People, politics and power

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

The House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament here, was in turmoil this week with the latest twist in the political drama known as Brexit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was booed and jeered so loudly by other Members of Parliament that it was often difficult to hear what he was saying. Extraordinary scenes for extraordinary times. The day before, Johnson was found to have acted unlawfully when he suspended parliament on 9 September. 11 judges on the Supreme Court opined unanimously that: “The decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions.”

What has taken place is an unprecedented exhibition of the rule of law and created a new debate over the UK’s constitution; the judiciary’s highest body had ruled that the Prime Minister’s suspension of parliament was unlawful because it limited the parliament from doing its work and therefore “void and had no effect”. The Prime Minister’s opponents were jubilant. The decision vindicated several challenges to the prorogation of parliament that had been brought before courts across the kingdom by a range of complainants including a former Prime Minister from the same political party as the current Prime Minister. This is the way checks and balances are supposed to work. Within a few hours the Speaker of the House, also a Conservative or Tory, called for Parliament to sit the next day as if the parliament had never been suspended.

Flashback to Manila in 1991 when I was first offered an “envelope” as a lowly writer/reporter after covering an event held by the Philippine Judges Association. At the time, I laughed it off and refused the offer. But I was embarrassed and conflicted a few minutes later when I faced the team who had been assigned with me. I felt that I’d acted out of principle but I found it a hollow righteousness that doesn’t consider the needs of the team and I found myself apologising to these men who had far more responsibilities but far fewer prospects than I. An early lesson in the hinterland between hard principles and fluid realities where institutions are located and compromises are made.

I have no idea what the current situation is like for journalists in the Philippines and this is only a personal experience from many years ago but I think it comes to mind because of the clash between the way things are supposed to work and the way they actually do. I doubt that my choice made much of a difference to anyone, but then again nor would it have made any difference if I’d accepted the money and just given it to the guys with me whose names I’ve now forgotten, except that paying their bills would’ve been that much easier that month.

I suppose that episode comes to mind because of the way it reflects in microcosm the way that people, with their complicated lives, make up professions like journalism, and institutions like the judiciary and parliament. These pillars of society are interdependent and evolve according to the way ordinary people deal with constantly changing circumstances, whether they’re in London, Manila or anywhere else. The choices they make, even if they’re not directly related with something important can weaken or strengthen the credibility of their work and organisations. That’s where politics in a democracy happens: in the contest for power and influence through the choices we make in institutions we represent.

Back to the present day, watching the Supreme Court hand down its ruling, the British Members of Parliament shouting at Prime Minister Johnson, and following the intense news coverage, I was struck by the unique clash of interests and personalities involved and how the battle lines are being drawn. There are only four and a half weeks left before the scheduled day for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The personalities of country’s leaders are being tested by the choices they make and the way they’re being interpreted from the point of view of the people doing the interpreting.

The Supreme Court decision is a short document that is a lesson in clarity. The judges had to decide, on the basis of the UK’s famously unwritten constitution, whether they could even decide on the matter as well as on the legality of the Prime Minister’s advice to the Queen to suspend Parliament. They decided they could and spelled out that their decision was confined to the advice because it limited Parliament’s ability to do its work.

Nevertheless, the effect has been to throw the issue of whether and how the UK is to leave the EU back in the hands of Parliament.

In responding to the decision, PM Johnson (and the ruling party) chose to emphasise the effect of the decision, rather than the decision itself. He repeatedly stated that the Supreme Court ruling was wrong and refused the calls from the opposition for his resignation on the basis of his unlawful decision. Social media exploded (as it does on a regular basis nowadays in Brexitland) with messages of support for the Prime Minister suggesting that the Supreme Court and Parliament, as institutions of the Establishment, are frustrating the Prime Minister’s policy to leave the EU on 31 October “do or die.” Of course there were also thousands of messages of support for the Supreme Court as a necessary institution of the UK’s parliamentary democracy and for Parliament’s sovereignty rather than Brexit itself.

It is a monumental and historic clash of interests, and even after the Supreme Court decision the path to Brexit is no clearer. In Parliament, most politicians want to prevent the Prime Minister from allowing the UK to leave the EU without agreed terms (No Deal Brexit), the Prime Minister has lost his majority by sacking his own party members who don’t support No Deal and is challenging his opponents to call for a vote of no confidence followed by a general election. But while the landscape of British politics is being reshaped the issue that brought all this about is on course. No Deal Brexit still looks like the real winner of this race leaving the people of the UK in profound uncertainty.





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