Monday 16 September 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Yes, they're in a fine mess - but we should not sneer at the UK'

We have nothing to gain from sniggering about Brexit. We should remember that England's difficulty is ours as well, writes Liam Weeks

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Getty Images
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Getty Images

Liam Weeks

"Well here's another nice mess you've gotten me into."

Perhaps one of the most memorable lines from the Laurel and Hardy films of the 1930s and 1940s was used in at least a dozen films by Oliver Hardy, as he sought to pass the buck for his misfortunes onto his comedic partner.

Audiences laughed at the buffoonery of the duo, as they veered from one clownish incident to another. Laurel and Hardy films are rarely on our screens these days, but the same cannot be said of Brexit, the proverbial manna from heaven for most news channels on these islands.

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Just as previous generations gleefully took joy in the actions of the comical duo decades ago, so too contemporary audiences have been guilty of watching events across the water with some amusement.

The nice mess that Britain has gotten itself into has provoked a level of derision and mockery from this side of the Irish Sea, which has been steadily increasing since the original Brexit vote of June 2016.

Whether it is a level of immaturity on our part, or green flag nationalism, this attitude is only serving to damage Anglo-Irish relations.

It indicates an unwillingness, or an inability, to fathom Britain and British politics. I'm not sure which is worse - a lack of comprehension or a lack of willingness to comprehend.

Irish people and politicians have complained for centuries about Britain's failure to understand Irish politics, so it is beholden on us not to repeat the same mistake.

Let me take two examples of this miscomprehension, which have translated into misplaced mockery.

The first is the disregard for Boris Johnson, claiming him to be an unelected prime minister, the choice of a few party faithful, rather than the British people as a whole.

It is time to ditch this argument about unelected prime ministers. If by unelected we mean not chosen by ''the people'', then all prime ministers are unelected. In Britain, Ireland, and most of Europe, we live in parliamentary democracies, where prime ministers rule with the consent of parliament, not the people. We, the people, delegate power to the parliament to elect a prime minister, and it is up to parliament, not the people, who gets to run the country. Israel was the one country, in the 1990s, to experiment with both a parliament and a directly elected prime minister, and it didn't work, being ditched in 2002.

Boris Johnson is prime minister of the UK for now because he commands the support of its parliament. If he didn't, as may well be the case soon, he would have to resign. In case it has slipped the memories of those mocking this system, this is the very same set of rules we use in Ireland. Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach in between elections in exactly the same set of circumstances as Boris Johnson. But imagine the uproar here if sections of the British media referred to our Taoiseach as unelected.

The second source of derision towards British politics has been its lack of a written constitution. Apparently this has made British democracy all the poorer, as it means there are few legal protections to stop questionable actions such as the prime minister attempting to prorogue parliament. This is a rather simplistic argument, as a constitution does not a democracy make. Many communist states had, and have, lengthy constitutions, including North Korea, whose constitution proclaims it to be the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Now, it would be rather far-fetched to claim that North Korea is either a democracy or a republic, and the constitution has done little to curb the dictatorial tendencies of its leader, Kim Jong-un.

This is why it is disingenuous to claim that for constitutions, it is a case of ''written good, unwritten bad''. There are merits and flaws associated with both forms, something which any first-year politics student learns at university.

What they are taught is that the relationship between democracy and constitutionalism (meaning rule by a constitution) can often be described as paradoxical. This is because democracy concerns people governing according to their own wishes, but constitutionalism involves being governed by the values of others - those who wrote the constitution, and who are often long since dead. This is why some argue that constitutionalism involves rule by ghosts.

For example, the enduring problem of firearms in the US is an issue because the second amendment to its constitution, enacted in 1791, designates the right to bear arms.

With the US constitution being notoriously difficult to amend, this means that the people of 21st Century America are being governed by the values of 18th Century white, male, property-owners. And look at the problems that have ensued as a result.

Imagine if we in Ireland had to be governed by the values of our 18th Century ancestors, let alone just the male landowners. Say goodbye to marriage equality, abortion, gay rights, and women's suffrage for a start.

This is why it is argued that a written constitution, although with the intention to protect liberties, can also serve to prevent people from ruling themselves, as it acts to curb their actions.

This is wherein lies the simplistic beauty of the British unwritten constitution.

It permits a level of flexibility within the political system that allows the country to adapt to changing times and values. As British society evolves, so too can its politics, unencumbered by a constitution enmeshed with the norms of previous generations.

Yes, it is not a perfect system, but we would do well to understand and appreciate that British parliamentary democracy has survived many more crises than Brexit, and has been around for longer than most other democracies. In other words, it seems to have worked pretty well to date.

It is time to stop the sneering and cheering at the goings-on in Westminster. Rather than reproach and mock the British for what they are doing, it is time to understand them. It somewhat beggars belief that a nation so enamoured with their politics, sport and society is not capable of doing so.

Yet we seem unable to understand why the UK would want to leave the EU. And we all know where a misunderstanding between different sides on these islands can leave us.

We continue to mock the British for voting for something that is apparently not in their interests. Some have taken it a step further by revelling in the quagmire of Westminster politics. We have nothing to gain from this. Contrary to the age-old nationalist adage, England's difficulty is no longer Ireland's opportunity. It is also our difficulty.

The jeering is only worsening Anglo-Irish relations, which is becoming something of a fine mess itself. And we're like Oliver Hardy, unwilling to accept our culpability, and blaming the other side.

It is time to stop treating Britain as the old enemy whose every misfortune is to be cheered and sniggered at. We're hopefully bigger than that.

We would do well to understand the motivations for what Britain is trying to do. At least they're not being asked by the EU to vote again. In our constitutional democracy we weren't so lucky. Remember Nice and Lisbon?

  • Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government & Politics at University College Cork

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