Theresa May blaming Parliament for her failures reveals her distaste for democracy and inability to keep her ship afloat, argues Morgan Daniels
Theresa May’s address to the nation on 20 March was at once spectacularly banal and faintly chilling. The speech contained no new information, no substance, no insight, yet it was designed as a grandstanding spectacle, a televised appeal to ‘You, the public’ - one which saw the prime minister attack Parliament as a whole for stymieing Brexit whilst framing herself as a frustrated champion of the people.
The paranoid, Trump-esque register in which May spoke was typical of a politician who has never much liked democracy. This is the same prime minister, after all, who launched airstrikes on Syria without parliamentary approval; ensured local journalists were locked in a room during a trip to Cornwall on the election trail in 2017; and has twice refused to resign after suffering landslide defeats in Parliament on her flagship policy. We might well characterise May’s style of government as inept authoritarian.
Democracy has been in for quite the rough ride during this extended political crisis. Indeed if Theresa May’s solution to the impasse is for Parliament to keep on voting until they get the right answer, the most pronounced anti-Brexit voice, the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign, is offering something similar, calling on us all to have another go at a referendum because we just didn’t properly understand what was going on last time around.
I say Theresa May’s solution, but this is also the EU’s solution, and it is clear that by now the crisis has reached a stage familiar, for instance, to the Irish electorate, who were told to vote again four months after failing to ratify the constitutional updating of the EU, the Lisbon Treaty, in a referendum in June 2009. The extension of Article 50 on offer to the UK, until 22 May, is conditional on Parliament voting through an already twice-rejected deal - something that would be undemocratic in its very essence.
No wonder the central concern that the late Tony Benn had with European supranationalism was always a democratic one. In a famous speech to the House of Commons in 1991, shortly before the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, Benn put it like this:
I have always thought it as positive to say that the important thing about democracy is that we can remove without bloodshed the people who govern us.
We can get rid of a Callaghan, a Wilson or even a Right Hon. Lady by internal processes. We can get rid of a Right Hon. Member for Huntingdon [John Major]. But that cannot be done in the structure that is proposed. Even if one likes the policies of the people in Europe one cannot get rid of them.
We can get rid of a May, too; Benn’s words remind us that a general election is the correct way out of the present mess. Yet let us be clear that it is not because of the incompetent handling of Brexit negotiations that we should be calling for an end to this government: May might have come back from Brussels with a rotten deal, but as a reason for her removal from office it is as nothing compared to the record levels of child poverty (say), or the callous deportation of members of the Windrush generation. What deluded nonsense it was for the prime minister to tell us: 'I am on your side'.