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Let’s take control! Brexit and sovereignty

Britain's unwritten constitution is broken. It has led us to the brink of Brexit, and must be replaced, whatever the result. The next chapter of Blimey, it could be Brexit!

With under two weeks to go before the referendum it is now clear that the English would like to leave the EU. With the help of the Scots and Northern Irish, a majority may decide they can’t afford to. The markets are showing signs of panic. A massive run on the pound might finally frighten voters who have so far brushed aside the massed warnings and alarms of the world order, global leaders and their advisors. Who cannot delight in witnessing such a collective refusal to be cowed, as a people defy elite instructions - even if media moguls who profit from divide and rule are egging them on?

Unlike those who predict that Brexit is now a certainty, I think the English have yet to decide with their heads what their hands will do on the ballot paper on 23 June. They may simply be making the government sweat before relenting in their judgment. But, in its heart, England has already made its choice. It prefers out.

The superficial reason for this is that in his heart, the prime minister also wants out. His official Remain campaign has not produced a good reason why we should want to be members of the EU apart from not being able to afford to leave – which is a way of agreeing that if we could afford to do so, we should. Cameron and Osborne say they would not trash the economy to cut down immigration from the EU. They do not say why free movement is a wonderful thing, especially if you are young and broke. Just a small example of the absence of positivity.

Leave say why they want our democracy back. Remain cannot say why they want our democracy to be shared. Remainers such as the prime minister have arguments about why “our power” and “our influence” are increased in the EU. They never inspire us with how desirable it is for us to change and become Europeans. While advocating staying in the EU their language is not about solidarity and sharing but about how Britain will continue to be different while profiting from membership. Our “great country” will be preserved by what Cameron calls the “special relationship” he has negotiated, which keeps us at arms length from the core of the European Union. Following his lead, the whole Remain campaign is formed by Great British egoism and is fundamentally nationalist conservatism.

So too are the Leave campaign’s argument for Brexit. It shares the same separatist mentality only is more unadulterated. Its leaders too call on the country to be Great Britain, in their case by freeing ourselves completely not partially from the EU and its regulation, its failed collectivism and inability to prevent us from being 'swamped' by immigrants. Leave’s politics are also Great British egoism and are fundamentally nationalist conservatism.

Neither wants the UK to be in the European Union as such, or for Britain to become more European.

I am not saying that Leave are genuinely positive except in a reckless fashion. They are small minded in their appeal to save our money, divisive if not racist in their use of the immigrant card, and exploitative in their scorn for regulation. I’m saying that the official Remain campaign is equally money-bags in its approach to the advantages of the EU, also regards migration as a problem not a positive, and trumpets its attacks on regulation. Both are fundamentally negative in their relationship to Europe. Leave have the advantage of being positively-negative, calling for trust in ourselves summed up in their slogan ‘Take Back Control’; whereas there is no such lure of agency in ‘Stronger, safer, better off in the EU’, the call of Remain.

Unlike Scotland where there is a different leadership, in England voters are being asked to choose between two forms of anti-Europeanism. In effect the question on the ballot paper is asking, ‘How antagonistic are you to the EU, a little or a lot?’ It is not surprising that the referendum has revived anti-Europeanism and a desire to Brexit.

Despite the best efforts of the Green Party and Another Europe is Possible, there is no third option that has caught the public imagination or been given significant media coverage. The main reason for this is that in their hearts too the Labour party and Labour movement also distrust the EU and do not feel European. They too support Remain for instrumental reasons, as a source of rights and other workers gains they feel too feeble to secure through their own strengths. Jeremy Corbyn says he is "about seven to seven and a half" out of 10 for the EU. It is an honest answer and that distinguishes him from the Prime Minister. But as well as being the opposite of inspiring, in the last fortnight of a momentous campaign it exhibits precisely a relationship of calculated balance of advantage that is anti-EU in spirit.

Gordon Brown has tried to make a positive case for Remain by calling on the country to “Lead not Leave” in the New Statesman and he has some gritty proposals. But his positioning suffers from two crippling weaknesses. David Cameron’s EU deal which the referendum will confirm if we vote Remain explicitly marginalises the UK from the centre of the EU’s affairs and disqualifies Britain from “leading” its development (as I show in Chapter 3). The whole point of Cameron’s effort was to separate the UK from any commitment to the EU as a collective endeavour. Brown has now been moved up to head the Remain campaign with a major speech, naturally - as most of the UK media has stopped reading for itself - no one is pointing out that the Brussels Treaty stipulates that Britain can't lead and must follow EU policy. This is in return for "ever closer union" not applying to the UK.

Second, Brown’s New Labour trope echoes Tony Blair’s obsession with projecting global power - and we all know what happened with that. It too is a form of Great British egoism that is fundamentally seeking to conserve the nation rather than being positive about Europe. Indeed, Blair and Mandelson have been advising the government’s Remain campaign and Brown’s intervention is a variant of Cameron’s.

Constitutional incompatibility

image, @letmelooktv: https://twitter.com/letmelooktv

If you are pro-Europe it is a dire situation. England and English sentiment is the driver of Brexit’s popularity. But why the absence of any counter vision? Especially given the actual existence of widespread pro-European feeling and affection across the land, something must be preventing its expression. Why is there no larger pro-European mobilisation supporting the appeal of Caroline Lucas? I was going to write, “supporting the appeal of, for example, Caroline Lucas” but I can think of no one else with any profile. Owen Jones, who is in effect now a political leader rather than a columnist, is making an impact in his warning against the racism and xenophobia of Brexit. His arguments are not wrapped in the Union Jack or unconvincing Great Britishness. But his positive arguments, like mine, are about joining forces with a European left that at present is far too remote to have any significant public traction.

There must be a larger shaping force that disables political expression of the country’s widespread, genuine pro-Europeanism that is also in many English hearts.

And there is. The force that shapes English-British revulsion from the European Union is constitutional incompatibility. This is an active field of force that frames debate. It pushes expressions of support for Europe towards saying Britain must change and as this is not on the agenda the argument falls away, understandably treated as irrelevant by the media.

The EU is more than an inter-governmental agreement like the World Trade Organisation, it is a multi-national entity seeking a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. It is a supra-governmental organisation, one that turned itself into a single legal entity with the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, and now has its own supreme court for the whole of Europe. I do not share the fatalism of the Leave chair Gisella Stuart, who I debated with on The Week in Westminster; I do not believe the EU will become a super-state, or that the euro will last. Nonetheless, even though the Lisbon Treaty does not describe itself as a constitution, it is one. It came out of a constitutional process, and the EU will continue to frame its own constitutional integrity.

The UK has an ancient constitution that is not codified. It is organised around a supposedly sovereign parliament supported by a common law tradition. It works thanks to flexible conventions that have checked and balanced the development of its powers over three hundred years. This inheritance has a profound impulse to preserve itself. It is now under incredible pressures. I will argue that it is broken. But it has had many blows before and has recovered: it was an aristocratic system that adopted the universal franchise to become a representative democracy; it was an imperial system that was stripped of its Empire. Today, its many internal flaws are combining in a way that in all probability puts the whole beyond repair and recovery. One thing is certain, however, whether or not the British constitution can survive the shockwaves of its internal earthquakes, it cannot long survive the external pressures of remaining within the European Union.

It was an aristocratic system that adopted the universal franchise to become a representative democracy; it was an imperial system that was stripped of its Empire

It is simple, and fundamental. A multi-national entity like the United Kingdom whose constitution is uncodified is bound to be fundamentally threatened by membership of a larger, multi-national entity that is dedicated to codifying itself. If its membership continues, its constitution will eventually be dissolved by it. The British state’s conventions, informal procedures and lack of defined sovereignty cannot withstand being inside the consolidation of the EU’s processes. Both the UK’s administrative legalism (as Jeremy Fox shows) and its political informality expose it utterly to the advance of the European Union’s constitutionalism.

This sounds abstract but is not. The Anglo-British have a long tradition of seeking to preserve their unique constitutional arrangements. The kingdom’s tradition has been, at least until New Labour, to alter as little as possible and take as long as possible doing so. It prides itself in this combination of flexibility and tradition that has ensured an unrivalled continuity.

The European Union, soon to be ten times the size of the UK, by contrast, has a short history of changing its arrangements in as fast and purposive a way as it can, despite its now great size. These are two different constitutional projects. The term sounds odd applied to UK. But it's a mistake to see the British regime, however ancient and pre-democratic it may be, as somehow feudal. On the contrary it emerged from the first modern revolution of 1688, after a regicidal civil war, as a cross-class, capitalist formation committed to development, improvement and money-making, without which it could never have hosted the industrial revolution. Britain remains a purposive country, with an old constitution that seeks to encompass new energies.

This historic Britain, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, cannot preserve its inherited constitutional settlement and culture within the European Union. The two are incompatible. This will be so even if the European Union discards the experiment of the Euro and seeks to become, as the phrase goes, a United Europe of States rather than a United States of Europe, which it will be well advised to do.

If Britain stays in, we face the prospect, over the coming decades, of membership of the EU dissolving the bonds that have reproduced the UK’s uncodified settlement; at the level of the nations, of rights, of legal systems, of sovereignty, of parliament. The political caste are acutely aware of this as it strikes at their existing powers and influence, hence their various forms of ‘Euroscepticism’. Regular folk don’t have so much to lose but instinctively – and rightly – the English know that if they want to stay British in the old way they have to leave the EU.

Democratic sovereignty

A challenge follows for those of us who do not want the Brexiteers, puffed up by the energies of populism, to steer the UK into open water with a command system of parliamentary absolutism at their disposal. We need to embrace the opportunity of staying with the EU to initiate a more honest form of membership for the UK: we have to constitutionalise our own nations if we want it to be part of the constitutional space of the European Union. We will also need a democratic constitution to protect ourselves if the Brexiteers win. In or out, a pro-European strategy needs to make the call for our own democratic constitution its starting point.

“Oh, no, not the constitution”, I hear you say, it’s bad enough debating Brexit! You could not be more wrong if that’s your reaction. Because it is exactly the reaction they want. The constitution is a glorious playground for our rulers. They love it, they want to keep it, and if you have grubby hands or inquiring minds or democratic sentiments they want to keep you out. They have achieved this by surrounding it with the most effective fence in the world: a perimeter of boredom. In its way it is a far harder obstacle to overcome than electrified razor wire or even the 8 metre-high security barrier of Palestine, which needs armed guards. An impenetrable field of dullness laced with convention generates a disabling, near instantaneous lethargy. None but the privileged slip through. Many are the corpses of the well intentioned who have fallen comatose into its phantom zone. Numerous the books hurled towards it in futile effort for relevance that now moulder forgotten, never to receive a mention even for persistence let alone gallantry.

I know, I tried. Some would say with relative success, I made the effort to penetrate the glorious playground where there are no rules! When, later on, I worked with Henry Porter on creating the Convention on Modern Liberty in 2009 to secure our freedoms from surveillance and an over-mighty state, if I said to people at a dinner or gathering what we were doing, their eyes would light up. They’d whisper their concerns, or share a story of their anxiety about surveillance, this was four years before Snowden. They knew it mattered. But when, in the previous decade, I’d say I was working with Charter 88 to create a democratic written constitution, a rictus smile would shiver across their face and their eyes would deaden with that inner glaze that meant they were desperate to change the subject. Yet it is obvious that we can’t protect our liberty without a democratic constitution, as the uncodified nature of the UK’s is completely permissive of executive power – hence the fun for those that play in it.

Just this month, for example, as the UK tries to concentrates on its European future in a debate as superficial as the outcome will be consequential, the House of Commons passed the Investigatory Powers Bill, whose intent the Convention on Modern Liberty had delayed but, alas, not reversed. By 444 votes to 69, thanks to the support of the Labour partly in return for an independent review and “concessions” that should never have been needed. The IP Bill legalises bulk surveillance without warrant or cause. As the Open Rights Group blog explains, just one aspect of the Bill will:

allow automated complex searches across the retained data from all telecommunications operators. This has the potential for population profiling… It is bulk data surveillance without the bulk label, and without any judicial authorisation at all. [Any] Agency will be able to self-authorise itself to cross reference your internet history with your mobile phone location and landline phone calls—and search and compare millions of other people’s records too… Queries can be made across datasets. Location data – which pub you were in – can be compared with who you phoned, or which websites you visit. All with great convenience, through automated search. The searches will be increasingly focused on events, such as a website visited, or place people have gathered, rather than the suspects. This is the reverse of the position today, which requires the police to focus on suspects, and work outwards

The Bill, it concludes, could lead to a federated “database of all UK citizens’ communications”.

This illustrates what I mean by the way a constitution regarded as ‘dull and boring’ permits a small number of people to do what they like, including pocketing our vital metadata for future use (e.g. in case they need to warn us off assembling to protest against them). Something, not incidentally, that also exposes us all to being criminally hacked.

Once Peter Hennessey took some students to visit the then secretary of the Cabinet and head of the civil service. One of them asked him, “What is the constitution?”. He answered confidently in this private context, “It is something we make up as we go along”. Ask yourself, who is this ‘we’? Is it you or me? Is it 'we' as in "We the people"? Are we in charge of our constitution? Obviously not. What he meant was, the constitution is something that they make up as they go along. A resource for British rulers to utilize, or make up, at their pleasure. When you hear them talking about defending our sovereignty, this needs to be borne in mind. The sovereignty of the British system does not belong to the people.

If Britain had a German style Basic Law or constitution, the IP Bill could never have got through parliament without a fierce debate about the principles of privacy, liberty, rights and the need to check the powers of an over-mighty state – because these would be entrenched. Instead, while the head of the UK’s legal system, the Lord Chancellor Michael Gove, is striding town, country and TV studio demanding that "We take back control”, he and his colleagues are undermining our fundamental liberties and establishing control systems over us, the public as a whole. With their patriotic warble against the threats from the undemocratic oligarchy of the EU, the Brexiteers appeal to our desire for self-government. At the same time they are undermining our capacity for self-government via their investigatory powers.

The fact of the referendum is a symptom of the unresolved constitutional agony caused by the failure to overcome Britain’s past.

I am getting ahead of myself. There has to be a clearing out of the mental junkyard of British tropes and clichés before the public can get to grips with sovereignty and democracy in the European context. A context that will continue to exist whatever the vote on the 23 June. The fact of the referendum is a symptom of the unresolved constitutional agony caused by the failure to overcome Britain’s past. Its most acute expression subjectively is in the national question and the crisis of English-British identity, as I showed in last week’s chapter. It is also constitutional as such.

Here in Anglo-Britain we do not have a state that is answerable to us, the people. We have governments that can be ejected in elections and to that important if blunt extent are answerable. But the state that they run when elected is the most highly centralised of the western world and its powers are not defined or limited by a constitution that places sovereignty in the hands of the people.

The defining slogan of Vote Leave was tested in focus groups that found the best way of calling for sovereignty in words that appealed to regular folk is Take Back Control. If you want to hear it deployed with consummate focus and repetition watch Michael Gove on Sky. In less than 30 minutes with Sky's Political Editor Faisal Islam he used “control” nine times of which “take back control” was five, and in the live studio audience discussion that followed in less than 30 minutes Gove used “control” 26 times of which 10 were “take back control”. That’s an awful lot of control. It was spun with relentless positivity. His vision was, as they say, upbeat. It was as if it the Lord Chancellor was selling the country a version of Viagra plus, to replace flaccid Euro-regulated trade with fully erect planetary relationships plus a guarantee against premature ejaculation and Gordon Brown-style busts – provided we buy his snake oil and Take Back Control!

Image: Isabel Infantes / EMPICS Entertainment. All rights reserved.

But who will be in control of all this ‘control’? Who is going to enjoy the power that Michael Gove and Boris Johnson promise us? In an exquisite interview for his Al Jazeera Head to Head, Mehdi Hasan challenged one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont who is for Leave: “You say… it is about democracy [but] isn’t it a little bit hypocritical when you are an unelected peer in an unelected chamber of parliament to lecture the EU on democracy and elections?” The audience laughed and applauded, Lamont cast his eyes towards the floor with apparent modesty and simpered, “I am not the designer of Britain’s constitution or the designer of the situation within which I sit”. It was the suppressed smile flickering across his face as he said it that I can’t forget: the hypocrisy of the Leave campaign made flesh. Lamont is not the designer of the EU’s constitution either! This hardly holds him back.

If he had offered to give up his place in the House of Lords as a reward if the UK left the European Union, it might have made a personal point. Lamont managed to move the argument on, claiming “sovereignty is intertwined with the concept of democracy and I believe that democracy is best represented at a national level”. He is right about that: it is best represented at the national level, provided we take 'best' not to mean its only arena. Lamont is plain wrong to imply that should the UK leave the EU it will enjoy democracy because it had been returned to the British level.

A similar moment occurred in Jeremy Paxman’s investigation of Brussels and sovereignty. At the end he interviewed Michael Gove, who said that “what sovereignty ultimately comes down to is the ability to go to any politician and say, ‘you’re fired’ and we don’t have that in the European Union”. Paxman objected that any country can say this to its own politicians who are sent to the council of ministers in Brussels. Gove replied, “You can change the people but the laws won’t change. Policies which are decided at the Brussels level determine what will happen in this country”. And he detailed its forms of control. But we have voice in all this, Paxman responded. “Yes", said Gove, "there is a voice but it is continually outvoted, muffled or overruled. So, yes, we are at the table but we like children at the adults’ dinner table, we are tolerated but ignored”.

Instead of pointing out that this is exactly how people in Britain feel about our political elite, Paxman suggested Gove was peddling a fantasy as he didn’t know what it would be like “after leaving”. “I do”, Gove interjected. “Oh you do?” “Yes, because Britain has been a sovereign independent nation in the past and it can be again. You don’t need to take it from me, the prime minister himself has said of course we can survive and prosper outside the EU”. And that was it, the programme came to an end. Look forward to an hour's examination of the undemocratic workings of the British state...

Should Lamont, Gove and the Brexit crew win, under the flag of “taking back control”, Britain is going to need a mighty call to “take back our democracy”. But what if they lose? George Osborne had the Faustian audacity to say he and the captain of Remain are fighting for “the soul of the country”. I hope Remain does win the day. But nothing can save a country whose soul is wrapped in the cling film of Osborne, Cameron and Mandelson. To rescue it we will have to storm the constitution. In either case it means overcoming the phantom zone and bringing the constitution into public discourse without irony or condescension.  

The left tends to veer away from this all-important confrontation, Owen Jones does write with a democratic style. But he too struggles with the central issue of sovereignty and the constitution. In a Guardian attack on the bigotry of the Leave campaign he writes:

Revealing their total abandonment of any economic case, Leave.EU even issued a poster that read: “It’s not about the economy, stupid. It’s about sovereignty.” But this bunch of charlatans have filled their ideas vacuum with inflammatory prejudice.”

He continues to eviscerate the Brexiteers on these lines. You can see the logic. Leave.EU says the referendum is about "sovereignty". By this they mean "Take Back Control". By this they mean take back control of our borders. By this, of course, they mean stop immigrants coming in. Thus 'sovereignty' in this context is no more than a dog whistle for racism.

Doubtless this is what sovereignty means for some Brexit extremists and is laced with bigotry. But it is extraordinarily dangerous to hand sovereignty over to the far-right. For at least three other significant issues are signalled in the term.

  1. Calling for sovereignty is a protest against the abuses of corporate power, the powerlessness of its victims, the way government has been stolen from people and livelihoods treated with indifference; a protest that is also a rejection of claims  that we can do nothing about it and no one is answerable. 
  2. It is a protest against not having a government that one can call one’s own, which the English feel most strongly as they have no parliament; expressed in the notion of “we want our country back”. This has a strong racist and anti-foreigner significance, of course, but people rightly do not feel themselves to be represented in Westminster or Brussels and the demand for sovereignty expresses a demand to be represented.
  3. It is a protest against the lack of effective democracy.

All of these elements of ‘sovereignty’ need to be part of any left-wing or green case about the future of our government. It will be a disaster if the term is granted to UKIP rather than taken back from them. Indeed conservatives like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are trying to scoop back UKIP as well as Labour and ex-Labour supporters into their conservative movement, thereby protecting British rule from Farage's form of populism with their own neo-populism.

The weakness of the Brexiteer appeal that they are the guardians of our democracy is revealed in Lamont’s fleshy simper. Repeatedly they define democracy and accountability as the ability to “fire” the government, or kick them out if you don’t like them. A crude defence of first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all autocracy is bound up in the Brexiteer appeal for ‘control’, as they seek to renew outside the EU what remains the most highly authoritarian and centralised system of government of the western world: Westminster’s.

And if it is broke?

Will the referendum settle matters and end calls for reform? Does Brexit or not decide how Britain wishes to be governed? Will the fate of the country's soul be settled? Clearly, if it is Brexit it will stir not settle demands for further change. But what if it is a close run victory for Remain? Will the political caste be able to default everyone back to familiar routines, as Cameron and Osborne planned after their election success in 2015?

There is clear evidence that this is unlikely. Hitherto, calls for a new constitution have been met with the classic response of British conservatism, Labour as much as Tory, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. The sense that something is broke is now widespread. On the right, Robert Salisbury’s Constitutional Reform Group and their forthcoming proposal for a new Act of Union; on the centre-left, the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law has declared that "the constitution is at a crossroads" and proposes a ‘Charter of the Union’. Both can be seen as searching for a way to head off a popular constitutional codification with a democratic convention that escapes political caste control, of the kind being explored by Stuart White. Never have so many worked on the need for a fix - even if this includes the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution which argues in the firmest terms that what exists is so in danger of collapse that it must be repaired immediately.

An ear-catching moment for me was a BBC Radio programme last year with Chuka Umunna on the panel. Someone argued that the government had been elected and had the right to govern. Umunna responded that it only got 37% of the vote on a low turnout and we needed PR. I have been involved with arguing the case for a proportional system for over quarter of a century and never before have I known what happened next: the audience burst into applause. This for an electoral system no major party advocates, now that the Lib Dems have been destroyed. But think about it: 4 million voted for UKIP, 1.5 million voted Green, all those disappointed Lib Dems are still around, and millions felt forced to vote tactically rather than for the party of their choice. PR can be popular! 

If this is happening it is not because electoral reform has become a hot desire. Rather there is a growing feeling that 'the system' needs to change, which PR symbolises.  Every vested interest will seek to confine demands for change so that they can act as gatekeepers. The task will be to simply admit the system is broken, and open the gates to its replacement. After 23 June I aim to conclude Blimey! with a detailed chapter on why the British constitution needs wholesale replacement; defining what a constitution is and does and examining the one we have inherited. The list of oddly functioning parts includes:

  • The end of the sovereignty of parliament territorially
  • The end of the sovereignty of parliament legally
  • The final end of cabinet government
  • The collapse of the legitimacy of the House of Commons
  • The corruption of the House of Lords
  • The exposure of the Privy Council
  • The suborning of the Civil Service
  • The re-gearing of the monarchy
  • The permanent place of human rights

There is a larger, more important change in the unwritten culture that is essential to the way Britain was run. It occurred with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The domestic political importance was not that it was illegal; or that it was a “dumb war” as the then Senator Obama put it, setting himself on his route to the US presidency; or that it was a “predatory and dishonest war” as John le Carré wrote in openDemocracy. No, it is not that the war was wrong, ill-conceived, inept, greedy, unwise and illegal. The most important consequence of the Iraq War here in Britain in terms of our own politics is that we the people, of all political persuasions, who took to the streets in unmatched numbers to oppose the war, were wiser and assessed reality with more foresight than our masters, the UK’s political class, its so-called ‘intelligence’ services, its experienced Foreign Office, its Murdoch-inspired press, its Labour government and Tory opposition, never forgetting the majority of their Lordships. We, the unwashed, had demonstrably better judgment than the elite. This turned upside-down the core assumption of the UK’s informal constitution: that the people cannot be trusted with the keys of sovereignty.

To this day, the media and security interests who now regret Iraq say things like, “if we had known then what we know now…”. But never do they say that the popular opposition to the Iraq war was right at the time for the right reasons. In official discourse, the opponents of the war are still anti-American or knee-jerk peaceniks, or, most scurrilous of all, soft on terrorism. But the fact is, we got it right while Blair and his fellow idiots got it wrong. By fellow idiots I mean almost the totality of the entire political caste. And by ‘we’, I don’t just mean the millions who marched, I mean the democratic intelligence of the majority of British people who pride themselves on knowing how to fight a necessary war, and knew at the time that this was not the case with Iraq. And by Blair I mean the then prime minister and his close-knit personal team who were warned they were playing al-Qaida’s game and shamefully proceeded to do so.

With no one to impeach them, Blair and company held onto power and the result was an attack on our democracy; with dodgy dossiers, purging the BBC, fabrication and spin. But the crucial point is that Iraq irreparably holed the legitimacy of Britain’s current political caste below the waterline, not because they were mistaken, but because the people warned them they were mistaken. On a matter of war and peace – the highest calling of the state – the people were right and the Westminster political elite were wrong.

The fundamental assumption on which rests the unwritten basic code of the UK’s operating system is that those who rule us will get it right. Or, if they get it wrong, as they did with appeasement most notably in 1938, they will provide the man and the judgment to correct their course. Can the final protracted publication of the Chilcot Inquiry achieve a similar correction? Why should we hold our breath? Peter Oborne has written a focused guide as to how to approach the Report when it is finally published next month, Not the Chilcot Report, published by Head of Zeus, reviewed here by Paul Rogers.  Oborne is generous enough to suggest that it is:

The last chance for the British Establishment to show that it can learn the lessons of its failures – and hold those who fail to account. If Sir John Chilcot and his inquiry fail to achieve this, the Iraq Inquiry will be the final proof that our system of government is broken.

Of course, it would be refreshing if those responsible are indeed held to account, if only many years later. But in the moral sense that really matters – in a system of government that depends on a moral code – the old order is already history. That those who rule can fail badly and get away with it is not new. That they might be reprimanded would be nice but makes little difference. What is new is that the British people proved that voters are not populists greedy for conquest but are wiser, more restrained and make the better judgments than their masters. This is without precedent: the people have earned the right to claim a democratic constitution.

In or out of the European Union, we need one. The referendum is like a bone thrown at us by a cynical caste of operators to distract us from what we really should be deciding, which is how we are governed. David Cameron said to a TV audience that you, the people, have sovereignty by taking this decision. To which the answer is, “Oh no we don’t! Not sovereignty, not yet".

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy 

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