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The Daily Mash’s Unhealthy, Obsessive Brexit Complex

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The Daily Mash should spend less time going for cheap laughs about supposedly racist, nostalgic Brexiteers and more time using satire to hold real power and privilege to account

Along with countless other non-racist, non-xenophobic Brexiteers who enjoy a good bit of political comedy and satire, I have been waiting patiently for the current virulent outbreak of Brexit fever to abate over at The Daily Mash, a satirical news website which at one time could be relied upon to provoke laughs no matter which party or ideology was in the cross-hairs.

Sadly, judging by today’s latest effort, there is still no sign of remission:

EVERY country in the former British Empire has demanded Britain resume full political control now it has proven it is great again.

Australia, India, Canada, Egypt and South Africa, among a host of others, have all dissolved their governments in a show of awestruck admiration for the British lion’s newfound mighty roar.

Kenya’s president Uluru Kenyatta said: “We never wanted Britain to stop ruling us in the first place – why ever would we? – but you just needed to grab hold of your mojo again.

“Don’t worry about giving us voting rights or any of that nonsense. Now you are once again a proud, resurgent nation unafraid of political correctness, we have absolute trust you will act in our best interest. And the world’s.

“I step down this afternoon. Oh man, I hope we get Michael Gove as governor. That guy is the best.”

The UK now commands a fifth of the world’s population and one-quarter of its total habitable land, which is as it should be.

Retired headmistress Margaret Gerving, from Guildford, said: “I don’t know why America is insisting on being independent. I’m sure they’ll stop being silly eventually.”

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Since a clear majority of Britons voted to leave the European in the June 2016 referendum, the Mash has covered the topic of Brexit and our changing relationship with the European Union with the spittle-flecked fury and haughty, casual moral superiority of an earnest but ill-informed sixth-former.

Thus we have been treated to headlines such as these:

Uniting behind Brexit a bit hard if you think it’s shit – which includes quotes such as “I’ve always believed that Europeans are our friends with whom we no longer want to have wars. So it’s hard to change to seeing them as potentially hostile weirdos whose food is poisonous”. Because of course voting to leave a supranational political union could be motivated by nothing else.

All man wants for Christmas is Brexit – which tells the story of Roy Hobbs, who “d[oes] not care about presents underneath the Christmas tree, and he just wants Britain to stand alone, stronger than it had ever known”.

Relieved Britain no longer biggest f*ck-up of 2016 – in which a character declares: “For months we’ve been the world’s dumbest dickheads, and now we’re actually if anything a useful marker on the road to the total collapse of liberal democracy”.

May confirms Brexit is now a religious cult – in which the Mash’s version of Theresa May declares: “We will form small, inward-looking communities where anyone who criticises Brexit will be subjected to weeks of brainwashing or human sacrifice. I am the one true prophet of Brexit, which means everything I say is a fact, such as ‘Liam Fox is good at whatever it is he is supposed to be doing’. I call it ‘going the full David Koresh’.” That last line is a snide reference to the Waco siege, in which four federal agents and 76 cultists died.

Brexit optimism highest among people who love setting fire to things – in which one demonic Brexiteer exclaims: “All I want from life is to instill fear while cackling like a maniac, so I’m delighted that the government is finally listening to people like me”.

These are but a few examples, chosen more or less at random.

Does Brexit deserve to be made fun of? Absolutely – nothing should be off the table when it comes to political humour. But the Mash’s lazy bias does its satire-loving readers a disservice by nearly completely exempting the Remain side – who, after all, make up most of the establishment that satirical publications normally exist to mock – from any scrutiny of their own.

Imagine the EU referendum result had gone the other way, and Britain had narrowly voted to remain. We Brexiteers (myself included) would not have taken the result well, would be making our displeasure widely known and probably vowing to hold another referendum as soon as possible. But rather than skewering the victorious Remain side for their wide-eyed europhilia and naive trust in the Magical EU Reform Unicorn (or “punching up”, as we apparently now call the intersection between humour and power dynamics) the Mash would instead be quick to laugh at the angry, disappointed Leavers. No matter which way the result went, the Mash would be laughing at Brexiteers right now. And that is both biased and lazy.

Of course, many Brexiteers are vaguely ridiculous and lend themselves to humour, just as many Remainers are glib, shallow, sanctimonious and uninformed. But good satire would poke fun at the real faults of Brexiteers – our sometimes room-emptying obsession with matters of sovereignty, democracy and regulatory matters, for example. There’s lots of comic material in there, even if extracting it takes slightly more effort. Going for the “oh, they’re just hankering for the days of empire” gag (as per the article quoted at the top of this post) is a cheap laugh, and a lazy one.

What’s more, it is wrong. If you actually take the time to talk to Brexiteers, even much of the UKIP brigade, you won’t hear a hankering for empire or a desire to “turn the clock back”. These are rationalisations dreamed up by London-dwelling media types who never socialise with anyone who lives north of Watford and so cannot imagine what might really motivate a person to vote for Brexit.

What you will hear if you do talk to Brexiteers in any number is a strong distrust of political institutions, a sense of personal insecurity or economic precariousness and a sense that time, technology and political machinations have wrought huge changes on Britain with almost no proper discussion or debate. A sense that while we must keep moving forward, government for once needs to prioritise the interests of those who can’t or who don’t want to be citizens of the world rather than those who are able to use the world as their playground.

And if that seems difficult or unwise to mock, then perhaps it is worth questioning whether the Mash and the London-centric elite are spending too much time “punching down” at people they consider inferior rather than holding power (and what they might call “privilege”) to proper account.

Consider this old Daily Mash article from the dying days of the last Labour government, skewering prime minister Gordon Brown’s assertion that a cut in National Insurance tax would somehow be “taking money out of the economy”:

GORDON Brown will once again focus Labour’s election campaign on national insurance after being deafened by the collapse of his own argument.

Mr Brown’s advisers had urged him not to return to the issue, but the prime minister just nodded and smiled and said their voices had gone all dull and fuzzy.

The argument has been collapsing in stages since last week with the final section crashing to the ground in a massive cloud of dust and bits during the Today programme, just after eight o’clock this morning.

Radio Four listener Tom Logan said: “I was spooning some mephedrone into my tea and listening to John Humphrys being a shit, when all of sudden there was this huge, violent noise.

“It was so loud I thought it must be coming from outside, but then I realised it was the last part of the prime minister’s argument on national insurance smashing into the ground like it had been kicked over by a giant toddler.

“I do hope no-one was hurt apart from John Humphrys.”

Within minutes of the argument toppling over, Guardian editor Peter Mandelson was seen scrabbling over the smoking rubble and attempting to rebuild it while mumbling, ’employers know nothing about employing people’ over and over again.

Now, this is funny because it pokes fun at an actual trait of New Labour politicians – that rather paternalistic view that government really does know more about employing people than the employers themselves.

By contrast, the worn-out old stereotype of Brexiteers as scarlet-faced, tweed-bedecked retired colonels hankering after a bygone age is self-evidently false. It fails the common sense test – more than half of voters opted for Brexit, and there just aren’t enough retired colonels out there to deliver that kind of result.

But rather than actually take the time to understand Brexiteers and work out what makes them tick so as to better lampoon them (humour, after all, is always better when it is closely observational), publications like The Daily Mash sit back smugly and fall back on the familiar narrative of grumpy old men hankering for empire.

And that, of course, is their right. Nobody has to read The Daily Mash, and despite Britain’s increasingly tenuous commitment to free speech they can mock and lampoon whoever they like, as should be the case.

But how much better would their comedy be – how much wryer and punchier their humour – if the Mash writers actually took the time to really get to know a few more Brexiteers (so as to at least make fun of them for the right reasons), or even (heaven forfend) turn that caustic wit back on their own side once in a while?

 

Brexit Jokes

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There’s Nothing Virtuous About Being a Rootless ‘Citizen Of The World’

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Someone give that woman a medal

Most self-described citizens of the world are actually no such thing. They might enjoy the company of very similar people in increasingly similar global cities, but they probably couldn’t think of a single thing to say to somebody of different socio-economic status from a smaller town twenty miles down the road

Pete North explains perhaps better than anyone exactly why those people who style themselves as liberal “citizens of the world” are often no such thing – neither tremendously liberal, nor engaged citizens of anywhere, in any meaningful respect.

North writes:

In the end there is nothing especially virtuous about people who are well travelled and outward looking. A society needs all stripes to function. We need people to work the routine jobs and then we need a fluid workforce not tied down with responsibilities. Moreover, having dealt with more well pampered HR people than a person ever should, one thing I have noticed is that travel does not necessarily broaden the mind.

If you take an incurious person and lavish travel upon them you are wasting your money. Some of the most shallow, snobby and fatuous people I know would consider themselves liberal citizens of the world. Such people have no concept of what it is to be building or maintaining something with a long term plan. They latch on to the fashionable and socially convenient worldview that the EU is the manifestation of liberal values but it little more than virtue signalling.

And develops his argument:

What I find is that the broader your horizons, the harder it is to fit in wherever you go, and so there remains a polarisation between the settled and the travelled. It is then no surprise that there is an obvious demographic divide and opinion is split between the ages.

In this, the remain side of the Brexit debate seem keen to pour over these demographic studies to pathologise the leave vote, and consequently delegitimise it, as though you need to be of a particular set for your opinion to hold any worth. Democracy is lost on such people. The whole point of democracy is one person; one vote, where we take a sample of opinion and move together on the basis of compromise.

In something as binary as EU membership though there is only winner takes all. There is no third option on the ballot so we move with the majoritarian view which is to leave. For whatever reasons they voted for, they did so in accordance with their own views based on their own choices. Their worldviews are formed by what they see and hear in the media, but also in the street and in the workplace. They are the best judges of what is important to them. To suggest that choosing a more conservative lifestyle means you are not qualified to make such an estimation is to invite the very sentiment behind the leave vote.

What these people know better than anyone is that the frivolous and rootless people telling them how to vote are no better than anybody. I imagine the working classes would like nothing more than to live a more adventurous life but they don’t because they can’t afford it. It’s then a bit rich to tell them that the EU brings them freedom of movement and prosperity.

Earlier this year Theresa May said “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means”. I smiled when I heard that. Nothing quite so succinctly demolishes the flimsy worldview that believing in the borderless homogenised EU, along with all the pompous garb that goes with it, is somehow enlightenment. May recognises that being a citizen is more than holding outwardly liberal views. It means making a contribution – to be part of something.

It takes no particular talent to drift through life going place to place – and in so doing all you’re likely to meet is others who have made the same choices or enjoy an extraordinary privilege. Far from broadening the mind it merely reinforces a particular mindset which is never exposed to the values of the settled community. It’s why self-styled “citizens of the world” have no self-awareness and do not for a moment appreciate just how naff they sound to everybody else.

In my experience, self-described citizens of the world have tended to describe their outlook in terms of what they get from the bargain rather than what they contribute to the equation. They call themselves citizens if the world because being so affords them opportunities and privileges – the chance to travel, network and do business. Very few people speak of being citizens of the world because of what they give back in terms of charity, cultural richness or human knowledge, yet all of the people that I would consider to be true citizens of the world – people like Leonard Bernstein or Ernest Hemingway – fall into this latter, rarer category.

What does it really mean to be a modern day “citizen of the world”, anyway, besides having a determinedly self-regarding outlook? Most of those who claim the title – either members of the ruling class or young hipsters whining that their futures and European identities have been somehow ripped away from them – are from the big cities, London most prominently. But to a large extent, many world cities are so alike in culture that one can negotiate and skip between them fairly easily,  even with a language barrier.

London has Starbucks, museums, galleries, bars and hipsters. So do Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Rome, Warsaw, Manchester, and everywhere else in Europe. In our interconnected world, large global cities are if not interchangeable then at least often share a common culture and vibe.

So you can successfully get smashed in Lisbon, Dublin, Stockholm and Munich? Congratulations, Mr. Citizen of the World. What do you want, a medal? Now go try to strike up a conversation with someone from your own country but from a different social class or region. Try going for a night out in Harlow or Wolverhampton or Preston. Your non-prescription hipster spectacles and quirky denim dungarees might buy you immediate entry to the trendy coffee shops of Amsterdam or the bars of Barcelona, but they’ll get you nowhere in Stoke-on-Trent.

And increasingly this is what it comes down to. We have a broad class of people with access to (and the desire to be part of) this emerging global tribe based in the top cities, and a class of people either cut off from this world or with little desire to participate in it. Now, we should certainly use economic policy to lift those who want to live more global lives into a position where they can do so, and avoid the urge to persecute or condescend to those who do not. But in general, we could all do with a bit less smugness and sanctimony from the Citizen of Starbucks Brigade.

For a start, the vast, vast majority of these people are such poor citizens of their own countries that they would feel adrift and culture-shocked, as though in a foreign land, if you lifted them from their home city and moved them to a smaller town thirty miles down the road. This is not some elite band of super-enlightened, non-judgmental, globally-minded, culturally-aware aesthetes, eager to experience new things. This is a pampered, cosseted tribe of relatively well-off millennials, many of whom are in thrall to the divisive Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, who barely understand their own compatriots yet arrogantly believe they are ready to be unleashed upon the world.

There is nothing particularly noble or praiseworthy about overcoming a language barrier to work and make friends with other people just like you who happen to live in other countries – which describes the vast majority of those people now tearfully painting the EU flag on their cheeks at anti-Brexit demonstrations and angrily declaring themselves “citizens of the world”.

Want to do something more challenging and actually worthy of praise? Try earning a reputation as somebody with friendships that span ages, social classes and other demographic indicators. Try living up to the ideal set by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch

And if you do so, you might not necessarily become a Man, my son. But at least you won’t be just another insufferable, identikit, cookie-cutter individual who conspicuously supports the European Union – despite barely comprehending what it really is – purely as a means of signalling your virtue to your insufferable, identikit, cookie-cutter fellow citizens of the world.

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Hysterical Remainers Are Inadvertently Making ‘Hard Brexit’ More Likely

Sam White has a great piece in Country Squire Magazine, in which he warns that the juvenile behaviour of bitter and hysterical Remainers is doing more than anything else to imperil the prospects of a smooth and orderly Brexit.

White writes:

One of the false charges levelled at Leave voters is that Brexit is an act of self-harm. That whatever reasons a person might have for voting to escape from the European Union, the amount of damage caused will always outweigh the benefits.

But from where I stand, the only masochistic inclinations come from hardcore Remainers themselves, as they attempt to hinder or halt a clean, well executed departure.

As they snipe and circle in a constant, bad tempered performance, drawing attention to their own discontent like hormonal adolescents, it becomes clear that they’ll try every trick at their disposal to oppose democracy.

An already impatient Leave camp is being made twitchy by the Remain contingent’s obstructive posturing, but can the Europhiles do any real damage?

The most vocal Remainers are so entrenched and irrational that they’ve actually shifted general opinion toward the very thing they’ve spent the past few months ardently demonising: a hard Brexit.

There are Leave supporters who’ve consistently argued that the only real Brexit is hard Brexit, and Remain have unwittingly reinforced this view. In fact, the idea of simply repealing the 1972 European Communities Act and walking nonchalantly away as if we’ve never heard of Article 50 now has a certain nihilistic, up-yours attraction. It’s the kind of thing Sid Vicious would do if he was in charge. Not so much a hard Brexit as a brick to the face Brexit.

That might give credibility to the charges of self harm though, and it’s unlikely our politicians would have the poised recklessness to pull it off. Instead, given the space to play smart, our negotiators would do best to take that most composedly British of approaches, and play the long game.

And were we united behind Brexit, they could do that.

However, with Remain jabbering and poking in the background like irritating, spoiled children, the considered approach becomes less attractive. What Brexiteer would feel comfortable with such a cautious route now, in the knowledge that amoral Remainers would have more time to subvert the plan?

Suddenly we’re a little less Roger Moore, and a bit more like John Cleese in Clockwise—quite prepared to steal a Porsche while dressed as a monk, as we race to trigger Article 50 before the entire glorious achievement can be stolen from us.

My emphasis in bold.

Sam White is quite correct. If we are determined to look at Brexit as a purely economic matter, as Remainers often seem to do, then right now there is no bigger threat than the possibility that the pro-EU crowd’s whiny filibustering might fuel a backlash which forces the government and MPs to take a harder (or more foolhardy) line in the secession negotiations than would otherwise be the case.

Pete North has previously picked up on the same danger, with reference to Nick Clegg an the Liberal Democrats:

And that is a problem if the Lib Dems are setting themselves up as the voice of the obstructionist remainers. It pretty much makes the EEA politically toxic. The option itself is hated among the majority of leavers, not least because they have, hook, line and sinker, bought the remainer narratives about it.

That puts us all in very dangerous territory. It forces the government to double down on seeking any solution but the EEA and consequently has them fumbling around in the dark for something politically palatable when the options are few. What that likely means is further delay and an attempt to bring about some kind of bespoke agreement that is the EEA in all but name.

As White notes, there is already a tedious contingent of Brexiteers, particularly online, who insist that despite the very clear wording of the referendum question, the British people also secretly gave an instruction to leave the single market, and that anything short of full and immediate divorce is some kind of dishonourable betrayal.

Throw in the fact that dishonest Remainers who only months ago were arguing that Britain’s prosperity depends on remaining in the political union have now retreated to the fallback position of calling for continued participation in the single market, and one can understand how the narrative of an elite anti-Brexit conspiracy is gaining traction and potentially leading to a hardening of stances among some Brexiteers.

White concludes:

Something these anti-democrats can never get their heads around is patriotism. The idea that a citizenry could be willing to risk a short-term financial hit in order to secure priceless, permanent sovereignty is apparently unfathomable.

They also have difficulty reconciling national integrity with being an outward looking, internationally-minded country, but of course there is no conflict between these things. Right now it’s the EU that appears stagnant and insular, while an independent, agile Britain looks fresh and ready to do business.

Perhaps it’s this intractable refusal to consider the value of nation states—in their most inclusive and forward thinking colours—that holds the Remainers back.

It’s true – many Remainers simply do not “get” patriotism, at least according to any reasonable definition of the word. Those who style themselves as “citizens of the world” are in fact no such thing. For as long as the nation state remains the basic building block of the global community and the ultimate guarantor of our rights and freedoms, permitting Britain’s sovereignty to be undermined is highly counterproductive.

But as this blog has argued, it goes deeper than that. It is not just that Remainers see concerns about self-determination and democracy as entirely secondary to short-term economic scaremongering concerns. It is that they are actively hostile to patriotism-based arguments, or indeed any harmless expression of patriotism.

And this haughty attitude risks fuelling a backlash which, when translated into domestic political pressure, may make it much harder for Theresa May’s government to pursue the kind of Brexit deal that we should be making.

 

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No Patriotism Please, We’re British

really-british-chris-ostwald-muswell-hill-london-patriotism

Only in North London’s leafy enclaves would a shop selling British goods and memorabilia be at risk of being run out of business by snarling locals convinced that union jack cushions are one step away from fascism

Another day, another painful reminder that London voted strongly against Brexit and is, in many ways, a different country within a country.

Local newspaper Ham&High reports:

A shopkeeper has defended his novelty gift shop after it has been boycotted by shoppers who branded it ‘pro-Brexit’ and ‘racist’.

The shop in Muswell Hill caused a storm on social media with owner Chris Ostwald, 54, forced to remove his British flags on the opening day on November 26 because he received so many complaints.

One of the shop assistants, who is Spanish, left after just one day because of all the snide remarks she received.

The shop sells British-themed gifts and homeware. Their products include condiments, such as brown sauce, London underground tea towels and “Muswell Hillbillies” mugs, which references the Kinks album. There are also suffragette aprons and stocking fillers such as old fashioned compasses.

Mr Otswald, 54, told the Ham&High: “The shop is in no way meant to be ‘political’ or ‘pro Brexit’, but we have had a lot of complaints saying it is or we are ‘racist!”

“A guy came in the other day and said, ‘what’s this, a charity shop?’ and we said, ‘no, not at all’, and he said, ‘well it’s racist’, and stormed out.”

Mr Ostwald added: “People have been coming in and just tutting and walking out.”

There have been other comments on Facebook, with one person arguing that the name is not inclusive.

One man wrote on public Facebook group Muswell Hill and Friends: “Chris, while I applaud you setting up a business in Muswell Hill and employing local people I’m curious as to why you decided to call your shop ‘Really British’ (besides the obvious point that you will sell British made goods)?

“Like many people I live in London because of its international nature, and for me personally having a big sign on the Broadway saying ‘Really British’ makes me feel you’re implying that other local businesses in the area are therefore somehow ‘not really British’.

“Some will no doubt say I’m over-sensitive but I can’t help thinking that given the recent divisive referendum and the current political climate you might have chosen a more inclusive name in 2016.”

This invidious disease of proud anti-patriotism is particularly British. In America, whether you are on New York’s Fifth Avenue or Main Street in some small Mid-Western town, a shop which celebrates Americana and American heritage would be celebrated and universally popular. In France, shops which sell traditional French produce and goods are happily frequented by tourists and locals alike.

Only in Britain are we cursed with a sub-population of pinch-faced killjoys who have been bred to believe that any expression of pride in Britain is “scary” and somehow tantamount to racism. Only in the fashionable and gentrifying parts of London and Britain’s other major cities does one find this pitiful tribe of people who are allergic to their own flag.

Only in places like London’s Muswell Hill do people hold the country which gives them life and liberty in such horrified, sneering contempt.

 

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Article 50 Appeal: How Can The British People Respect A Remote And Opaque Judiciary They Do Not Understand?

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The nation’s eyes were fixed today on the UK Supreme Court as it hears the government’s appeal to overturn a High Court ruling that ministers cannot trigger Article 50 and begin the formal Brexit process without first winning a vote of MPs in parliament. But the arcane, complex and remote British judicial system makes it almost impossible for even informed citizens to follow proceedings or judge the validity of the court’s eventual findings for themselves

Unlike the much more famous United States Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court is televised – anybody can log onto the court’s website and watch cases being heard via live webcast, including the momentous case currently before the court, in which the government is appealing a High Court ruling that ministers cannot trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to formally begin the Brexit process without first gaining the assent of MPs in a parliamentary vote.

And so today the British news channels spent large parts of the day simply broadcasting the goings-on in Court room 1, where the appeal is being heard. Anybody with a passing interest was able to tune in and watch for themselves as the government’s legal team, led by the Attorney General, made their case to the eleven justices (incidentally the first time that all eleven had sat together for the same case).

And yet despite this wall-to-wall media coverage, I doubt that more than a fraction of those who watched any of the proceedings really understood what was happening, or could place the appeal and the arguments being made in the context of Britain’s judicial system and how it fits into our system of government. I include myself in that group of confused onlookers. And if citizens do not understand the basic workings of one of the three branches of government, how are they to know whether the decisions reached are just and legitimate? And how are they to confer their own legitimacy of acceptance upon those institutions?

If a case about mass surveillance makes it to the US Supreme Court, many Americans will automatically recognise that this concerns the Fourth Amendment (forbidding unreasonable searches and seizures of property by government). They may not know much more than that, but the fact that America has a written constitution gives even ill-educated citizens a basic frame of reference when discussing newsworthy legal matters, while a fundamental education in civics teaches them that a president or Congress cannot simply override the rulings of the Supreme Court if they find them inconvenient – and that trying to sidestep the court by amending the Constitution is prohibitively difficult, thus forming one of the famous “checks and balances” in the American system of government.

Contrast this basic civic awareness in America with the dire state of affairs in Britain. Although I do not have an opinion poll to back me up, I would be surprised if one third of British citizens knew that we even had a Supreme Court (it was only founded in 2009, taking over from the previous Law Lords), let alone the names of a single one of its justices.

(Incidentally, the PC Left and rabid practitioners of identity politics are missing a trick here – ten of the eleven current justices of the UK Supreme Court are old white men, with the remaining justice an old white woman. Are these people really the most qualified for the job, or did they get their positions through the chumocracy and establishment connections? Why is there no public confirmation process, to give democratic oversight to the selection of new justices, as there is in America? And yet how many times has the UK Supreme Court been picketed by angry Social Justice Warriors demanding gender and ethnic balance on the court? Never.)

I will be honest and start by admitting that prior to the EU referendum campaign this year, I could only name one justice of the UK Supreme Court – Lord Neuberger, the court’s president. And that’s awful. I write about politics and UK current affairs every day and consume several hours of news on television, the internet and social media besides, but I could only name one person on the bench of the UK Supreme Court. I could speak for hours about the US Supreme Court, its current and past justices and many of the famous cases it has decided, but not so for the Supreme Court of my own country. And if I can’t rattle off a handful of facts and names together with a brief commentary on their respective legal and ideological outlooks, how many people are actually able to do so?

How many laymen – people without a direct professional or personal interest in the workings or judgements of the court – actually do know who sits on the UK’s Supreme Court? How many could explain at a high level how the judicial system works, with the division between civil and criminal court, the work done by solicitors and barristers, and the hierarchy of trial and appellate courts? Or the difference between the Scottish system and that of England and Wales? All that I currently know, I learned from an Introduction to Business Law course while studying at university – there were no civics lessons in the 1990s National Curriculum while I was at school. And many others will not have even received this basic primer.

But how are we to fulfil our potential as informed and engaged citizens when we fail to understand how one of the three major branches of government works? Most people have a passable grasp of the executive and the legislature, even if they don’t recognise the Government and the Houses of Parliament using those terms. But I very much doubt that one adult in twenty could explain the fundamentals of our legal system, let alone the many layered intricacies.

But flip it around. Why would we know how our legal system works, or recognise the major personalities in the British legal scene? And why should we bother to take the time to educate ourselves?

People in America know the names and ideological leanings of the justices on their Supreme Court for a number of reasons. For a start, they take their civics a little bit more seriously on that side of the Atlantic – something that we could learn from.

But more than that, the American legal system is far more responsive to the citizenry than the British system is to us. One major difference is that many local judges are elected. Now, this may or may not be a good idea – and having watched a number of local races for positions on the bench, I have my grave doubts as to the wisdom of elected judges. But you can’t deny that you are likely to feel much closer to the legal system if you have a direct say in who gets to don the black robes.

Even more important is the fact that unlike we Brits, Americans have a written constitution to act as a common frame of reference when talking about legal matters. Even half-educated Americans will talk about whether something is “constitutional” or not, and apply this test to all manner of public policy debates, from government surveillance to gay marriage. This is important, because it gets people thinking beyond the mere fact of whether they agree or disagree with a particular law, and toward the broader question of exactly why the law in question is good or bad. That’s not to say the ensuing debate cannot still be ignorant and intemperate – it often is – but at least everyone is able to take part in the debate along the same parameters.

Consider the Edward Snowden leaks, when one whistleblower’s actions laid bare the extent of secret government surveillance in Britain, America and the other “Five Eyes” countries. In America, the people – outraged at this secret, systemic violation of their privacy – were able to haul officials in front of congressional committees and debate the legality of the government’s actions with reference to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of property. And in due course, the American government had to make a number of concessions and restrict its surveillance activity. In Britain, by contrast, we had David Cameron and Theresa May pompously telling us that they respect the “tradition of liberty” but are basically going to do whatever they want. And what recourse had we to stop them? None.

Then there is the central role which the US Supreme Court often plays in matters of great social importance in America. In Britain, Parliament’s “elected dictatorship” is the Alpha and the Omega for nearly all significant decisions made in this country – the government can pass or repeal any law almost at will and with no reference to any higher text or law, so long as it can muster the votes in the House of Commons. The courts then simply apply what has been handed down by Parliament, which is sovereign. Refreshingly, this is not so in the United States.

Consider just some of the most famous cases – household names, even to those of us living in Britain. Dred ScottCitizens United. Roe vs Wade. Brown vs Board of Education. We may know next to nothing about American current affairs, but we know that these relate to slavery, campaign finance, abortion and racial segregation. Because in America, the president is not the only person who matters in politics. Nor are the leaders of Congress. The third branch of government matters equally, and how the Supreme Court chooses which cases to hear and applies their interpretation of the Constitution to those cases constitutes a vital check and balance in the American system.

Can you name a comparably important British legal case? They do exist – the Al Rawi case, for example, with its implications for the legality of secret hearings, or Nicklinson vs Ministry of Justice, which confirmed the current illegality of voluntary euthanasia, or the “right to die”. But few people know about these cases or why they are important, because the British legal system is so much more remote and unaccountable to the people.

Finally, there is the question of sovereignty. The United States Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is and is not constitutional, and therefore applicable to American citizens. It cannot be shunted aside by an impatient government if it holds up or overturns key legislation, and nor can it be undermined from the outside – the court determines for itself which cases it will hear, and a majority decision made by five out of nine Supreme Court justices will then bind the government and lower courts. This goes against everything that the current British establishment – who are only too happy to wreck every institution and overturn any tradition in pursuit of their short term goals – stands for.

But crucially, the US Supreme Court is also not subordinate to any external or foreign body. By contrast, until Brexit is completed, the UK Supreme Court is treaty-bound to defer to the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), and must interpret all UK legislation not through the lens of compatibility with a British constitution, but rather to ensure its compliance with EU law and the European Convention of Human Rights.

This begs the question why we as a country do not trust ourselves enough to be the final arbiter of important issues affecting our society. Are we naturally more corrupt, untrustworthy or barbarous than our European neighbours, and in need of constant judicial restraint by our moral betters on the continent? Whatever the answer, the inescapable truth is that legal subjugation to an external, supranational body is the antithesis of national democracy.

So to recap, there exist a number of deficits between the American and UK legal systems in terms of ensuring citizen understanding and engagement with the judicial branch of government, namely:

1. A weaker sense of civic duty and engagement in Britain

2. Greater democratic distance between the people and the legal system in Britain, compared to America

3. Lack of a written British constitution as a common frame of reference when discussing legal matters

4. A much clearer link between decisions made in the US Supreme Court with American social policy

5. Lack of sovereignty: the American legal system is sovereign and subordinate to no external body, unlike the British legal system which (for now) remains subordinate to EU law

But in 2016, in the wake of the Brexit vote and with a key court case relating to the government’s execution of the referendum mandate to leave the EU having reached the Supreme Court, there is simply no good argument for continuing to abide such a remote, elitist and unaccountable legal system as we suffer in Britain. None. Especially when other countries, including our closest ally, have demonstrated a far better approach.

And anybody tempted to sniff haughtily at the American system, with their elected lower court judges and Scopes Monkey Trial culture wars should remember that however passionate and unseemly the public discourse can sometimes be across the Atlantic, this is only because more American people are actually engaged citizens with a moderate grasp of how their country actually works, and therefore confident enough to participate in that process. We should be so lucky to have a system as simple, accessible and easy to explain as they have in the United States.

And it should be a source of great shame to us that our journalists, politicians and private citizens often know more about another country’s legal system through watching Hollywood movies or Law & Order than they do about our own.

Right now, the American public is fixated on the issue of who President-elect Donald Trump will nominate to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the late Antonin Scalia – a first rate mind and writer of opinions and dissents which are accessible and entertaining even to laymen like myself. Americans care about who takes up the ninth seat on their Supreme Court, because unlike Britain, their legal system is clearly more than a plaything of the establishment or a rubber stamp for the government of the day.

The ninth justice of the US Supreme Court may well end up casting crucial swing votes in important matters of human governance in the next decades, such as the right to bear arms in self defence, the right to privacy and the right to free speech. And these decisions could well have tangible, real-world consequences for the 330 million people who live under the court’s jurisdiction.

Elevating the people and the institutions into the public consciousness is not crass sensationalism, as some may charge. On the contrary, focusing on the personalities helps to elevate the issues to a place of prominence in our public discourse, which is exactly what we should be doing here if our own elites were not so busy trying to hide from public accountability anywhere they can scurry – be it behind the black veil of EU lawmaking in Brussels or the bewigged, dusty obscurity of the British legal system.

It will be ironic if it takes a bitter legal dispute over a referendum fought partly over the principle of restoring the supremacy of British laws to force Britain to finally take a proper, critical look at our currently impenetrable legal system. But public interest in legal matters peaks only very rarely, and so those of us who want to see real legal and constitutional reform have a slim opportunity – but also an obligation – to make our case.

For as things stand, a constitution and legal system in force over 3,000 miles and an ocean apart often feels more familiar – and less remote – than our own.

As things stand, the highest court in our country is hearing arguments and preparing to make a decision concerning the most significant political change to come to Britain since the Second World War, yet for most of us, the judges and lawyers may just as well be speaking in Klingon for all that we will learn from the proceedings.

And a legal system which is made deliberately opaque and inaccessible by definition can neither claim legitimacy nor deliver justice, on the Article 50 appeal or anything else.

 

Supreme Court Justices - United Kingdom

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