Many pundits will be gleefully tweeting this week some variant on Parliament “taking back control” – of Brexit, of government or of the country. But this refrain is tiresome and misses the point of the referendum.
Peterloo is quite a dull film. Its settings are mostly drab, many characters are unsympathetic, and the final riot is anticlimactic.
Among the film’s most glaring flaws is the cartoonish portrayal of all the poshos as psychopaths or idiots. Tim McInnerny’s turn as the prince regent, later George IV, even evokes his time in Blackadder, which generally showed aristocrats as the latter.
The feting of Mike Leigh, Peterloo’s director, by Corbynites and progressives is thus intuitive enough, and more so than the attempts by some to recast Peterloo as a significant event in British history worth including in school curriculums.
But in attacking the ruling political, military and judicial elites as variously out of touch, callous or careless, the film is convincingly pro-Brexit, in spite of Leigh’s implication that “intelligent, working people” were misled in the referendum.
The central complaint of the film is that working people need more say over their lives, and particularly that all men should be given the vote (and perhaps even women).
This is the same call for British “sovereignty” (read: lawmaking powers) to be returned from Brussels, and for Westminster politicians to stop pursuing policies that clash with voters’ wishes.
Anti-democracy campaigners may be less sneering today than their forebears, but they are just as convinced that they know best, and that people of quality – previously breeding, now education – should take decisions on behalf of the great unwashed mass of thickies.
Nothing drawn from watching Peterloo would incline you to agree.
Those interested in parliamentary culture, and particularly how its affects the legislature’s ability to check the government, should read Chris Mullin’s recent article in the London Review of Books.
The former Sunderland South Labour MP notes the shrinking window for parliamentary business as Commons members increasingly retreat to their constituencies to handle casework after prime minister’s questions on Wednesday afternoon.
As he puts it: ‘I’m in favour of constituency-based MPs. That’s not the problem. I was one myself. I wonder, however, if the balance has tipped too far. Scrutiny of the executive is what Parliament is supposed to be about.’
On the flipside, he notes speaker John Bercow’s generous granting of ‘urgent questions’, which call a minister before the Commons, and the rise of ‘select committees’, which can investigate widely and call important people to testify – though as Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings has proved, those summoned can refuse.
Though much has changed, Parliament retains a few oddities, not least in its refusal to implement electronic voting for members. However, as Mullin points out, this does offer the chance for interaction in the division lobbies between ministers and MPs, the former ‘unaccompanied by an entourage.’
As the piece attests, parliamentary life, much like the Palace of Westminster, is a tad ramshackle, with the new grafted messily to the old. For the foreseeable I find it unlikely that the legislature, and moreso the British constitution, will alter its reforming habits.
‘Anxiety about the future is part of the Western condition,’ John Bew, professor in history and foreign policy, told an audience at King’s College London on Tuesday.
Bew was speaking at his inaugural lecture for the university about his emerging study into the Anglo-American view – or rather views – on ‘world order’, as well as their pursuit of it in relation, or sometimes opposition, to the interests of both Britain and America.
His contention is that the pursuit of world order has been a ‘historical force’ in both the British and American empires, most notably in setting up the rules that have somewhat governed international affairs since the Second World War.
Bew emphasised that ‘world order’ was not merely imperialism or self interest pursued under another guise. Indeed, he argued that at times national interest clashed with visions of world order, including in the interwar period that led to the failed League of Nations.
What with the rise of China as an economic rival to the US and president Donald Trump attacking or eschewing many of the conventions of global governance, any notion of world order clearly has relevance in foreign policy discussions.
In the case of both Britain and the US, Bew claims that their shared understanding of Roman history made them fearful of barbarians approaching the gate.
The Chinese may be more sophisticated than ancient barbarians, but the country’s championing of its own form of capitalism still presents an alternative, and perhaps a threat threat, to the US-led Western view of how things should be run.
One audience member at the lecture raised the notion of more regional or multipolar governance, which looks a plausible successor to US dominance in the short term.
As Bew acknowledged, not everyone thinks the end is nigh. Citing the technological growth and raising living standards flagged by the likes of the academic Steven Pinker, Bew said: ‘There’s a very good argument that the world is not in crisis … but it’s certainly a conceptual crisis.’
That conceptual crisis has alarmed politicians and officials from Canberra to Warsaw. Whatever book Bew produces from his study, it should be worth a read.
The travails of the centrist remoaners at Renew continued at the recent local elections, with a defecting councillor James Cousins, formerly of the Tories, losing his seat in Shaftesbury, Wandsworth. The party retains two other defectors at seats in Barnard Castle and Portsmouth that were not contested earlier this month.
Cousins tried to put a gloss on it, saying in a press release: ‘Though squeezed by the two main parties in this major battleground [Wandsworth], we showed we can take votes away from them and be competitive against the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP. For example, Chris Coghlan won 10% of the vote in Balham.’
In fact in the Shaftesbury ward the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems all gained votes, with one Labour candidate only 36 votes off nicking a seat from the Tories. The only caveat was that turnout, both in relative and absolute terms, was higher. See the 2014 results here, and the 2018 results here. A similar story also emerged in the Balham ward between 2014 and 2018.
Snark aside, clocking up a few hundred votes in a few local councillors only a few months after setting up is not bad. But it is still rather bemusing that Renew continues to merit media attention, most recently a long read in the New Statesman.
Anoosh Chakelian, a staff hack at the leftish magazine, asks most of the right questions of the new party. Most compelling is why it needs to exist when its policy positions – anti-Brexit, centre right economics, centre left society – are shared by the Liberal Democrats.
‘The Lib Dems have got their own baggage which limits the way they can make an impact,’ says Renew volunteer Alan Victor. ‘If you’re new and fresh, you can start again from first principles.’
Perhaps so, but the Lib Dems did rather well at the locals, gaining 75 seats. The party also has a history of local campaigning, with at least some of the institutional memory, connections and infrastructure that goes with that.
As time goes on fewer are likely to care about the coalition years, that broken pledge on student tuition fees and former leader Tim Farron’s, er, conflicted stance on homosexuality. And if the Liberals claws back their outsider status, just what will the point of Renew be?