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7 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Leader: The Brexiteers’ war on British institutions

Rather than their loyalty to Britain’s unwritten constitution, institutions are now judged according to their loyalty to Brexit. 

By New Statesman

In the recent past, Eurosceptics revered British democracy: its sovereign parliament, its independent judiciary, its impartial civil service, its free press. However, the 2016 Brexit referendum created an alternative centre of power: the people. Rather than their loyalty to Britain’s unwritten constitution, institutions are now judged according to their loyalty to the demos (nearly half of whom voted Remain).

When British judges ruled in 2016 that parliamentary approval was required to invoke Article 50, they were denounced as the “enemies of the people”. The Brexiteers later sought to deny MPs a “meaningful vote” on the final EU withdrawal deal. Now, the civil service has been accused of seeking to undermine and even sabotage Brexit.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative chair of the European Research Group, has charged the Treasury with “fiddling the figures” in an attempt to keep the UK in the EU customs union. Steve Baker, a Brexit minister, apologised to MPs on 2 February for similarly accusing the civil service of political bias. Not for the first time the Brexiteers are blaming others for their own failings. Every respected independent forecaster has estimated that their project – withdrawal from the EU single market and customs union – will reduce economic growth (the only question being by how much). Yet rather than questioning their own policy, the Brexiteers impugn the civil service, which is cast not merely as wrong but malign.

Although the majority of civil servants are well known to have voted Remain, there is no evidence that they are seeking to thwart Brexit. Rather, they have maintained their duty to present ministers with inconvenient truths. “If you are selling snake oil, you don’t like the idea of experts testing your products,” observed Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary.

As Theresa May struggles to reach an agreed government position on Britain’s future relationship with the EU, the Brexiteers yearn for one of their own to take office. Mr Rees-Mogg, the most popular potential leader among Conservative Party members, is admired for his disdain for compromise.

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Yet whoever leads the Tories cannot escape two ineluctable truths. The first is that there is no stable majority in parliament for a “hard Brexit”. Having already defeated the government once (on the matter of a “meaningful vote”), Conservative rebels are not afraid to do so again. The second is that the Tory party is irretrievably divided by the Europe Question. A liberal wing that prioritises prosperity is in conflict with a reactionary wing that prioritises sovereignty (however narrowly defined).

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As the “natural party of government”, the Conservatives’ historic strength was their willingness to subordinate ideology to the preservation of power. However, the Brexiteers’ dogmatic conviction has left the British establishment at war with itself. For decades, Conservative leaders sought to defer the Europe Question, mindful of the demons that it would unleash. Their fears have been vindicated. The hard Brexiteers now threaten not only their party’s rule but the stability of the British state. 

Bring back the Booker Prize

The Man Booker Prize is in trouble again. As many as 30 editors from British publishing houses have signed a draft letter to the trustees of the Booker foundation, urging them to reverse the 2014 rule change that opened up the prize to all novels written in English. The new-look Booker, the signatories argue, enables “the dominance of Anglo-American writers at the expense of others”.

Coming after two consecutive American winners – Paul Beatty and George Saunders – the letter also suggests that the changes are not popular in the US, where readers valued the prize for introducing them to writers from the Commonwealth. It is too soon to say if this signals an American takeover, and it is worth noting that the novels by Beatty and Saunders were two of the most inventive in recent years. Yet the prize’s mission seems diluted, its international status weakened, its capacity to discover home-grown talent reduced.

In January the Booker showed its willingness to change the rules when it finally allowed Irish publishers to submit entries. The trustees should continue to listen to their critics and think again about the misguided decision to open this great prize to the Americans. 

This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry