The Supreme Court hearing that has made headlines this week is a case of the most profound constitutional importance. In the words of the government’s defence lawyer it invites judges into the “forbidden territory” of politics. Those taking on the government are convinced of their role as the defenders of liberty.
The barristers appearing in front of the eleven Supreme Court justices have risen to the occasion. Their arguments have been sober, forensic, detailed and delivered with an awareness of the high stakes of the case and the high drama that may follow it.
It has been a reminder of the level of debate and public discourse that we remain capable of. That quality of discussion, however, will not be matched whenever parliament returns. Those MPs demanding further debates on Brexit are missing the point that in the past three years the Commons has reached consensus only on what it doesn’t want – everything – and has made barely a single step in the direction of what it might be possible for a majority to support.
It is not hard to see why. With some notable exceptions, Commons debates feel like a vehicle for social-media savvy parliamentarians to deliver a bite-size soundbite that can be posted on Twitter, firming up their support among their base of loyal, retweeting fans. Indeed, this appears to be the parliamentary raison d’etre of the SNP.
There is little chance of changing minds on an issue, of finding compromise, when it is to the extremes of their case that MPs consistently push.
After all, nuance doesn’t go viral. Attacks on journalists, however, can take off with lightning speed. The targeting of BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg in recent days for pointing out that a man who gave Boris Johnson both barrels about the NHS was a Labour activist was the worst example of a recent trend in which even MPs find themselves resorting all too regularly to shooting the messenger, unable to see beyond the confirmation bias of their own timelines.
Kuenssberg is a good journalist, and was doing her job. MPs reaching to Twitter – as David Lammy did earlier this week on another topic – to describe her as “an apologist to (sic) Boris Johnson” (3,500 retweets) contributes not just to a toxicity in our debate but an infantalisation, too.
Parliamentarians should remember that they are judged at the ballot box and by history, not by the number of likes on their most recent post. We hope some of the more excitable members of the House watched the Supreme Court with interest this week and, whichever side of the debate they sit, borrow from the example set by their legal representatives.