Are You Really A 'Saboteur' If You Oppose Brexit? On Government Opposition And Why We Need It
The Debrief: What is a Government opposition and why do we need one? A constitutional historian explains all....
Following her announcement that there will be a general election on June 8th, Theresa May has faced criticism on several fronts. One of the key things people are unhappy about is her language. No, she hasn’t been f-ing and blinding her way towards a referendum, instead, she’s been undermining those who oppose Brexit and casting them as unpatriotic.
Now, let’s recap for a second. The EU referendum which resulted in Brexit and Theresa May becoming Prime Minister was, I think we can all agree, hardly a landslide. 51.9% of voters wanted to leave while 48.1% wanted to remain in the European Union. That’s 17,410,742 people to 16,141,241.
With this in mind, given that we live in a country that proudly considers itself to be a parliamentary democracy it’s hardly surprising that both the Labour Party (Her Majesty’s official opposition) and the Liberal Democrats have been challenging Brexit and scrutinising it as it progresses through parliament. And yet, listening to Theresa May’s announcement yesterday you’d think this was some sort of capital crime which, no doubt, inspired the Daily Mail’s hyperbolic front page today:
In her statement announcing the snap election, the Prime Minister said:
‘This is the right approach and it is in the national interest, but the other political parties oppose it. At this moment of enormous national significance, there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead, there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not. In recent weeks, Labour have threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach with the European Union, the Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill, the SNP say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the European Union and unelected members of the House of Lords gave vowed to fight us every step of the way. Our opponents believe because the government’s majority is so small that our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course.’
This statement, casting anyone who disagrees with the Prime Minister as an opponent of Brexit and national traitor, causing damage to the country, is problematic because it is the job of the opposition to question the government. That is written into the very fabric of our politics, down to the fact that the government and opposition sit opposite one another in the House of Commons. To many, May’s comments and her decision to blame the opposition for her decision to hold a general election when, in fact, she has many vested interests in doing so, are spurious and worrying. Does Theresa May not understand parliamentary democracy? Is being annoyed about the opposition as Prime Minister a bit like becoming a chef and then realising you hate cooking?
We asked a constitutional expert. Dr Catherine Haddon is a fellow at the Institute for Government and an expert in the history of Whitehall.
The Debrief: first things first, what is an opposition?
Catherine: ‘throughout parliamentary history, people have opposed the government. However, the idea of a formal opposition and giving it a title stems from earlier centuries when it was decided that this role needed to be recognised because there needed to be an alternative government should the government fall. So, one of the roles of the opposition is to be able to form a government should the government fall or not be able to get a government together’
The Debrief: so how does this work in modern politics?
Catherine: ‘Today, it’s still partly about that but it’s also about the scrutiny of government. Parliament has a number of mechanisms which allow for this– it’s done by individual MPs but also by select committees. That’s part of the reason why members of the opposition are so involved in select committees – it’s so that they can scrutinise the government. Members of the opposition can also table questions and start debates which allow them to pursue agendas and hold the government to account.’
The Debrief: ok, so what would you say the main reason for having an opposition is?
Catherine: ‘if you didn’t have an opposition then you wouldn’t have an alternative government. Elections are based on the premise that the people get to vote for particular MPs, and if those MPs come from a party different to the government then another government can be formed. So, we can kick out the government if we disagree as a populus which is why people vote along party lines as opposed to the specific MP that represents them.’
The Debrief: why is the Parliamentary Labour Party the official opposition?
Catherine: ‘this dates from the early C20th. Many people say that the parliamentary system tends towards two major parties vying it out – it’s registered in the chamber where you have two opposing sides and we’ve seen that in voting terms. It used to be the Whigs and the Tories, then it became the Liberals and the Conservatives and then the Liberal vote was damaged by the aftermath of the First World War – which also then saw the rise of the Labour party. During the Second World War Labour were brought in as part of a national coalition and this enhanced their national perception and this made them the dominant second party.’
The Debrief: if opposition to the government is so legit, what’s with Theresa May’s rhetoric?
Catherine: ‘the Prime Minister is talking about this very much in Westminster terms. She kept referring to the country as ‘united’, which depends on how you view the country! But, she was arguing that there is too much opposition to a policy which had a mandate from the referendum and the Conservatives are tasked with delivering. But the reason, or at least her public reason, for going to an election which, privately, could be about uniting her own party (who have differing views on Brexit) is that it gives her an opportunity to make her case to her party, to silence criticism from within and get a mandate from the public that her vision of Brexit is the one that should go ahead.’
‘We have something in this country called the Salisbury Convention which means that any policies that are part of a party’s manifesto are put through the House of Commons, but cannot be barred or altered by the House of Lords. So, if May wins the election then her manifesto policies (which will include the plan for Brexit will then be put forward as a Government Bill) will still go through scrutiny, but the house of lords will not significantly be able to block or alter it.’
‘Although, it is worth saying that the Lib Dems have said that they don’t recognise this convention so it’s reliant on people continuing to adhere to it.’
The Debrief: ‘why are people saying that Labour are not a viable opposition at the moment?’
Catherine: ‘the issue comes down to this question: is there a Government in waiting? There are two parts to that – you firstly need to have a Prime Minister and ministers in waiting, so you could argue that labour doesn't yet have the personnel in place. Now, the country would also be looking for them to have a manifesto and we’ll have to wait and see what the manifesto is under Jeremy Corbyn.’
‘However, that’s not a requirement because as we saw in 2010 they had to stop and think about what their policies would be as they combined two parties for the coalition. But it is something people look for – where does the opposing party stand on the key issues and what would their government look like.’
Opposition to Government is a fundamental part of our democracy and those who question, scrutinise Brexit policies are not saboteurs, as the Daily Mail would have it or obstinate obfuscators as May has implied. they’ve simply been doing their job.
The role of the opposition is to hold those in power to account, to keep them honest and to improve legislation. As the next six weeks of general election campaigning unfold we need effective, committed and principled opposition to make their case. This will come from Her Majesty’s Opposition, the Labour Party, but it will also come from the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the likes of the Women’s Equality Party. And, whatever the outcome of this election, with the result of such a narrow referendum being carried out, we will need opposition to whoever finds themselves in charge of executing our exit from Europe going forwards.
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