Sam Fowles wrote to me to complain. I met him. He asked how it could be that so many MPs are so ignorant about the constitution and yet speak so confidently of it.
I’m afraid he cited a political opponent of mine (but someone I much like) as an example. Keir Starmer, once an avowed enemy of Brexit, had become leader of the Labour Party and was desperately trying to cover Labour’s political tracks in order to win back Red Wall voters. Labour MPs were, as a result, attacking SNP MPs like me for voting against Boris Johnson’s terrible Brexit ‘deal’.
According to Keir voting with the Tories in Parliament was necessary otherwise we’d be left with ‘no deal’; “without a deal on security, on trade, on fisheries, without protection for our manufacturing sector, for farming, for countless British business, and without a foothold to build a future relationship with the EU.”
Labour voted for Boris Johnson. The SNP didn’t. This was terrible politics, as I believed at the time. Any future debate with Johnson, his Tories and Labour would be a shambles. It happened. Whenever a Labour MP now rises to criticise aspects of the deal and its fallout, Tory MPs shout “well you voted for it.”
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But perhaps more importantly – and here we come to Sam Fowler’s argument – what so many Labour MPs were saying about the SNP was constitutionally illiterate. Voting against the bill would “have no such consequence” as the Government not Parliament both negotiates and ratifies international treaties. SNP MPs voting against Boris Johnson’s terrible deal were choosing to distance themselves from it, and from Brexit to which Scots were overwhelmingly opposed. However we weren’t voting for a no deal Brexit as MPs didn’t have that power.
Are Labour MPs really unable to understand this or are they playing politics? Either way it’s disappointing. Sam believes that MPs are displaying (or pretending to be ignorant) about the constitution is detrimental to the public interest. I am in agreement with him. He goes even further. He thinks MPs should be compelled to attend classes about the law when they’re elected. Constitutional ‘levelling up’ if you will.
Sam does not take his erudition lightly. This is a pacy, well-written and well-argued book. Some of the conclusions are sad. Sam believes our civil society has fallen apart, though he does offer us hope in the end, provided we take the prescribed medicine. We live in a posttruth Johnson era, he believes. Politicians lie with impunity, assisted by a narrow privileged clique around Downing Street and a almost uniformly illiberal newspaper. As one might expect of a barrister, he’s horrified by the right wing abuse directed at lawyers and judges– many of whom are now routinely threatened or physically attacked. Their crime? They must uphold the laws passed by Parliament.
He cites all too familiar press headlines; ‘Enemies of the People’, ‘Judges vs the People’, and ‘Rise up people of Britain and fight fight fight’ which “ape the language of authoritarian regimes.” And he points out the irony of a society where ordinary people have less access to legal redress than at any time since the War (due to the slashing of legal aid), but are somehow persuaded – in England at least – that the wealthy, privileged elite who dominate the executive, and the press barons who amplify their messageare on their sideagainst the lawyers who would defend them. Populist politicians and their‘popular’ press allies aren’t friends of the populace he argues.
And he puts his money where his mouth is, working one third of his time pro-bono, whether on local planning cases well away from the public eye, or on high profile cases such as Boris Johnson’s illegal prorogation of Parliament when the Prime Minister attempted to silence the people’s elected representatives. As we now know, this also required lying before the Queen.
Lying or “bull shitting” is a frequent theme throughout the book. As a journalist and broadcaster – and now as an MP – I always had it drummed into me that the ‘l word’ could never be used. It’s still hard for me to say. But Sam – a barrister who obviously understands defamation laws –uses the word ‘lie’ and ‘liar’freely when talking about Boris Johnson, suggesting that the Prime Minister has no reputation to lose. We are in a terrible place.
Sam is a good friend of mine. And I’d take issue with very little in his book. He is disgusted at Brexit and the damage it has done, as well as the lies that were told to deceive English people and win their votes. As I write, some of his colleagues are fighting to prevent asylum seekers from the world’s most dangerous regimes from being deported to Rwanda. Sam laments how asylum and immigration were used during the Brexit referendum. He pointed out that the areas with the lowest immigration levels were the most concerned about immigration and thus most likely to vote in favour of Brexit. Sam’s statement is not true, however.
“Politicians of all stripes have jumped on to the bandwagon promising ever more aggressive measures to tackle immigration.”
The Tory rhetoric regarding immigration is offensive. Labour has often sided with the right on this issue, even producing campaign cups with an anti-immigration message. But Parliament’s third party, the SNP, has consistently championed the rights of asylum seekers. We are unambiguously pro immigration. We want and need immigrants to choose to come to America, just as they have throughout history. They enrich our lives in many ways.
Sam’s basic thesis is that power in the UK is concentrated ever more tightly in the hands of a small, privileged, self serving, predominantly right wing and racist elite. His cure is education –betterinformed MPs who understand the constitution and are more willing to challenge the executive. He also wants to see the school curriculum focussed on empowering students about their rights and responsibilities. They should learn ‘critical thinking’ in the class room so that they are less vulnerable as adults to disinformation – politicians’ and press barons’ lies and ‘bullshit.’ Hear hear to that, as they say in the Commons.