The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is losing it, because of Brexit polarisation, ignorance of the politics and interests of the island of Ireland, and the hysteria of Brenda stans.
Who’s Brenda? Queen Elizabeth the Second.
Private Eye, the satirical magazine, gave the Queen her nickname, and it does make life easier when discussing her celebrity stans because then everyone knows I am not talking about the band Queen or just everyday fans of the monarchy. The Brenda stans are a group of minor English celebrities (never Scottish, Northern Irish or Welsh) from the worlds of comedy and light entertainment, with blue ticks on Twitter, and their followers. They are mostly women, aged 50-60, and previously known for their centre left or left-wing politics and vaguely alternative sentiments when they were younger. Brenda stans are now less likely to fight the Establishment via punk poetry, popular anti-sexist material, irreverent chat shows and daft skits than they are to spend all day ranting about Brexit and getting old.
Most of them are Gen X rather than boomers, and Brits under 55 tend to leave active love of the Royal Family to our colonial cousins, despite vaguely supporting a monarchy. So it is hard to tell why the Brenda stans have this weird relationship with the Queen. They did all vote Remain in the EU referendum and now spend most of their time tweeting about how much they hate Jeremy Corbyn, hate Brexit and love promoting their own work. They also share a lot of misinformation, which is something they have in common with the loudest voices on all sides of the Brexit debate.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to go back on his word and prorogue Parliament, that is, close it down between sessions, the Brenda stans commenced to tweet. Boris had said he would neither prorogue Parliament nor ask for an early election, but he has done both. He is a liar and a charlatan, but this article is not about him. (Prorogation is different from recess (a break) or a suspension, because the MPs themselves do not have a say in whether or not Parliament sits; the Prime Minister must ask the Queen.)
The monarch’s role in British politics is ceremonial and formal, but also officially neutral. Even her asking people to be more harmonious about Brexit and politics is considered to be controversial. She acts on the advice of her ministers and Prime Minister. Bills are given Royal Assent, Parliament is given a State Opening at the beginning of every session and the Queen also approves Orders and Proclamations. Lots of people signed a petition asking the Queen to refuse the government’s request to prorogue Parliament and as Stop The Coup marches and rallies started to take place across the country, the London protesters marched to Buckingham Palace to wave their placards in disgust. The Queen’s approval went ahead.
The Brenda stans were crushed. Stand-up comedian (and vaginal dryness cream spokesperson) Jenny Eclair had an epic Twitter conversation with Emma Kennedy, writer and actor much beloved of Nineties comedy fans.
Things only got worse when Labour MP Kate Osamor suggested on Twitter that the monarchy should be abolished. She had already complained that “The. Queen. Did. Not. Save. Us.” as soon as the prorogation order had been signed. Signs at some of the Stop The Coup events echoed her remarks. Worse, others quoted Cromwell—not a good look, considering the genocide in Ireland.
The sight of Black Rod as Parliament closed down on Tuesday provided a brief distraction, and protesters from Opposition parties waved placards and sang songs. Black Rod is always a point of interest for overseas Parliament watchers and political fandom noobs. Our current Lady Usher of the Black Rod is the first woman in the role, Sarah Clarke. It’s an important job, managing the staff who run the House of Lords and organising big ceremonial events, but it does come with a funny costume and certain rituals in the opening and closing of Parliament.
The memeification of Black Rod did not hold off the madness for long, however, as the Scottish Court of Session unexpectedly ruled Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament to be illegal. According to a couple of law profs writing at the Independent, the Scottish court has a distinctive approach to the question of prorogation originating in December 1639, when the Scottish parliament explicitly declared that it could not be prorogued against its own will. In any case, the Scottish judgement hinged on Boris Johnson’s “improper purpose” for suspending Parliament, and this rendered both the prorogation and the Prime Minister’s advice to the Queen unlawful and of no effect. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will be asked to decide.
Emma Kennedy typified the reaction of Brenda stans when she said on Twitter:
“Everybody involved in lying to the Queen needs to hand their resignations in by tea time. Thank you.”
Along with the Brenda stans, the Brexit debate suffers from the excesses of process stans and those with ‘one cool trick’ legislation dreams. There are few ways left to stop No Deal Brexit, all variations on two themes: vote for a deal or revoke Article 50. The Queen, celebrities, random backbench politicians as leader, a written constitution…none of these can address the mess. There are not the numbers Numbers NUMBERS in Parliament for any version of Brexit or Revoke, only ways to block others from getting their preferred outcome. That is how we ended up with the Meat Loaf Caveat (coined by Sunder Katwala): MPs who will do anything to stop No Deal, but they won’t do THAT.
Yes, the UK does have a written constitution. It is just not codified, i.e. all in one place, and it would not help that much if it was. The real problem is that so much of what Parliament and government is and does is bound by convention rather than rules, and the rules we set (e.g. the Fixed Term Parliaments Act) can be broken. Election days are Thursdays! Except when they are not. Purdah is a thing! Except when it is not. Breaking the law is a sackable offence! Not for Prime Ministers, actually, it’s about doing the honorable thing and resigning—and that again is just convention.
Brits are comforting ourselves with the various versions of MasterChef, The Great British Bake Off (The Great British Baking Show when we sell it abroad), Strictly Come Dancing (different from Dancing With The Stars, sort of camp and rubbish and brilliant) and other shows that involve people being nice to each other and getting better at things while also sometimes failing in funny ways.
Many politicians are sitting the whole thing out like they’re working on a technical bake: hoping they’ve got their cooking times right, the skewer will come out clean and they will not get the blame for any political outcome. Normal is never coming back AND they have to do something. All the usual rules don’t apply, it’s all gone Trumpian. No Deal has not been prevented by legislation, people just lie in either direction, and because everything is about Remain and Leave and Members of Parliament who are genuinely behaving like a lunatic fringe, things are forgotten even by members of the press when talking about how nice and sensible MPs who disagree with Boris Johnson really are—their involvement in the tragedy of Grenfell and the Windrush scandal, the problems of Universal Credit, the bills that won’t go through in this Parliament or the next, Ken Clarke’s actual politics and so on.
The wasps in Britain started being kicked out of the nests by their queens early and are buzzing drunkenly around us, stinging us in bed before the cold can kill them.
Non-liberal MPs crossing the floor to join the Liberal Democrats, other MPs thinking of grabbing the mace, the UK Parliament has all gone BASKET CASE and so have most of the people talking about it.
All of this is just displacement activity because we know there is a winter election coming—or “festive election” as it was unfortunately dubbed. Boris Johnson’s Conservatives tried and failed twice to get the House of Commons to vote for an early election, but that was a trap that could have risked a No Deal Brexit on October 31. The Opposition have managed to escape that fate, but there will still be an election soon and it will involve more antics around dear Brenda.
The Queen’s Speech is not the same as the Queen’s Christmas Message, which we all sit/stand up for or avoid on Christmas Day, depending on the age and Conservativeness of the relatives we are spending the day with. The government write a speech for her that outlines their proposed policies and legislation for the new parliamentary session and she reads it out in the House of Lords (the one with the red benches, rather than green). The State Opening of Parliament is very weird indeed. This too involves your fave, Black Rod, and she will get the door slammed in her face. It’s a big ceremonial bash that a lot of people watch, and when Brenda has left the building, Parliament gets back to business as usual by debating the content of the speech. It is voted on in the Commons and if it is voted down, all hell breaks loose.
The Queen’s Speech comes up for its first Commons division (vote) on Monday, October 21—my birthday and one week after parliament returns from prorogation. From October 17-18, there is a meeting of the EU Council, and because of Hilary Benn’s anti No Deal law that says we have to have a Brexit deal or ask the EU for an extension by 19th October, if no new Brexit deal is in place, Opposition MPs will vote down the Queen’s Speech and then back a motion of no confidence in the government on 22nd October. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, that will trigger a 14-day period to form a new government, followed by a General Election five weeks later when that inevitably fails due to the current composition of the House of Commons. Oh and the newspapers suggest that Johnson may try to prorogue again to foil this plan.
The people obsessed with the Queen who want to politicise and also not politicise the Queen will be angry that she has to turn up and make a Queen’s speech full of nonsense that will never happen and also that the speech has to be voted down. And with Parliament for not forming a new government of national unity in the 14-day period just to get a second referendum passed or revoke Article 50 without having an election. It’s complicated. Well, they make it more complicated, by having a fantasy version of what will or could happen. They also believe that a second referendum would definitely result in a Remain win and that would be the end of it all. It would not.
The General Election might not fix anything, either, because the people who are stepping down or have left their party or been kicked out may well be replaced by MPs who tend towards the most polarised views and will have stood claiming that a particular Brexit outcome is the best. Some key Remain figures have also told voters that they should only vote for unequivocally Remain parties, i.e. not Labour even if the candidate is anti-Brexit or anti No Deal – so would make pro-Brexit candidates more likely to get in under our voting system – and some hard Leave members of the public say they will never vote again or that they hate Boris Johnson so much that they would never vote Conservative.
Plus, there’s an election for a new Speaker in early November because everyone’s favourite sassy shouting short man John Bercow is standing down as Speaker and MP on October 31. He is also allegedly a bully and quashed an investigation into the bullying and abusive behaviour of MPs including himself. This will be a highly-charged affair as the Conservatives and Brexiteers loathed Bercow and he chose his retirement date so that the MPs of this Parliament, which does not have a majority and is very fractious, will pick his replacement and not those still standing after a General Election.
Until the election is called, everyone is acting on an election footing without any of the rules around spending and broadcaster impartiality applying. This is a situation rockier than the boat party that launched Marie Le Conte’s new political gossip book—which I attended, discussing this very situation and trying not to elbow a pro-Johnson MP in the ribs. Even more stories are going to come out in the bloody warfare of this campaign. It is all going to end in tears from a sedentary position.