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How Brexit is breaking the British constitution

Leavers are targeting all those deemed ideologically impure: MPs, the judiciary and the civil service.

In 1945, after Winston Churchill proposed holding a referendum on the extension of the wartime coalition, his then deputy, Clement Attlee, replied: "I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions." The Labour leader feared that such an act would subvert the UK’s delicate, unwritten constitution.

Two referendums - on the European Economic Community in 1975 and on AV in 2011 - would eventually follow. But the EU vote on 23 June 2016 was the first that did not affirm the status quo. As Attlee warned, this act of direct democracy is upending once cherished traditions.

For decades, eurosceptics revered the UK's unwritten constitution: its sovereign parliament, its independent judiciary, its neutral civil service. But an alternative centre of power - the people - has now been established. Rather than their loyalty to the constitution, institutions are now judged according to their loyalty to the demos (nearly half of whom voted to Remain).

Brexiteers hailed the resignation of EU ambassador Ivan Rogers, one of the UK's few European experts, on the grounds that he was insufficiently pro-Leave. "No organisation has done more to give away our democratic rights than the Foriegn Office," declared Nigel Farage. "They've been doing it for decades and I very much hope that Sir Ivan is the first of many to go."

There is no evidence that Rogers was seeking to block Brexit. Rather, he warned that it could take 10 years to finalise a UK-EU trade deal (a view echoed by other experts). It is not, after all, in Britain's gift to determine how long the negotiations take. That depends on 27 others (all the more reason, perhaps, to value someone who understands them). But Roger's successor will seemingly be valued for ideological purity, rather than expertise. Ministers, including Boris Johnson, are reported to believe that the next ambassador must be someone who backs Brexit "wholeheartedly". A government source tells the Telegraph that Theresa May wants the next ambassador to be someone with the "same attitude [to Brexit] as the current government."

Yet as Rogers notes in his leaked email to Foreign Office staff: "The great strength of the UK system - at least as it has been perceived by all others in the EU - has always been its unique combination of policy depth, expertise and coherence, message coordination and discipline, and the ability to negotiate with skill and determination. UKRep has always been key to all of that. We shall need it more than ever in the years ahead."

The Brexiteers' Bennite-esque dismissal of the "neutral" civil service is of a piece with their attitude towards parliament and the judiciary. When the High Court ruled that MPs must vote on the triggering of Article 50, its judges were branded "enemies of the people". The Ukip leadership candidate Suzanne Evans suggested that they should be "subject to some kind of democratic control". Communities Secretary Sajid Javid warned of "an attempt to frustrate the will of the British people".

The elected Commons is no more respected. There is only one parliament that is currently guaranteed a say on the final Brexit deal - and it is not the British one. Brussels' much-maligned MEPs, unlike MPs, are assured a vote.

Like past revolutionaires, the Brexiteers are seeking to remake national institutions in their own image. But as they contend with the biggest task facing any government since 1945, they may yet regret their dismissal of accumulated wisdom.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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