At last. The Marxist government we deserve.

Posted on November 16, 2023

‘These, gentlemen, are my principles, and if you don’t like them…..well, I have others.’

Groucho Marx was satirising the flippancy with which matters of principle are swept aside when ugly pragmatism or personal advantage are the order of the day. But then, if you’ve been following the recent psychodrama of British politics, you knew that anyway.

For some years now, we’ve become accustomed to those in power treating the precepts that guide civilised society like a sort of constitutional pick-and-mix. When impatient, impetuous man-baby Johnson became head boy, he immediately tried to prorogue, or suspend, parliament. Worried, correctly, that pesky old democracy might demand scrutiny of detail or consideration of consequences, and so get in the way of pressing through his Brexit plans, he deemed the most prudent thing was to close the whole thing down. Illegally.

You can’t blame a boy for trying. Three years earlier, when the High Court ruled that parliament did, indeed, need to debate the issue of how to leave the EU, his chums over at the Daily Mail ran the front-page headline Enemies of the People over mugshots of m’luds. It’s fair to say that members of the conservative government – you know, the upholders of the rule of law and respect for our great institutions – were not among those to express their displeasure at this dangerous slur.

Dangerous because once those in power fail to express public confidence in the law which underpins the operation of a democratic society, we end up in open court with a former US president defiantly sneering at those trying him for his crimes. We end up with an Israeli Prime Minister dismantling an independent judiciary, thus enabling him to pursue ever more draconian domestic policies, with catastrophic international consequences. And we end up with the ugly chaos of a Tory government frantically scrabbling to reverse a Supreme Court judgement before the ink has dried on the page.

To make matters worse, we’ve become inured to such egregious behaviour. In the days before the Supreme Court ruling on the illegality of the Rwanda scheme, we were witness to the wild, careless and spiteful behaviour of the recently departed Home Secretary. This major role – one of the four great offices of state – is, in its own words, to be ‘responsible for making sure our communities …are kept safe and secure.’ Somewhere along the line, this was interpreted in a rather idiosyncratic way.

The departed postholder somehow manged to read it as being ‘responsible for my own leadership ambitions, and the pursuance of my personal notoriety.’ At the cost of a few coppers acquiring black eyes from their scrap with the knuckle-draggers she had emboldened, she might well have got what she was after. The demonisation and denigration of at least half a million peaceful people on the streets of London was just another part of a grubby grab for power. The fact that she railed against a police chief for assessing intelligence and adhering to proper procedure along the way, seems to have been worn as a badge of honour.

A Home Secretary publicly at odds with the head of the Metropolitan Police; her successor publicly undermining the decision of the Supreme Court. And just as you thought we’d reached the bottom of the rabbit hole, an unelected Prime Minister deciding it’s time to seek the services of an unelected, discredited failure as Foreign Secretary. Accountable to no constituents, branded, entirely reasonably, as the architect of austerity and the feckless idler who sleepwalked into Brexit, he now resumes his place in the confederacy of unprincipled dunces.

And lest you think this attack on the unprincipled a touch one-sided, let me assure you that the contagion of dishonour is a crossbench affair. The Labour Party was born from the need to represent the interests of the least powerful in society. In its ranks, over the years, are some who have been responsible for enormous social improvements and some who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the oppressed. Too often, however, when faced with the choice of where their loyalties lie, too many have lined up with the interests of capital and the ambitions of the economically powerful. When faced with upheaval and crisis, from strikes to wars, they are left rudderless and unguided as they slip towards cowardly compliance. That doing otherwise incurs the bile of an increasingly rabid right-wing media is no excuse for disregarding international law.

In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, the beleaguered Thomas More, on the road to his inevitable execution for upholding, as he sees it, the principle of the law, converses with one of his main accusers, Roper. The latter is confidently happy that disregarding the law can be justifiable and that he would ‘cut down every law in England to get after the Devil.’ More confronts him. ‘And when the last law was down,’ he asks him, ‘and the Devil turned around on you, where would you hide, the laws all being flat…..if you cut them down, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?’

Which may all be a touch too precious for our hard-headed parliamentarians. Maybe they’d understand Marx a little easier; maybe it’s closer to a world they know and understand. ‘The secret of life is honest and fair dealing,’ he explained. ‘If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’

Groucho, of course, not Karl.

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