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9 January 2019

Letter of the week: failures of parliament

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

By New Statesman

Your Brexit coverage is ignoring what may be considerable damage to the UK constitution. The referendum and particularly its immediate aftermath signalled a profound change. Before the Brexit referendum parliamentary sovereignty was unchallenged. After it, parliament should have reasserted its authority. The stage was reached that even to say parliament was sovereign invited being called a traitor to the new sovereign power, the people.

Since then, there’s been a struggle and the British parliament has failed to perform as the constitution requires. A sovereign parliament would heed the people and then decide. Today’s parliament is looking to the people (in a possible second referendum) not for advice but for a decision. The people are being made sovereign but without deliberation and decision, and without constitutional rules. There is no written constitution to amend in order to transfer sovereignty to the people, provide for referendums and circumscribe what they may decide.

Dr Colum McCaffery
Lucan, Dublin, Ireland

Brexit amnesia

Your leader “A bad year for Brexit” (4 January) is timely. It has led me to ask, “Is this country suffering from a bout of national amnesia?”

Let us recall the facts. After Ukip’s successful result in the 2014 European elections, a group of anti-EU Conservative MPs approached David Cameron, telling him that the rise of Ukip under Nigel Farage was a grave threat to their seats. What was he going to do about it? At its heart was a 40-year-old internal Conservative Party squabble: to stay in the EU or leave it.

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Instead of seeing them off, Cameron rather unwisely (and cowardly) promised them a referendum as a solution. In effect, this transferred what was in essence an internal Tory civil war into a decision for the British electorate. Yet with clever sleight of hand it was not presented to the electorate as such. The Referendum Bill passed parliament but, because of his coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron was unable to put a date on his referendum. His majority win in the general election of 2015 made this possible.

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Theresa May as Prime Minister has cleverly shied away from confronting her ultra-Europhobic MPs and produced a deal that apparently satisfies very few parliamentarians. Her take-it-or leave-it offer appears to be leading us to a no deal of catastrophic consequences.  The solution lies within parliament. Let an amendment be put to the vote: to remain within the EU or leave.

Dr Andrew Richardson

As the Brexit drama grinds inexorably to some form of conclusion (or not) it is worth taking stock and identifying the causes of both the never-ending row that we in the UK are enjoying and the corresponding mayhem engulfing much of the rest of Europe. It may take another 40 years for clarity to emerge but only then will we be fully informed and confident enough to face the rigours of another referendum.

The fine-tuning of globalisation that has taken place over the past generation or so has enabled businesses in rich countries, desperate to cut their wage bills, to progress from exporting jobs to poor countries to importing cheap labour from those countries instead. Hard-up locals inevitably resent being undercut by even poorer outsiders, while businesses and governments hold their noses in the air and pretend it is nothing to do with them.

Forty years ago, Tony Benn memorably described the EEC as a “bankers’ racket” and advised against having anything to do with it. The present EU, with its concomitant currency, is even worse now than it was then and has facilitated asset–stripping by the global financial “industry” on a supranational scale not seen since the days of imperial plunder, battering most of southern Europe into submission in the process.

The Greater Europe project envisaged by some of the more swivel-eyed elements in Brussels is doomed and always was, and in years to come tourists will gaze at the tumbleweed drifting through the abandoned edifices of the EU and wonder at the folly of it all. It will turn out to have been as demented an experiment as the Soviet one was – so perhaps we won’t need another referendum after all.

Martin Kennedy
London W1

George Eaton writes (“Will Brexit actually happen in 2019?”, 4 January)  that a second referendum would “further undermine parliamentary sovereignty”.

I disagree: in my view, for parliament to call a second referendum would be a useful assertion of its position.

Events following the referendum show that a binary choice on a question of principle is inadequate for addressing complex issues of international obligations and trading arrangements.

Like it or not, referendums are here to stay. If the people vote on a principle at the start of the process, then a further vote on the details of a proposed outcome is their necessary entitlement.

Chris Priest
New Malden, Greater London

The right stuff

Beyond Brexit, Paul Mason points to what is likely to be the biggest concern of 2019, the rise of the far and fascist right across Europe (“Will the far right triumph in Europe?”, 4 January). That will, as he notes, be reflected in elections for the EU Parliament in May. Whether Britain participates or not, the attempted lash-up between Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s (aka Tommy Robinson) street fighters, Ukip and some figures on the Tory hard right suggest that opposing racism here will be a major task for the left, however defined, this year.

Keith Flett
London N17

Best of British

Anna Leszkiewicz’s article on the changing shape of television (“Are TV channels irrelevant?”, 4 January) made for interesting reading. But one significant factor glossed over by most commentators discussing the shift towards “the Netflix model” is that all the most popular programmes on British TV – from Bodyguard and Call the Midwife to Strictly Come Dancing and I’m a Celebrity – are British-made. In fact, American imports barely figure in the UK’s Top 100 most-watched programmes.

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of original content on the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime is American in origin. So, if the traditional UK broadcasters really are under threat, where is the British telly that viewers actually prefer going to come from in future? Or will market forces see television gradually surrendering to the same US cultural hegemony as cinema? I hope not.

Paul Kirkley
Histon, Cambridgeshire

Era of the camera

Helen Lewis is right to cite the importance of Susan Sontag’s On Photography (Out of the Ordinary, 4 January) but mass photography had started long before the book’s publication in 1977. The Kodak camera was first sold in 1888 and the Brownie in 1900. Leica introduced the 35mm camera, the Leica 1, in 1925; this, with the Rollieflex of 1929, made probably the greatest contribution to the manufacture of easily carried cameras during the 20th century, in turn enabled by the emerging film formats that made them possible.

However, it could be argued that the family album began to decline in importance after the introduction of digital imaging. The physical album enabled families to share their memories in a social context, but many of the images stored digitally will probably never be seen by anyone other than the person who took them.

From my experience, the photos I make on film are often far better than the ones made digitally – they need more thought and better “seeing”.

David Cockayne
Lymm, Cheshire

What came before?

The terms pre-ordering and pre-existing are belated recognition of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (Correspondence, 4 January). It is a delusion to believe our decisions are founded upon reason. We are driven by our will, a blind, non-rational impulse that is present in all nature and in every fibre of our being: we may do what we will, but we cannot will what we will. We may order what we choose but we cannot choose that we will order: the will to order was pre-existing, just as the will to write this letter was, though in choosing its content I delude myself into thinking that I have chosen to write it. I trust that makes everything clear.

Michael McManus

In reference to Martin Eade’s letter, I take his point, however surely the “pre-” prefix is used in relation to a relevant event. For example, I can order a book at any time but if I order it before publication (the event), it is a pre-order.

Similarly, if I attempt to claim on a medical insurance policy with regard to an existing condition, that would be fine but not if it was “pre-existing” before I took out the policy.

Lou George
Kendal, Cumbria

Sound hound

As always, John Burnside’s Nature column (4 January) was both fascinating and poignant – but he needn’t wait until a visit to Papua New Guinea to hear the haunting call of a singing dog: there’s a recording of a (captive) one at:

While he’s on the internet, I recommend he also seek out the terrifying night call of a Manx shearwater: something so sinister that, according to Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, it helped prompt a young man out on a camping trip to become a priest.

Chris Simms
Marple, Greater Manchester

Essex appeal

As I stack yet another box of NS in the loft, I note with dismay the increase in the former editor’s impressions of how and where he lives (First Thoughts). This time last year I had hopes that the record of the previous two years – three mentions and then two – would progress down to one, which would be enough to satisfy all the new subscribers. However this was not to be, as Peter Wilby let slip his residential circumstances on five occasions last year.

KC Gordon
Llanllechid, Gwynedd

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This article appears in the 09 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown