Promises, promises – then and now

Promises, promises – then and now

In The Big Chill two characters have this exchange:-

Michael: “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalisations. They’re more important than sex.”

Sam: “Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.”

Michael: “Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalisation?”

If ever you needed proof, this week has provided a plethora of examples, with doubtless more to come. They’ve come from the PM and all those new Red Wall Tory MPs – all of whom boasted, in their manifesto, in tweets and election literature, in Parliament of having finally got what they described as “a great new deal ready to go”, an “oven-ready” one, which was “signed, sealed and ready” and which all Tory candidates “pledged to vote for”. The manifesto even praised the PM for his actions: “he swiftly negotiated a great new deal”. Once elected, they did vote for it, then boasted about it, as this MP (for Newcastle-under-Lyme) did on 9 January (“I was personally delighted to vote for it this afternoon”) and again once enacted – . Doubtless, he was doing what he promised during his campaign: “if elected, I will represent you with honesty and integrity”.

Now, less than 9 months later, it turns out – according to the same PM and his MPs – that, variously, the great new deal was entered into in bad faith by the EU, was negotiated too quickly, did not do what it said, had bad unforeseen consequences (despite these being pointed out at the time), put peace in NI at risk, unacceptably constrained the government, the EU might act in bad faith in future so Britain could ignore its promises, it doesn’t matter if Britain breaks its agreements because others do it too, it’s a one-off justified by leaving an Empire etc. It should therefore be ignored, in part, or just completely torn up. These are curious arguments to put forward because they fundamentally undermine the whole case for Brexit and, specifically, what the PM claimed to achieve last year.

It is easy for those believing the decision to leave the EU a mistake to think that there is or never was anything worthwhile about the idea of leaving the EU. This is not so. At its best, the argument was that there was a fundamental incompatibility between the EU’s aims and approach and Britain’s, that these differences could no longer be effectively bridged with opt-outs, special exemptions etc and that the disingenuousness needed to disguise this had led to a fundamental – and dangerous – breakdown in trust between the British government and voters and between the EU and Britain. The EU’s and the British government’s behaviour over the EU Constitution / Lisbon Treaty is one such example; there are plenty of others. A more honest and different relationship was needed with the EU and this would help restore the breach of trust between government and governed in Britain. One doesn’t have to agree with every aspect of this analysis to see that this is not an unjustified criticism nor an ignoble aim.

But if restoring voters’ trust in government matters, how can saying and promising one thing to voters, winning an election on the back of those promises, then turning round and tearing up the legislation you praised, achieve this? How can deceiving voters about what you say you have achieved restore trust? Why should what you now say be any more trustworthy and believable than what you said a few months ago? Is this really representing voters “with honesty and integrity”? It all looks very much like the British government behaving in exactly the way it accuses the EU of behaving. If the reports of MPs being told before they voted that the government always intended to renege on what it agreed are true, this is a monumental act of bad faith and shows utter contempt for British voters (let alone the EU). The raging against the EU feels like Caliban seeing his own face in the glass.

It is hard to understand the strategy: is this naivety, incompetence, panic or something more intended, more malicious? Whichever – how does it repair the bonds of trust with voters? Or was this always just a convenient cover story?

There have been concerns raised by some Tory MPs – Sir Bob O’Neill, Sir Roger Gale – and others in the Lords. Will there be any sort of rebellion, as the Internal Market Bill passes through it stages swiftly (that word again) next week? 

Muttering, discontent, concern, even interviews saying how appalled you are rarely amount to much. It is much much easier to tweet than it is to do anything, as any number of Labour MPs sending out agonised tweets about anti-semitism could tell you. MPs want careers, not to be expelled and find themselves unemployed. They know that lonely stands, even with a few like-minded souls, are usually nine-day wonders. Who now remembers those TIG MPs and what did they achieve anyway? 

The one thing people are brilliant at is rationalisation. So Tory MPs will rationalise their support for what the government is doing, despite their concerns, what they’ve previously said, their promises to us, their principles or anything else. They will point to the Attorney-General’s advice, despite its superficial understanding of the law and incoherent arguments, as a reason to satisfy themselves. They will ignore the absurdity of the Cabinet Secretary stating that – despite the Bill being a breach of international law – civil servants should still follow orders. They will forget that it was Britain (amongst others) who decades ago helped establish the principle that obeying unlawful orders was not and could not be justified. They will learn to live with it.

And this sort of rationalisation is why it is so easy even for civilised law-abiding countries to slide into autocracy or authoritarianism or corruption or totalitarianism. Because there is always a good reason for the next small step, because it is always easy to decry those who worry about where this might lead to as “hysterical” or “overblown”. There is too the fear of falling into a trap – of allowing your opponent to turn into a fight on his ground, to make you look like the pettifogging obstructionist arguing about abstract principles. So do you fight and risk losing – or do you ignore and look as if you don’t stand up for your values? Or do you say publicly that you know what game is being played and you’re not going to join in and give your opponent the distracting fight he wants? 

In the end, fewer people than we would like to think have the moral courage to stand up for what they say they believe in. That is why group loyalty tends to win out over individual courage and action. It is why there are few whistleblowers. It’s why inertia rules. It’s why the unscrupulous can get away with outrageous behaviour for longer than they should. It’s why so many people like to quote Burke: “For evil to triumph, all it takes is for good men to do nothing.” But few like to put that into practice. 

So to answer the question: I doubt there will be much of a rebellion. But who knows? 2020 has given us so many surprises. Who’d rule out there being more to come.


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