Rebels in Powdered Wigs: The Unlikely Brexit Opposition

Rebels in Powdered Wigs: The Unlikely Brexit Opposition

Last week, the Brexit process was halted once again by a vote in the House of Lords that gave parliament the power to veto triggering the Article 50 bill that would begin the process of the United Kingdom’s EU departure. This is the second time the Lords have intervened in the process, and as a result of their ruling, the Brexit bill will now be sent back to the House of Commons to be debated, with two additional amendments. First, Theresa May will have to get the Article 50 bill passed by a parliamentary vote and second, the rights of EU citizens must be protected.

For those of you who have never spent any significant time watching BBC Parliament, the House of Lords may be somewhat foreign to you. The name alone may conjure up an image of ancient men in powdered wigs and black robes having discussions about fiefdoms and the best way to protect landholdings. This image is remarkably accurate and almost exactly what one normally finds in the House of Lords at any given moment. This is where Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey would have been found on his trips to London. Julian Fellowes, who wrote Downton Abbey, is, in fact, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford. This is to say in no uncertain terms that the House of Lords is not known as the symbol of progressive political ideas.

Which makes it all the more incredible that the only real and actually successful resistance towards the Brexit precipice is coming from the House of Lords and that the leader of the resistance is none other than Lord Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine, an 83-year-old government veteran who served in posts under John Major, Margaret Thatcher, and Edward Heath. A staunch supporter of the European project, Heseltine is part of a group of Conservative party leaders and veterans that have strongly condemned both the referendum and the resulting chaos that the vote has created. After a fiery speech in the House of Lords encouraging his colleagues to push the bill back into the House of Commons, Heseltine was fired from his position as an advisor for five different government projects.

Heseltine is one of the highest profile targets that the government has taken aim at and his public castigation by the Conservative government makes him both a martyr in his own party (he’s a Conservative) as well as a hero to opposition parties like the LibDems, who have seen their membership surge both domestically and among Brits abroad. Therefore, while the majority of the Labour party has been devoured by infighting and coup attempts against Jeremy Corbyn, Heseltine and the House of Lords have been the only body that have been able to put a stop to the ‘hard’ Brexit that threatens to destabilize both the UK and the EU. That’s right, prepare for the next protest fashion: t-shirts with withered and wizened faces whose powdered wigs are covered by jaunty berets.

It turns out that this revolution is televised, but only if you’re a retired schoolteacher who doesn’t have satellite channels and has a lot of time to watch Lords debate in their admittedly very cushy chamber- part of which is furnished with the same leather ottomans that are found in the better shoe stores of your area. This posh sitting room is the headquarters of the Resistance, so much so that Brexit supporters believe that these rogue Lords are ‘wrecking’ the process and should be abolished completely. Indeed, it has come down to the rebel Archbishop of Canterbury to try to quell the surge within the House of Lords to call for a second referendum on the basis that it would be even more divisive to the country than the first. This is the level of surrealism that has been attained: the Archbishop of Canterbury is among those who are being lambasted as rogue elements in the UK government.

To be fair, the House of Lords is in many ways quite the opposite of a democratic body, not least because Peers are appointed rather than elected, and a percentage of the Peers are elected for life. It was not long ago that the Guardian called the Lords ‘an affront to democracy’ and many have called for its abolition. Moreover, the crux of the Brexit movement has turned on the notion that the referendum result was the ‘will of the people’ and that it therefore not only must be respected by the Parliament but certainly cannot be hindered by a body that is contrary in every way.

Lord Heseltine, however, argued previously that Brexit voters ‘didn’t know what they were doing’ and that a vote to Leave would ‘shatter the economy.' The results of the vote showed that Che Heseltine was at least partially correct on the first point, as people have admitted to being uninformed about the vote and misled by campaigns and regretful of their decisions. Heseltine likened one of the most vociferous campaigners for Leave, Boris Johnson, to "a general, that led his army to the sound of guns, and at the sight of the battlefield abandoned the field." He may not have been elected, but he was one of the only people who spoke for a majority.

This raises some important points to which we’ll have to return throughout the Brexit process (among many other processes with which we’ll find ourselves occupied in the coming days): What does it mean to be ‘democratic’, and how can we hope to be so if we are uninformed about the decisions we’re being asked to make? How much difference does it make if leaders are elected or appointed if they aren’t acting in the best interests of the people? What really is the ‘will of the people’ when so few were involved in the process, and even fewer were actually aware of what they were doing?

This week, the founding members of the EU assembled in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty that founded the Union. In many ways the Rome treaty built upon the European Coal and Steel Community agreement of 1951, which was an attempt to integrate the postwar economies of former enemies in one of the most destructive periods that humankind has ever witnessed.

Lord Heseltine was 24 years old when the Rome Treaty was signed, and was just joining the political world as a volunteer. He had lived through World War II and seen firsthand what havoc had resulted. So while perhaps he is now a member of the unelected House of Lords, perhaps he’s there because he knows something that the rest of us could stand to learn.