The EU referendum crisis is this generation of MPs’ ‘Narvik’ moment

In the wake of the EU referendum result the UK faces a crisis unparalleled in peacetime. The financial crash of 2008 was bad enough, but at least our political system was not then in melt-down. Today, half a century of carefully crafted foreign policy has crumbled to dust. Each of the two major parties has descended into civil war, with each riven by differences of opinion about the costs/benefits of EU membership. The economy, still fragile eight years on from the 2008 financial crisis, teeters on the edge of another recession (as does that of the EU, which has also been badly weakened by events in the UK both economically and politically). More than this, the divisions within the country are so severe that the very existence of the UK in its current form is now clearly in doubt.

One has to go back to May 1940 to find a moment when the country last faced an existential crisis like this – with the loss of Norway to Nazi Germany. This was a shattering blow for British strategic policy and it precipitated a loss of confidence in the government’s ability to prosecute and win the war. Over two days of debate in the House of Commons between the 7th and 8th of May 1940 (the ‘Narvik’ debate) it became clear that around a hundred Conservative MPs had lost confidence in their leader and, though the government won the vote, the effect was devastating. Within two days the country had a new prime minister and a government of national unity.

I think there are lessons here for today’s MPs.

  • It is up to MPs to react to the referendum result and to decide on the way forward. We should remember that the result is advisory not legally binding.
  • Parliament was and remains sovereign (despite much recent rhetoric to the contrary). The actual decision to leave must be taken by Parliament. MPs, and only MPs, either individually or collectively have the power to determine what happens now.
  • The Queen appoints a prime minister who can command a majority of the House of Commons.
  • The prime minister does not have to be a party leader (for example, Churchill did not take over the leadership of the Conservative Party until October 1940).
  • Particularly in times of emergency good MPs remember that their function is to represent what they see as the best interests of their constituents (and by extension of the nation), not just the interests of those who voted for them.

As Burke famously put it in his address to the electors of Bristol in 1774,

“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”

It is pretty evident that an immediate, effective and enduring party political response to the crisis is not going to be constructed, the parties being themselves divided over the issue and presently each at war with each other over who should be leader. MPs are going to have to work this out for themselves.

Which leads on to another major issue: is the present party system fit for purpose? For 70 years ‘Europe’ has cut across traditional party allegiances – indeed it might be argued that this is precisely why we find ourselves in the mess we are presently in. Perhaps the time has come to think creatively about how interests might be represented better politically. Perhaps, in short, the time has come for new parties and a new government to emerge out of the political rubble. But if that is to happen it needs to happen quickly.

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