Depart, I say; and let us have done with you

Well, thank goodness they have gone home. It is a zombie Parliament which in the past two and a half years has managed to achieve nothing, and has paralysed itself with a proxy war – arguing over Brexit issues as an excuse for argument on domestic matters left unaddressed.

Cromwell ejected the Long Parliament with pike and musket, and his words are famously given

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you .

A longer version of his speech sounds very familiar to our own days though:

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice. Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government. Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

…..

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse. Gold is your God. Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone!

They will not be missed these next weeks. The only regret is that when they assemble again, it will be the same venal mob with little hope of their repentance in the interim.

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If it prosper

A smug self-satisfaction is detectable a mile off, but it is ill-placed. Grandees and those who assume they are grandees may sneer at the Boris Johnson ministry and call the Prime Minister all sorts of names, some of which may be justified, but to treat him as a temporary annoyance to be picked off like a scab is self-delusion. A former Chancellor of the Exchequer speaks in the House as if he still commanded its hushed attention, and his equally displaced colleagues gather as if they were a cabinet in waiting.  They are not.

It is a vision which suits a former minister’s sense of self-worth: to pretend that Boris Johnson and his team are a small, insurgent gang occupying for a time seats too big for him, and that in time common sense and the natural order will reassert themselves.  Then when the playful cheekiness has run its course, they will step up again to the places ordained for them since the beginning of the age. In that picture, all they have to do is remain apart, aloof, and wait for the invitation to return to much acclaim.

It is vanity. None has the right to rule: not they nor even their party.

Boris Johnson commands the support of the great majority of his colleagues. and of the wider party. His is not the temporary insurgency but the Leader of the Conservative Party, and it is proving popular nationally.

A self-justifying point now by the blue rebels is that Boris Johnson, by removing one wing of the party is changing its nature.  Philip Hammond has gone as far as to say that an “extreme right-wing faction” is taking over. However there are no facts to support this statement. Boris Johnson has not torn a wing off the party: only 21 MPs were cast out and they are mostly true-blue Thatcherites, like Boris Johnson, and several less liberal than him.  No MP had the whip withdrawn for being the wrong shade of blue, nor for merely voting against the government: the whip was withdrawn for disabling the government by handing control of the business of the House to others.  Gelding a Conservative government earned the boot, not a label. The Conservatives in the House who still have the whip are a more diverse bunch than those who lost it. The most liberal Tory members are still under the whip: they did not vote to hand Mr Corbyn control of the House not to hand Brussels our national negotiating position. The most liberal Tory members did not conspire with foreign powers to disable their own government’s position.

A more sensible view might be expected form an old stager. Kenneth Clarke is one of the few senior Conservatives always to have supported the ambitions of the Projet européen so his disdain is expected.  His expression for Boris Johnson was as “a rather knockabout sort of character, who’s got this bizarre crash-it-through philosophy”.  In many decades of distinguished service in politics, Mr Clarke should be aware of something the rest of us, outside the bubble, know – that if you stand still and wait, you do not get to the finishing line, and the world will move on without you, or over you, but if you crash ahead then the world must run to catch you up. His old order is indolence: cast it out and crash through to achieve, just as Margaret Thatcher did.

Voting against the government line is all part of parliamentary politics and a fine Tory tradition, but trying to overthrow a Conservative government’s authority, trying to discredit its members and suggesting that a loony Marxist could step in to help: those are beyond the pale. (It is like those French Royalists who assisted the Jacobins to attack the Girondins, regardless of the consequence, that they placed their own heads in the guillotine.)

As to those few of the rebels who travelled to Europe and openly conspired with a hostile foreign power to overthrow British interests, who could have believed, before this current political meltdown, that any patriotic Conservative could even conceive of doing so?

All this is incomprehensible unless the rebels really believe that they are the government in waiting, ready to be called back, because if they were then they have Sir John Harington’s verse in their minds:

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason

They are a small group. They cannot prosper.

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Court of Session prorogation case: full judgment published

In the matter of the Petition of Joanna Cherry and 78 others for judicial review of Her Majesty’s prorogation of Parliament, I find as follows:

That the petitioners tae hae brought sic a matter afore this court is a scandalous proceeding close tae contempt. There is nae even a shadow o’ a trial ‘ere fur this court, and yon petitioners, hae they but half an ounce o’ sense atween them knew that fur th’ gey beginnin’ – and as learned counsel sit amangst them I have nae doot they knew it, yet they came here for a’ that. They have wasted their ain time, for which I presume they reckon nae value, but wi’ all they have wasted the time o’ this court, o’ the clerks and staff o’ the court and, whilk is worse, my time, in pursuing a ludicrous case for nae more than their ain vanity. This is the noblest court of law i’ the land, no a billboard for a cheap show at the Fringe.

The De’il tak ye a’. The only winners here are th’ lawyers, who appear here in stoatin force and, I hae nae doubt, at stoatin expense, and one I see among them most famous for these japes in London: see you, Maugham – it’s Jolyon by name; on a jolly by nature, is it? Filling your purse for the exploitation o’ gullible fools is an advocate’s business, so I’ll say nae word against ye.

A word these bampots should learn: ‘non-justiciable’; and this matter is as non-justiciable as any pile o’ crud ever to hae disgraced my court, and nae sense o’ false outrage will mak it otherwise. Here we deal wi’ law, and ‘unlawful’ disnae mean ‘what I don’t like’. I must repeat how many times I must, by the way: this a court of law wi’ dread authority o’er a’ for the benefit of a’: it is nae the St Andrew’s Undergrad Debating Society.

Ah’m heavy ragin’, at ye, so I am. Awa wi ye. Ah wull nae bear tae see yer dunderheided, snowflake faces i’ my courtroom a minute longer. If ye want to tak’ yersel’s off to the Inner House, well ye kin gie them a chance tae roar at ye tae.

Books

Gaius Cassius and Cingonius Varro

Tacitus refers to an incident in the days of Nero which tells us a great deal about democratic and demagogic politics.  In his Annals of Imperial Rome (Book XIV) he writes of what followed when, in AD 61, the Prefect of the City, Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of his household slaves.  By the ancient law of Rome there was collective responsibility and if a slave murdered his master, all the slaves of the household must be put to death.  Pedanius though had a vast household of slaves; men, women and children.  As Tacitus relates:

The city prefect, Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of his own slaves; either because he had been refused emancipation after Pedanius had agreed to the price, or because he had contracted a passion for a catamite, and declined to tolerate the rivalry of his owner.

Be that as it may, when the whole of the domestics who had been resident under the same roof ought, in accordance with the old custom, to have been led to execution, the rapid assembly of the populace, bent on protecting so many innocent lives, brought matters to the point of sedition, and the Senate House was besieged. Even within its walls there was a party which protested against excessive harshness, though most members held that no change was advisable.

Gaius Cassius then spoke against the instinct of the crowd, giving a speech which as related by Tacitus was long on the wisdom of tradition and his respect for ancient precedent.  He defended the old law and the need to ensure certainty in the law, notwithstanding the inevitable individual injustice in pursuit of common advantage.  Cassius used reductio ad absurdum to counter excuses suggested and then stoked fear of foreign practices, concluding:

“Is it your pleasure to muster arguments upon a point which has been considered by wiser minds than ours? But even if we had now for the first time to frame a decision, do you believe that a slave took the resolution of killing his master without an ominous phrase escaping him, without one word uttered in rashness? Assume, however, that he kept his counsel, that he procured his weapon in an unsuspecting household. Could he pass the watch, carry in his light, and perpetrate his murder without the knowledge of a soul? A crime has many antecedent symptoms. So long as our slaves disclose them, we may live solitary amid their numbers, secure amid their anxieties, and finally — if die we must — certain of our vengeance amid the guilty crowd.

“To our ancestors the temper of their slaves was always suspect, even when they were born on the same estate or under the same roof, and drew in affection for their owners with their earliest breath. But now that our households comprise nations — with customs the reverse of our own, with foreign cults or with none, you will never coerce such a medley of humanity except by terror. — ‘But some innocent lives will be lost!’ — Even so; for when every tenth man of the routed army drops beneath the club, the lot falls on the brave as well. All great examples carry with them something of injustice — injustice compensated, as against individual suffering, by the advantage of the community. ”

Cassius prevailed and Caesar held the crowd back with soldiers while the slaves were led to execution.  Then comes the interesting part:

Cingonius Varro had moved that even the freedmen, who had been present under the same roof, should be deported from Italy.

The measure was vetoed by the emperor, lest gratuitous cruelty should aggravate a primitive custom which mercy had failed to temper.

This little vignette contains the familiar stages of a public outrage: an event and judgment; an outcry of pity from the public for the victims; calling for an exception to the execution of a harsh law; then follows a defence of the law (by Cassius), counter-arguments just as persuasive; and opinion swings back again; then as opinion has snapped back to Cassius, up stands Varro, who has concluded that harshness is the idea of the moment, and he tales it to an extreme. Varro’s demand to punish not only all the slaves but also all the free men of the household contradicts the argument of Cassius to uphold the law:  he thinks he feels the mood and rides on it to extremism.

The extreme reaction of Varro won the Senate, but the Emperor issued his ‘I forbid’ (‘veto’).  Even Nero, of all people, considered Cingonius Varro too cruel.

Little is written about Cingonius Varro.  Later Tacitus describes him as “corrupt and venal” (and by Roman standards, that is something) and Nero favoured him enough that in AD 68 he was designated Consul for the following year but instead he was executed after Nero was murdered, for conspiring with an adventurer to seize power. Varro is only known therefore for a fatal political adventure and for his call to extremism.

Cassius made an unworthy speech but could argue that his relentlessness was upholding the law.  Varro has no such excuse.

I heard a story from someone who was just learning to fly, which requires delicate balance:

I was up in a towed gyroglider, which I had never experienced before. I put the stick to left and the beast rolled accordingly, then to go back to level flight I put the stick to the right, but I shot past level and out the other side. I panicked and shoved the stick harder to the left again, and the roll increased, and then to the right even more as I tried to get level. Then the instructor calmly told me to let go, and the craft levelled on its own. I had caused “pilot induced oscillation”, which is in all the manuals but I had never experienced it so heavily.

So it is with political argument: to counter an argument veering dangerously, you may just achieve the opposite danger, and raising your argument will induce a violent oscillation, when it is moderation which is needed.

Frequently in political argument, a voice of compassion, or feigned compassion, speaks, Gaius Cassius retorts but it is Varro who wins the day.  It is a sickness not of our own time but of all time.

There must be laws, and sometimes they are harsh: sometimes through being badly written and sometimes just because they must be unforgiving in order to be comprehensible and effective. Roman laws were cruel, based on a pagan philosophy (and one which praised their gods of rule and war above others); our laws are based, or were, on Christian values of love and service, although there will be harsh cases. There is less scope for Gaius Cassius to celebrate the death of hundreds, but plenty of scope for Cingonius Varro to subvert an argument to make a judgment more cruel.

Whenever I read of demagogues in the forum or in Parliament taking arguments to extremes, it is not their voice I hear but that of Cingonius Varro.

Books

Quid pro quo: repeal Section 13

To get over the initial objections to what I am to say: yes, the motives of MPs voting to seize the House last night have a mixture of motives, and many who speak claiming one motive are hypocrites of the worst sort; saying they just want to avoid a no-deal but actually wanting to cancel Brexit entirely. Others genuinely just want to avoid no-deal while accepting the principle of Brexit, but by their actions so far have made a deal less possible. Others, the majority of Labour, will just vote against anything a Tory government wants. Some Conservative (or ex-Conservative) rebels have a personal beef with Boris Johnson and have fooled themselves about their motives. They are not daft, but may be too much in their own worlds to see or want to see the consequences.

Very well then, if the motive is to ensure that a deal is done (as the ‘Ayes’ claimed yesterday), make a positive move, not a negative one: Repeal Section 13.

Section 13 of the European Union Withdrawal Act requires the approval of the House of Commons to any withdrawal agreement and political declaration. Had it not been for Section 13, Mrs May would have signed her deal in February and we would have completed Brexit cleanly on 29 March 2019 with a deal, albeit a bad one. Section 13 is therefore the main factor in causing a probable no-deal therefore, and must go.

Mrs May’s deal was rejected by a weird coalition of Labour being difficult, the ERG ‘Spartans’ and the DUP opposing the terms, and Remainiac members. With no withdrawal agreement, Britain headed for a dealless exit, hence the delay which sealed Mrs May’s political death warrant. Now the numbers are worse, but the ERG may be aboard.

The rebels of last night should be ready to sign a new deal if it emerges, and their rhetoric suggest just that. Philip Hammond laboured Boris Johnson not on Brexit as a whole but on whether there is a deal in progress and Boris responded that it is only Parliament getting in the way. Those points of view are not opposites but variations on a theme. Both Johnson and Hammond want a deal, and Hammond claims to accept the principle of Brexit. Others I have spoken to personally say the same and sound convincing.

Therefore, it is in the interests of both sides to authorise the government to sign a deal. Repeal Section 13, delegate to the government the authority it needs to do what the House has demanded.

Labour will vote against, as they always do, and the Liberal Democrats and Renainiacs will oppose because they want to block Brexit. Of the others who blocked Mrs May’s deal before, the ERG and DUP can better trust Boris Johnson and his team to get the right deal. Last night’s rebels should be content too, if they are genuine in their motives. Those who were once in the government voted against Section 13 when it was proposed as an amendment by Starmer, Grieve and the Remainers. Let them now vote against it again.

Let us put that to the test and see if they are genuine: will they move to repeal the one proven block against settling a deal? Repeal Section 13.

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