Westminster Watch

In this ‘post-truth’ age, Mark Hatcher looks back at the seismic events of 2016 and what will dominate Westminster politics in 2017 – is change in the air? 

2016 will be remembered for two seismic events which have rocked the political classes on both sides of the Atlantic: the decision of the UK to withdraw from the EU and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. 

It was also the year when Oxford Dictionaries announced that its 2016 International Word of the Year was ‘post-truth’. In the opinion of a team of lexicographers, this expression best captured the ethos, mood and preoccupations of the year.

Defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’, post-truth politics came of age in 2016. It was a year which became increasingly dominated by highly charged political and social discourse, fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment. Post-truth enjoyed a spike in usage with the Brexit vote and shortly afterwards when Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination.

Who would have predicted 12 months ago that the UK would vote 52:48 to leave the EU and the people of America would put their trust in a property tycoon with no political experience, whose policy statements have often been incoherent? David Cameron’s resignation came sooner than the quiet remainer, Theresa May, expected when she was appointed Prime Minister on 13 July. Cameron’s gamble, as he later put it, to take the poison out of British politics failed. The attempt to manage his febrile Tory backbenchers and shore up the popular vote beyond Westminster from being won over by UKIP’s charms back-fired. It will be the defining feature of his legacy of liberal conservatism.

The deal Cameron negotiated in Brussels was simply not enough. The EU were fed up with making concessions to Britain and felt they had gone as far as they could. The British people had had enough and Jeremy Corbyn’s lethargic ambivalence over Europe only made things worse.

It came as no surprise that there was no room for Michael Gove at May’s Cabinet table. After little more than a year in office which had started so promisingly, Gove was sacked as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, to be replaced by Liz Truss, another non-lawyer.

Some indication of what might have been Gove’s legacy as Lord Chancellor had been given the year before in his Legatum Institute speech and it was given more flesh in his lecture to the Longford Trust in November 2016, which he had been invited to give when Lord Chancellor and which was extended to him afterwards.

Gove’s lecture deserves to be studied by all those whose vocation is justice and whose job (notably in the prison service) is redemption. The former Lord Chancellor’s admiration, which is free of any professional bias or pride, for the legal system, for the unimpeachable integrity of the independent judiciary and for high quality advocacy (in particular by the Bar) shines through. The criminal Bar must hope that the package of measures designed to enhance criminal defence advocacy to which Michael Gove helped to give birth will come to fruition under his successor in 2017.

In the meantime Gove joins Cameron and George Osborne in writing books about their political careers at a stage which must seem to each of them somewhat premature. Osborne’s book, provisionally entitled The Age of Unreason, is an attempt to understand why populist nationalism is on the rise in western democracies and how those who believe in free markets can respond.

It is a challenge to which politicians and policy makers must address themselves in the coming year, with elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and a new US President delivering his inaugural address on Capitol Hill in a few weeks’ time.

In 2017 Westminster politics will continue to be dominated by the fallout from Brexit. In what passes for debate, Brexiteers, remainers, remoaners, ‘democracy deniers’, the sacked and disgruntled will employ a variety of channels to promote their opposing (and at times vitriolic) views about what is at stake, why it matters and what the mantras ‘Brexit means Brexit’ or ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ and ‘Global Britain’ actually mean. Or indeed what the loose terminology of ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’ mean.

The growth of social media platforms has undoubtedly extended the Westminster bubble but it has to be asked whether that bubble acts like an echo chamber for self-selecting political obsessives. There is no shortage of 140-character commentary from those who can deliver more noise than impact. What is plainly needed is greater clarity, scrutiny of purpose and accountability of the government. What better role for Parliament?

There is a sense at Westminster and in Whitehall that change is in the air. There is an awareness that the institutions of democracy and the way we ‘do politics’ do need to be reinvigorated. It feels as if life is flowing back into the Palace of Parliament, at least in some quarters. Those who are putting their heads in the sand and saying the present discontents will pass and we can carry on as we have done, are trying to look at the future through a rear view mirror.

The House of Commons, on all sides, recognises that leaving the EU is the defining issue facing the UK. The negotiation of our departure from the EU is unquestionably the most important and most complex negotiation in modern times.

It needs to be properly scrutinised and the government needs to be held to account. It seems to be accepted that parliamentary scrutiny should not trump achieving the best deal for Britain, and that the right balance needs to be struck between such scrutiny and ensuring that the government maintains the best negotiating stance. Striking that balance is key.

All this will affect the timing and pace of parliamentary business on Brexit. First, the government needs to listen to all sides of the debate in order to build a national consensus around its negotiating position. The current sector reviews and regulatory analyses, as well as a string of forthcoming reports from select committees in both Houses, are informing this stage. Secondly, the government needs to listen to the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (together with Crown dependencies). Then it needs to bring forward a measure (Ministers refer to a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ but the short title of the Bill is likely to be rather more specific) in order to bring existing EU law into domestic law on the date of withdrawal.

The government will need to reach agreement soon about its strategic objectives for the negotiations which goes beyond the simple ‘securing the best available access for our businesses so that they can trade and operate in the single market, while taking back control of our borders, our laws and our money’. Parliament can and should call for an appropriate degree of granularity in the definition of the government’s purpose.

Shortly before the Christmas recess, to avoid being defeated in the Commons on an Opposition day debate on the government’s plan for Brexit, the government agreed to publish a plan for leaving the EU by 31 March 2017, before triggering Art 50. Quite what this ‘plan’ will be is unclear. One would expect a white paper to be published setting out a policy statement of the government’s strategic objectives (their vision) for the role they are seeking for the UK. The House of Commons would be invited to vote on that strategy and then, with the approval of the House, to invoke Art 50 and begin the negotiations.

It is against this crowded and time-sensitive background that all the other policy and legislative measures that could engage attention at Westminster over the coming year need to be assessed, in terms of their overall priority and importance. From the Bar’s perspective these would cover such issues as a replacement of the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme, a ban on referral fees, the review of LASPO, any changes in legal services regulation, a British Bill of Rights, and legislation to give effect to the HMCTS court reform programme.

The truth of the matter is that 2017 is going to be a very busy time at Westminster.

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Mark Hatcher

Mark Hatcher is Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Bar. After working at the Law Commission and in the House of Lords, he became Head of Global Public Affairs at PwC. He is a Bencher of Middle Temple, as well as being a priest. He is Reader of the Temple.