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Sorry, David Davis, but there are MPs willing to stand up to the Brextremists

MPs from all parties are not prepared to let this government sideline Parliament. 

When is a “concession” not a concession? When it concedes nothing, satisfies nobody and annoys everyone. In normal times, it’s hard to imagine any competent government even considering such an utterly meaningless, blatantly transparent sham as what was put before Parliament last night by David Davis under the guise of giving MPs a “meaningful vote” on Brexit. But these are not normal times, and this government is about as far from competent as it’s possible to imagine.

Despite Davis’s increasingly forlorn attempts to assert otherwise, the offer put before Parliament yesterday would not give MPs a meaningful vote on the Brexit withdrawal agreement, or allow Parliament to properly express its wishes. Instead, it would present us with a fait accompli, a deal already stitched up behind closed doors, for MPs to simply rubber-stamp. Our “meaningful vote” would in reality be a choice between saying yes to the government’s deal, no matter how damaging the terms for our country, or saying no and watching our country crash out of the EU with no deal, which would be even worse. And if the government were to fail to reach a deal with the EU, an outcome that looks increasingly possible, then Parliament would be denied any kind of say at all.

The irony of yesterday’s farcical attempt at a “concession” is that there are numerous sensible proposed amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, including a number put forward and supported by Conservative MPs such as Dominic Grieve, which the government could have got behind instead. Amendment 7, for example, would actually allow Parliament a real, meaningful say over the final withdrawal arrangements. Amendment 3 would limit the scope of the government to make sweeping changes to laws using arcane Henry VIII powers without properly consulting Parliament. Amendment 8 would retain the Charter of Fundamental Rights that codifies and protects many of our key rights as citizens.

Instead, the government has chosen an entirely uncompromising and self-defeating path, pandering to the hard Brextremists. Other than the sham offer put forward by Davis yesterday, the government’s main intervention on the EU Withdrawal Bill so far has been to put down an amendment specifying the exact date and time of our withdrawal from the EU as 11pm on the dot on 29 March 2019 (that’s midnight in Brussels). This amendment serves absolutely no useful purpose whatsoever, other than to mollify Brexit extremists like John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg. It even undermines the government’s own negotiating strategy, as set out in the Prime Minister’s Florence speech, which emphasised flexibility over dogmatic lines-in-the-sand. And now ministers are undermining their own amendment by seeking the power to change the date of withdrawal via statutory instrument.

So where do we go from here? Well, the government has made a rod for its own back, and the coalition of MPs and peers willing to put the good of their country before party loyalty or feverish ideological dogma is growing ever larger. The line by line consideration of EU Withdrawal Bill by MPs started today, and there are already more than 400 proposed amendments. As much as the government has tried desperately to sideline Parliament, now is the time for us to have our say and shape this process. There is clearly no majority in Parliament for a “no deal” outcome that would be catastrophic for this country’s future.

It’s worth remembering that, during the referendum, it was the Leave side that were campaigning vociferously for a return of “parliamentary sovereignty” through a vote to leave the EU. Ironically, those very same hard Brexit ideologues now insist Parliament shouldn’t have a say, that MPs shouldn’t have any influence over the process, and that we shouldn’t even be allowed to scrutinise the impact of Brexit on our constituents. But many MPs from different parties, myself included, are in complete agreement: Brexit must not be manipulated into a way to diminish or dilute the crucial role of our Parliament. We - on behalf of those we represent - are determined to have our say.

By Chuka Umunna MP, leading supporter of Open Britain


Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

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Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist