In August 1991, hardline elements in the army and KGB staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, shortly after Gorbachev had agreed to reorganise the USSR as a new confederation. To many this seemed like an end to the reforms that Gorbachev had brought, as the coup leaders appeared to have the support of the whole military. Yeltsin was defiant in Moscow, but those who remembered the Prague Spring probably thought the tanks would win out. Then the coup’s nominal leader, Gennady Yanayev, gave a press conference in which he looked nervous with his hands shaking, and it became clear that the coup leaders were meeting serious resistance. It collapsed shortly afterward.
I remembered this when watching the proponents of hard Brexit shout down any concern about what the government might agree following the EU referendum, and attack anyone who pointed out the difficulties that leaving the single market might bring. They too have carried out a sort of coup against parliamentary democracy, and maybe declaring judges enemies of the people is the equivalent of Yanayev’s shaking hand. They cannot quite believe what they have done, and fear it may all collapse when people realise what is going on. Our Prime Minister has had to draw on her faith in God to enable her to continue leading this coup.
If you think coup is too strong a word, think about what has happened. An advisory referendum decided by a very narrow majority to leave the EU. That is all this slim majority of the electorate decided. They did not vote to leave the single market (SM), partly because most leaders of the Leave campaign told us (correctly) that leaving the EU was quite compatible with staying in the SM. They did not vote to end freedom of movement. Leaving the EU is not one policy, but a whole range of possible policies with quite different effects, and the electorate have said nothing about their preferences among these possibilities. In short, the referendum was about the EU and not the SM, and whatever they say now we know that you can be in the SM without being part of the EU.
Yet a new government, with no mandate from the voters, has decided that only it should be allowed to interpret what leaving the EU should amount to, and the electorate through their representatives in parliament should have no say in the matter. The people, having indicated a change in direction, are to be allowed no say whatsoever in where exactly they are to be led. The differences between these alternative paths out of the EU are immense, and this choice on how exactly to leave the EU will have a huge impact on every citizen. Yet the people and their representatives are not even to be allowed to know what options the government are aiming for. (The OBR was even denied knowledge of how the government intending fulfilling its guarantees to Nissan.) The pretext for this coup, involving keeping their negotiating hand secret, is as thin as the Soviet coup’s claims that Gorbachev was unwell.
Any attempt at parliamentary control over what might happen is described as trying to stop Brexit. Why not seek to stay in the SM? Just asking that question means to the coup leaders that you are trying to stop Brexit (of course it does not). Why not see what might be on offer before starting the clock on being thrown out with nothing? That is just a delaying tactic, they say. Why not have a second referendum on the final deal? Finding out what the electorate thinks once that the exit deal is clear would be against the will of the people, they chime without irony. When you are told that consulting the people or their representatives is against the will of the people, you know there has been a kind of coup.
But I fear that in this case the coup leaders’ nervousness is unwarranted. Three judges have thrown MPs a lifeline, a chance to stop this coup, and MPs look like throwing it right back. Those Conservative MPs who know what damage this will do have decided they can do nothing to stop the Conservative party being taken over by fanatics. The Labour party appears pathetic: its leadership wanting exit from the SM for their own reasons (talking shamelessly about ‘access’ in the hope of muddying the water) and the PLP is more concerned about losing votes than improving their electorate’s welfare (it is the story of austerity all over again). They had a chance of coming together to lead the opposition to this coup and they have blown it. Instead of Boris Yeltsin, we have Tom Watson, who joins in the mantra that opposing triggering Article 50 is going against the will of the people.
And instead of courageous citizens of Moscow we have Labour party members saying it is best to bide time and work within for change. This timidity is obnoxious to see: they should instead be demanding their MPs take back control. It is their prosperity that will be diminished by this coup, their right to work in the EU taken away. It seems to me that approving Article 50 is the last chance for representative democracy to have its say. Once that vote is in the bag, the government can do what it likes and nothing can be certain to stop them. (A vote on any final deal is no choice, because the consequences of saying no will be far worse.)
So MPs are acting like turkeys voting for Christmas. They know that in all likelihood voting to trigger Article 50 will throw away their chance to stop the government ending our membership of the SM, thereby reducing their constituents access to public services and the chance to keep young people’s right to work in the EU. They will be handing all the levers of power to a government that seems to be run by a minority of fanatics. Is this what a once proud country has allowed itself to become? Is this what a parliament that once stood up to kings has been reduced to?