Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
The editor of ConservativeHome and I share an interest in CS Lewis’s adult novels. They are much less popular than his children’s books, and for good reason. Lewis crammed a lot of philosophy and theology into his adult stories, and the result could be didactic, clumsy and contrived. But there are sublime moments, especially in That Hideous Strength, the culmination of his science fiction trilogy, published in 1945.
That Hideous Strength tells the story of a literally diabolical plot to subdue Britain in the guise of a benign bureaucracy known (amusingly enough from our present perspective) as the NICE: the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments. Slowly, and at first gently, the NICE sets about subverting Britain’s institutions. The book begins with some university dons agreeing, against their better judgment, to sell a patch of ancient woodland and ends… well, I won’t spoil the story for you, but let’s just say that things escalate.
For 20 years, I have used the phrase “Hideous Strength” to describe the way in which Brussels distorts the national institutions of its member states. Lewis took his title from a sixteenth-century Scottish poem about the Tower of Babel which, given the overweening ambitions of the multi-lingual EU, made it seem especially apt. At first, I was making a literary joke – a slightly precious one, you might think; but, over the past 30 months, it has become horribly serious.
The EU’s Hideous Strength manifests itself in the readiness of politicians and institutions at the national level to act against their interests for the sake of deeper integration. To put it another way, as well as being undemocratic in itself, in the sense of being run by unelected officials, the EU frequently requires its member states to give up a measure of their domestic democracy in order to sustain the requirements of closer union.
There are dozens of examples, some of them fairly minor: parties switching their EU policy in order to join coalitions, ministers being removed from office because they had crossed Brussels, rules on referendums being rewritten to make it easier to get European treaties through. Until now, I’d have said the most alarming instances of the EU’s Hideous Strength were the civilian coups in Italy and Greece in 2011, which saw the imposition of Eurocrat-led coalitions in order to prop up the euro.
But that was before the British referendum – or, rather, before the attempts by some of our politicians to overturn it. It is truly extraordinary to watch Labour and Conservative MPs, all of them elected in 2017 on manifestos that promised to uphold the referendum result, now wriggling out of their promises. In their determination to stand by Brussels, they are doing serious damage to themselves, their parties and the legitimacy of our system of government. Yet they do it anyway, held somehow by the EU’s orbit.
Arguably even worse is the politicisation of the Speaker’s Chair. The neutrality of that office was, for a long time, one of the features of the British system that other countries most admired. The idea that the Commons could elevate one of its own above party was an inspiration to more politically riven nations. The impartiality of Britain’s Speaker was, like the impartiality of its monarch, a given.
In recent weeks, though, the Speaker has started making up the rules as he goes along, consistent only in his Euro-enthusiasm. When it suits him, he disregards the advice of parliamentary officials and declares that “I am not in the business of invoking precedent”. When it doesn’t, he invokes ancient conventions. He is happy to call Remainer amendments, regardless of how much broader the support is for the Eurosceptic amendments he denies. His latest ruling – that the same motion cannot be put twice in the same session – is, as Henry Newman wrote here yesterday, based on precisely the same guideline that also prohibits the calling of identical amendments, yet he seems perfectly happy to have multiple attempts at a second referendum or at the Cooper/Letwin attempts to seize control of the agenda.
No serious observer could call his behaviour consistent. And, in private, lots of Remainers concede this, though they will (which is fair enough) accept support from any quarter. When Emily Maitlis put it to Dominic Grieve on Monday that the Speaker’s rulings were biased, Grieve was too honest to deny it, instead smiling and saying only: “He’s the Speaker”.
Sadly, though, feelings are running so high that Grieve’s calm is the exception rather than the rule. Many Euro-enthusiasts are now so wound up that they now won’t hear any criticism of the Speaker’s consistency – even as, somewhat contradictorily, they hail him as their champion. Labour’s #MeToo crowd, for example, dropped all the criticism we might have expected in the wake of the bullying accusations because they wanted to keep him in place to do precisely what he is doing now. Pro- and anti-Bercow stickers are appearing – something that would have been unimaginable under any of his predecessors.
Without anyone in Brussels needing to issue orders, some British MPs have ditched their principles, undermined the authority of the world’s foremost parliament and prejudiced the office of its Speaker. And, worst of all, their supporters in the country are cheering. Marvel at the EU’s Hideous Strength.