I’m just returned from a public meeting, held by the Labour MP for York Central.
Rachael Maskell is a decent lass — a physio by trade, a trade union official by experience. She is doing her best.
Because of the upsets in the parliamentary party, she chose to side with the leadership (pro tem.). As a consequence of being one of the “stickies”, she ended up, over-promoted, with barely a twelve-month Commons experience, as the fully-fledged Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary. Again: she is clearly doing her best.
Both locally, and in the national press, she has let it be known — or any least not denied — she has difficulties with the Three-line Whip on Wednesday’s #Brexit vote. Equally, in her response to this evening’s meeting, she indicated she felt she needed to huddle close to the centre of what goes for “power” in the parliamentary party.
So to the meeting itself.
Rachael began with a (over-)long account of where she felt we were. I have to admit, try as I could, I had heard it all before. It was largely read from a script — which itself raises certain questions.
The followed a long string of speakers from the floor.
What was evident was:
- without exception, the tone went beyond regret and remain, into the pain and the angst of the thinking middle-classes;
- very few “new” points or issues arose;
- nobody was prepared to come out and defend the “leave” option;
- there was considerable distaste that the whole #Brexit charade had over-written, and was continuing to expunge the real problems of British life, welfare and economy.
More to the crunch:
- even the odd speaker who declared “support” for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership did so with regret and reluctance;
- more usually, there was complete scorn for the present leadership: this was met with more enthusiasm than much else on offer.
If Rachael was assuming there were Brownie-points for loyalty to the current leadership, this alone should have disabused her.
At some personal pain, I remained silent: not my usual posture at such gatherings.
Had I been disposed, my extended thoughts would go on these lines (though, for public consumption, a lot more abbreviated):
A Burkean bit
First I bear the tradition of Dublin University’s College Historical Society. When I was elected as Librarian (a pure honorific), I discovered I had responsibility for a series of well-locked glass cabinets. In there were the minutes and records of the “Hist”, back to its foundation. Which was back to “Burke’s Club” of the 1740s. The “Burke” in this context being none other than Edmund.
I find Burke a rank Tory, and eminently readable. At this juncture, nothing of his is as relevant as his Speech to the Electors of Bristol (3rd November 1774). His opponent had just promised to accept mandates from the electors.
... government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination …
… authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience, — these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.
In the core of that great speech is the well-known maxim:
Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Which is why I feel enormous sympathy — even some pity — for each and every MP who now has to choose a way through this mire.
Which leads into a second thought.
A horror from recent history
On the substantive motion of 18th March 2003, the House of Commons gave authority to use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair’s government majority there was 263 (412 to 149). 84 Labour MPs voted against, a further 69 abstained.
Had there been a referendum at that moment — and for months after — the British public would have largely backed Blair: YouGov polling, over 21 samplings, suggested 54-38 in favour of war. After all, the Tory media had told them to do so.
Yet we are now asked unquestioningly to “respect” a 51.9/48.1 Brexit split.
- There are arguments against a “Nay” vote on Wednesday’s #Brexit vote; but they more to do with parliamentary procedures than rights-and-wrongs. To vote “Nay” may apparently inhibit such voters from amending the Bill at a later stage. I’ll accept, too, that such a vote can be construed as a two-finger sign to the “Leavers” — and they have yet to learn the full consequences of their expressed wish.
2. However, to vote “Aye” is more perverse. None of us was clear last June what “Leave” might entail — except the dizzy promises of “£350 million a week for the NHS” and “Take back control”. We are still very much in the dark.
However, Theresa May has helped us to recognise what she expects. It amounts to:
- either the 26 members of the European Union bow to her will;
- or she kicks over the table, and walks out;
- and we are left to pay for the tantrum.
Abstain. Find an urgent family crisis in Aberystwyth. Be on a reciprocal to central Africa. Whatever.
But abstain. Even at the price of a Shadow Cabinet seat.