OVER the weekend, I went to see the Magna Carta in Salisbury. It is one single, magnificent sheet of parchment – not 611 pages, just one – and it got me wondering precisely what our rather dusty barons of Runnymede were about.
I suppose at the heart it was the question of who owns Britain. In the eight centuries since Magna Carta the answer has moved steadily, if not always inexorably, in one direction: the people.
It is the people who are the ultimate source of our power and authority – except that recently the people started discovering that they were losing their power.
There were things that they could not change, not even through an election. They no longer owned this country. We pretended otherwise, of course. We even gave the people a referendum and promised that they would decide but that was not strictly honest, was it? And so we have created this momentous mess.
For the moment, I would like to focus my remarks on our relations with Ireland and make three points. First, perhaps I am a little naive but I do not actually understand what is meant by a hard border.
I know it is absolutely central to everything – the backstop and the whole of Brexit – but what is a hard border? Is it a line on a map or a white line on the road?
Is it CCTV cameras or barbed wire? We have spent so long talking about it that there must, I am sure, be a definition. I would be grateful if a Minister would take pity on my naivety and give a precise definition of what the Government think a hard border is. I am in a state of heightened expectation.
Secondly, can I be allowed to express my astonishment that no one in this Government seems to have made it their passion to tell the people of Ireland that we understand their concerns – that we embrace them and will not let them down – and that whatever is decided in Brussels it will not be the British who build border posts?
The Irish have a special place in our past and in our future. For me, Ireland is more than a friend and neighbour; it is practically family. We have all fought so hard, suffered so long and endured so much to bring our relations out of the pit of despair. So why are not we doing more? It is never too late.
My third point is this. The United Kingdom and Ireland have made so much progress in the last 20 years, yet Brussels seems to be trying to wrench our two nations apart again and to turn fraternity into rivalry by imposing a deal that threatens to divide the United Kingdom itself.
Do you remember how ferociously angry the Germans got when someone suggested that the unification of their country might be a bad idea? That is nothing compared to the fury that would erupt in Germany if they were told that it had to be divided once again.
Yet division is precisely what the EU is now advocating for the United Kingdom. Monsieur Barnier was reported in the French current affairs magazine Le Point as saying in 2016: “I’ll have done my job if, in the end, the deal is so tough on the British that they’d prefer to stay in the EU.”
To me, that sounds like punishment and the imposition of penalties, and it has been a consistent theme of EU policy these past two years.
I have never known a time like this. We have a flat-pack Cabinet that threatens to collapse every time you switch the telly on.
I have never known a House of Commons like this: there are MPs who treat the future of this country like feudal lords, the sort we kicked out of this House generations ago; who treat their manifesto promises like discarded Christmas wrapping paper; who walk out of the prison gates and straight back into the House of Commons to vote on the laws that we are going to live under. It is extraordinary. How on earth did we get here?
Nobody in their right mind ever pretended that Brexit would be without its challenges, so I go back to the question posed by our dusty barons of Runnymede. Who is in charge here? Well, perhaps we will find out. If it all goes screwy again, sources are suggesting that the Prime Minister might resign. That would, of course, be a personal tragedy.