’etre is opposition to Irish unity. Theresa May invented the all-UK Irish backstop to placate them before they finally sank her.
The Johnson government faces the same problem – Irish republicanism and Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader is trying to marshal his rebellious MPs behind a ‘Labour Brexit’ which addresses a divided working class. His stance, as a ‘remain-democrat’, recognises this. His victory at the Labour conference offers the best chance of keeping the Parliamentary Labour Party sufficiently united to prevent any Tory Brexit before 31 October, if Labour is to have a chance of winning the general election.
Irish republicanism has long opposed British Crown powers used in Ireland. The fight for popular sovereignty, the rights of nations to self determination and the right for the Irish people to ratify constitutional treaties was recognised by the Good Friday Agreement. This might seem irrelevant in the rest of the UK, but it is part of a wider European democratic republican culture with relevant experience for England, Scotland and Wales.
Republicanism informs a democratic approach to the problems posed by the 2016 EU referendum not least in recognising the rights of nations to self determination. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU and England and Wales voted to leave. These mandates represent the sovereign ‘will of the people’ and form the parameters for any negotiated settlement.
Any agreement along these lines, or indeed any other agreement, must be put back to the people in a ratification referendum. The people of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have democratic reasons to oppose Tory Brexit on different grounds from the Labour Party.
This republican case is not in itself a demand for a united Ireland or an independent Scotland. However, it rejects the assumptions and presumptions of British Unionism. It is based on democracy, internationalism and solidarity as the only means of bringing nations closer together. Hence the working class in England must not participate in, or give any support whatsoever, to the imposition of an Anglo-British exit on Ireland and Scotland.
Social republicans go beyond a purely democratic case against Brexit by recognising the interests of working people. The EU was set up in the interests of European business and finance. Trade unions and working people have no illusions in the EU and oppose any measures which worsen working class rights and conditions. Hence, there is both a democratic and a social case for the Northern Ireland and Scotland remaining, while the whole of the UK stays in the single market and customs union.
New Irish Deal
The Johnson government’s new proposals to leave the single market and customs union have made Northern Ireland a special case. This has been dubbed “Two borders for four years” with a ratification vote, initially to confirm the deal, but repeated every four years. Northern Ireland would remain in the single market with a regulatory border down the Irish Sea. It would leave the Customs union and this would necessitate a customs border between the Irish republic and Northern Ireland with customs checks in multiple locations away from the geographical land border.
Johnson had added the proposal that Northern Ireland is not subject to the EU’s so-called ‘level playing field’ requirements, which ensure minimum standards on workers’ rights, social conditions and environmental standards. This confirms the free market ‘race to the bottom’ aims of Tory Brexit.
This shift was not the end of the Tory compromise. The meeting between Johnson and Leo Veradka showed Johnson on a slippery slope to a predictable reality. (There now seems to be a new proposal to keep the whole of Ireland in the customs union). According to the Sunday Times “Johnson has been influence by Sedwell (Sir Mark Sedwell, Cabinet Secretary), who is also national security advisor, and by Michael Gove who had received security briefings “which he is said to have found sobering”. It is Irish republicanism not the DUP that has shaken them. (Sunday Times 13 October 2019)
The Johnson plan is significant from a republican perspective. The DUP backed the Crown’s original proposals and thus ‘sold out’ its previously declared principle that Northern Ireland could not have any agreement different to the rest of the UK. This ‘fear of republicanism’ party has shifted ground, perhaps belatedly recognising no-deal would alienate its business and farming base and increase support for a united Ireland.
Northern Ireland would now have unique arrangements. This is a concession to secure a deal in the interests of the City of London. Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) has now recognised that Northern Ireland has a right to ratify the withdrawal treaty with the EU. This right is confined to the Northern Ireland executive and Assembly rather than the Irish people. But there is no reason why the people of Northern Ireland and indeed the rest of Ireland, as in 1998, could not vote to ratify any deal.
Northern Ireland is a ‘special’ case owing to the long struggle for a united Ireland and because, in 2016, a majority voted to remain. The republican case is that these rights should be extended to Scotland which like Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Every national parliament (Scotland and Wales) should have the right to ratify and should extend this right the people. Although there is no English parliament, the people of England should have the same right to ratify any agreement.
Crown versus Parliament
Since 1945, UK politics centred in Westminster has been a contest between two class based parties, Tory and Labour, under the unionist constitution of the Crown-In-Parliament. Between 1975 and 1998 this changed as the UK joined the European Economic Community, agreed the Good Friday Agreement and set up devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales. The 2014 Scottish referendum and the 2016 EU referendum brought ‘the people’ into the constitutional equation further exposing the democratic deficit and the ‘crisis of democracy’.
The Brexit crisis took shape in the struggle between the Crown and Parliament. Disputes have ranged over triggering Article 50 and whether the Crown or parliament has the right to ratify treaties with the EU. It led to battles over the rights of the Speaker and the House of Commons to control the parliamentary agenda with echoes from 1642. The Roundheads fired off the Benn Act and the Royalists replied with a volley of prorogation.
This has raised issues about the inner workings of the Crown. Did Johnson mislead the queen into legitimising an unlawful prorogation? Did he tell her the truth and she simply supported it. Did she know or suspect this was unlawful and undemocratic and do nothing about it? If Prime Ministers abuse their power does the head of state take action or simply rubber stamp decisions and legitimatise them?
Royalists always shield the monarch from criticism by claiming she had no choice except to do as she is told by her First Minister. If this is true, the monarch would, like the King of Italy, give legitimacy to an elected Mussolini acting to remove, or end, democratic rights. If Prime Ministers abuse their power does the head of state take action or simply rubber stamp decisions and legitimatise them? In any serious political crisis, constitutional monarchy reveals itself as useless or dangerous.
The depth of the crisis is indicted when the Queen is drawn into political controversy which normal politics seeks to avoid at all costs. The UK is shrouded in a constitutional fog where secrecy and oaths of loyalty conceal most of what is really going on. It reminds of the role of the third ‘parliament’, the Privy Council, along with the more well-known Commons and Lords. The monarch intervenes through her Privy Council of the ‘Great and Good’.
Jacob Rees Mogg described the process. It begins with the Prime Minister giving the Queen ‘Advice’. For all we know it may be discussed in the Queen’s weekly audience with her PM (chief executive). However, the monarch normally approves the ‘Advice’, but could reject it with serious constitutional implications. In practice, decisions are worked out before hand between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, through the Queen’s Private Secretary and the Cabinet Secretary.
As a Privy Councillor, Jacob Rees Mogg went to Balmoral Castle for a Privy Council meeting with the Queen. (LBC Nick Ferrari 15 October 2019). He simply asked her if she agrees (to the use her Crown powers) to prorogue parliament. She replied “Approved” and then it became legal to implement the decision. Rees-Mogg did not lie to the Queen because this is a ‘rubber stamp’ process with no discussion. It was a significant precedent when this rubber stamp decision was overruled by the Supreme Court.
Parliament versus the people
The democratic struggle between Crown power and Westminster over their shared sovereignty has been the major battle. The Tories, both May and Johnson, have tried to flip this into populist demagogic terms about ‘parliament versus the people’. Johnson has set the coming general election as a confrontation between these two institutions
The Crown is not a democratic organisation. Johnson is not a representative of the people because they did not elect him. He was elected MP in one constituency and then chosen by his party which represents the interests of big business and the City of London. The Tories do not have majority of votes but a majority of seats. Johnson is selected by the monarch if the Tories have a majority and then inducted into the power structures and secrets of the Crown through the oaths of allegiance.
The responsibility for the ‘Brexit crisis’ has to be placed fairly and squarely with the Crown, not least with its chief executives, Cameron, May and Johnson. Negotiations have been conducted without consultation or transparency. So far, bad deals with the EU have failed to win a majority in parliament. After three years, nothing has been brought back to the people for democratic ratification.
Boris Johnson has appropriated English nationalism, appointing himself ‘Minister of the Union’, and adopting populist rhetoric about “people versus parliament”, in which the Crown represents the ‘will of the people’ to ‘get Brexit done’. This is designed to scapegoat parliament for the failure of the Crown to deliver a democratic agreement supported by parliament and the people.
Republicanism is the democratic answer to Tory populism. The socialist movement must warn the Tories that dabbling in authoritarian populism opens a can of worms. Working people must not vote to give the Crown more power to act as an elected dictatorship. The answer is to take power and become sovereign and liberate parliament from all monarchical institutions and Crown powers.
The Brexit fiasco is exposing the power of the Crown and the weakness of parliament within an antiquated unwritten constitution. This is creating the conditions for more authoritarian government to take over or for some kind of a popular democratic revolution. A political crisis is brewing which demands democratic answers with citizens’ assemblies, a parliament for England, a republican written constitution with the right of constituent nations to self determination.
14 October 2019