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Sun 20 September 2020
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Jonathan Lis assesses the motives of the Government in treating the public, the UK’s democracy, its international partners – everyone outside of itself – with contempt

The UK Government has resolved to violate international law. This is beyond dispute, as a Secretary of State freely and candidly admitted the violation on the floor of the House of Commons. The question, then, is why is this happening and what comes next?

First, let us discount the reasons offered by the Government for pushing the Internal Market Bill and shredding key clauses of the Brexit Withdrawal Treaty.

It is not because the EU is acting in bad faith. It is not because the deal threatens the Union or Britain’s plans for state aid. It is, of course, partly motivated by the need to conceal Brexit’s reality and appease hardline Conservatives and Unionists. But to cling to these reasons is to treat this as old-fashioned politics, defined by pragmatic, legitimate and recognised strategies.

The Government’s politics is many things, but it is not old-fashioned. It is driven by two equally powerful engines in toxic symbiosis: destruction and ego.


Destruction

One of the key ways we misunderstand this Government is to separate its ideology from its tactics. In fact they are the same and destruction is the point.

The many cases in which the Government has destroyed things with contempt carry examples big and small. A small one is the way in which it introduced new restrictions on gatherings, which came into force on Monday.

On Sunday night, the legislation was published on the Government website, with no parliamentary oversight, around 20 minutes before it became law. As of midnight, then, the people of England were conceivably breaking laws they could not possibly have read. Along with the public, this also demonstrated a total contempt for Parliament. Under the UK’s system, the executive proposes laws, which are examined and passed by MPs in Parliament. Under this Government, new curbs on civil liberties, potentially criminalising thousands of people, have today been enacted without seeking our elected representatives’ scrutiny, consent or even consultation.

The most chilling sentence written last week came from a report on the BBC News website: “The Government says Parliament is sovereign and it can pass laws which breach the UK’s international treaty obligations.” As a simple statement of fact, the sentence is unremarkable. As a precedent, it is disturbing beyond contemplation.

Parliament has always been able to legislate for anything. It could legalise genocide if it wanted to. Rarely, however, has anyone felt the need to point this out. The conclusion is not that the Government will break all international law, but that international law no longer constrains it. It not only thinks it can get away with anything – it intends to.

Sure enough, this weekend’s Sunday Telegraph revealed the next inevitable front in the revolution: human rights. The Government, it reported, is planning to opt out of parts of the Human Rights Act, the domestic enforcement mechanism for the European Convention on Human Rights – in place since 1953 and co-drafted by British lawyers. This should surprise nobody because anything which checks the Government’s power or threatens to hold it to account – from judges and civil servants to international treaties – must be defeated or purged. Institutional opposition is to be silenced.

But the contempt of the Boris Johnson administration is almost limitless. Not confined merely to the British public or Parliament, convention and laws, it ultimately extends to anyone who is not them. Including, of course, the people of Ireland.


Exceptionalism

Last week, the Prime Minister seemed strangely anxious about the Irish peace process. The Northern Ireland Protocol, he suggested, must be amended in order to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement.

The Protocol guaranteed an invisible land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the alternative being customs posts – which during The Troubles were blown up. Such posts today would not just be a target or provocation, but a visceral reminder of centuries of imperialism, a divided island and a community denied the right to assert its identity. Only the Protocol guaranteed the status quo and that is why the EU, led by Ireland, agreed to it.

This, then, may be stated clearly: on all of the available evidence, the Prime Minister does not know or care about Northern Ireland. For through his actions, he has demonstrated a zealous disregard for Irish lives. Northern Ireland’s stability must be subordinated to the Conservative Party’s nationalism and Johnson’s ego. As Foreign Secretary, he compared a border which killed more than 3,000 people to the boundary between Camden and Westminster.

The conclusion is not that the Government will break all international law, but that international law no longer constrains it.

Of course Johnson would endanger the Good Friday Agreement. Of course he would enrage Irish politicians. Of course he would treat Irish lives and livelihoods like a parlour game. What moral or political force might stop him? Northern Ireland is at best a bargaining chip and at worst an inconvenience.

And so the Government is using Northern Ireland to gaslight the public and break the law. And yet the gaslighting is merely the mechanism. Behind it lies the ideology of naked exceptionalism.

This exceptionalism follows the worst impulses of the imperial mindset – that Britain can do as it pleases and simply doesn’t have to follow anyone else’s rules. Human rights and international agreements are for others. Standing above the law in frenzied self-regard, Britain will judge itself.


Ego

It is obvious why Johnson should have pulled such a stunt as the Internal Market Bill. He has built a reputation on breaking his word and obligations in both his personal and professional life. It is easier, more cathartic, to break things than to build them. It requires less work and less time. 

Like a man addicted, Johnson constantly seeks the next thrill and each must be more intense than the last. While his nihilistic delight in destruction is accomplished through getting away with it, the danger now is that he may have gone too far.

Since he became Prime Minister, some have reasoned that Johnson will retreat from a ‘no deal’ Brexit – not because it is against the national interest, but because it is against his own. He does not want to be the Prime Minister who incurs the anger and blame of his supporters. But what if he has miscalculated his personal interest?

The most disturbing element of all is perhaps that the Government’s legislative machinations are not just about fomenting chaos and destabilising Britain’s political fabric, but to keep us speculating.

Consider the questions of the last week: Is it a trap? Does it want the EU to rise to the bait in order to ignite a culture war? Does it want to expose Keir Starmer? Does it want to show red meat but actually have Conservative rebels block the legislation? Did it underestimate the scale of the response and really want a deal after all?

Part of the thrill of power is the ability to determine events, throw people off guard and keep them guessing. This, too, is part of Johnson’s sport, and as mere subjects whose lives and livelihoods depend on the outcome, we have no option but to play along.

A ‘no deal’ and a crashed national reputation will matter little to Johnson, whose concern for his country and people amount, at best, to a genial indifference. It does, however, matter to the rest of us, and that is the crucial power differential. He is the hostage-taker and, like it or not, we are the hostages.

And so, for the first time since the English Civil War, we are discussing the possibility of national self-sabotage – not through the lens of statecraft, domestic interests or geopolitics, but the personal whims and appetites of one man. We cannot, for the moment, stop that. But we can stop normalising it.


The Endgame

It is possible that cracks are already appearing.

Like Donald Trump, Johnson has contempt for both democracy and the legislature but has not yet found a way to dismantle them entirely. Loyal Conservatives, including avowed Brexiters such as Michael Howard and Geoffrey Cox, have condemned the Internal Market Bill, and consequently, set down a marker for what they will tolerate. This is not about staying in the EU, staying in the customs union, or even extending the transition. It is not about Brexit and Remain, but right and wrong.

The Government is seeking to remove its checks and balances to free itself from obligations and responsibilities. It has shown its word is junk, domestically and internationally. It is attempting to discover how much its supporters will accept so it can push them further. But there may, after all, be limits to its impunity.

Those who seek destruction eventually destroy themselves. 


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