Book Review – ‘Overruled’ – John Nicolson MP


I met Sam Fowles when he wrote to me to complain. How could it be, he asked, that so many MPs display such incredible ignorance about the constitution, and yet speak so confidently about it?

I’m afraid he cited a political opponent of mine (but someone I much like) as an example. Keir Starmer, once an avowed enemy of Brexit, had become leader of the Labor Party and was desperately trying to cover Labor’s political tracks in order to win back Red Wall voters. Labor MPs were, as a result, attacking SNP MPs like me for voting against Boris Johnson’s terrible Brexit ‘deal’.

According to Keir voting with the Tories in Parliament was necessary otherwise we’d be left with ‘no deal’; “Without a deal on security, on trade, on fisheries, without protection for our manufacturing sector, for farming, for countless British business, and without a foothold to build a future relationship with the EU.”

Labor voted for the Boris Johnson deal. The SNP did not. I thought at the time (and still do) that this was terrible politics. Labor would be hobbled in any future debate with Johnson and his Tories. And so it came to pass. Whenever a Labor MP now rises to criticize aspects of the deal and its fallout, Tory MPs shout “well you voted for it.”

But perhaps more importantly – and here we come to Sam Fowler’s argument – what so many Labor MPs were saying about the SNP was constitutionally illiterate. Voting against the bill would “have no such consequence” as the Government not Parliament both negotiates and ratifies international treaties. SNP MPs voting against Boris Johnson’s terrible deal were choosing to distance themselves from it, and from Brexit to which Scots were overwhelmingly opposed. However we weren’t voting for a no deal Brexit as MPs didn’t have that power.

Did Labor MPs really not understand that, or were they just playing politics? Either way it’s disappointing. Sam thinks the public interest is ill served by MPs displaying (or pretending) ignorance about the constitution and I agree within him. In fact, he goes further. He thinks MPs should be compelled to attend classes about the law when they’re elected. Constitutional ‘levelling up’ if you will.

Sam wears his erudition lightly. This is a well written, well argued and pacy read. But some of its conclusions are depressing. Our civil society is sick Sam thinks, although he offers us hope at the end, providing we take the medicine he prescribes. We live in a post-truth Johnson era he believes, where politicians lie with impunity, aided by a narrow privileged clique in and around Downing Street, and an almost uniformly illiberal press. As one might expect of a barrister, he’s horrified by the right wing abuse directed at lawyers and judges– many of whom are now routinely threatened or physically attacked. Their crime? Upholding the laws passed by Parliament.

He cites all too familiar press headlines; ‘Enemies of the People’, ‘Judges vs the People’, and ‘Rise up the people of Britain and fight the war’ which “ape the language of authoritarian regimes.” And he points out the irony of a society where ordinary people have less access to legal redress than at any time since the War (due to the slashing of legal aid), but are somehow persuaded – in England at least – that the wealthy, privileged elite who dominate the executive, and the press barons who amplify their messageare on their sideagainst the lawyers who would defend them. Populist politicians and their’popular ‘press allies aren’t friends of the populace he argues.

And he puts his money where his mouth is, working one third of his time pro-bono, whether on local planning cases well away from the public eye, or on high profile cases such as Boris Johnson’s illegal prorogation of Parliament when the Prime Minister attempted to silence the people’s elected representatives. That also, as we now know, required lying to the Queen.

Lying or “bull shitting” is a frequent theme throughout the book. As a journalist and broadcaster – and now as an MP – I always had it drummed into me that the ‘l word’ could never be used. I still find it hard to say. But Sam – a barrister who obviously understands defamation laws –uses the word ‘lie’ and ‘liar’freely when talking about Boris Johnson, suggesting that the Prime Minister has no reputation to lose. What a state we are in.

I like Sam. And I’d take issue with very little in his book. He hates Brexit, the damage it has caused and the lies which were told to deceive the people of England and secure their votes for it. As I write, some of his colleagues are fighting to prevent asylum seekers from the world’s most dangerous regimes from being deported to Rwanda. Sam laments the way in which asylum and immigration were used in the Brexit referendum, pointing out that areas of the country with the lowest immigration levels were those most concerned about immigration, and most likely to vote for Brexit. But I disagree with Sam when he says that;

“Politicians of all stripes have jumped on the bandwagon promising ever more aggressive measures to tackle immigration.”

Tory rhetoric on immigration is odious. Labor has too often pandered to the right on the issue, even producing campaign mugs emblazoned with an anti immigration message. But Parliament’s third party, the SNP, has consistently championed the rights of asylum seekers. We are unambiguously pro immigration. We need and want immigrants to choose to come to our shores as they have done throughout history. They enrich us in countless ways.

Sam’s basic thesis is that power in the UK is concentrated ever more tightly in the hands of a small, privileged, self serving, predominantly right wing and racist elite. His cure is education – betterinformed MPs who understand the constitution and are more willing to challenge the executive. And he wants to see an empowered population taught more at school about their rights and responsibilities. They should learn ‘critical thinking’ in the class room so that they are less vulnerable as adults to disinformation – politicians ‘and press barons’ lies and ‘bullshit.’ Hear hear to that, as they say in the Commons.

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