Referendum need not be the last word on Brexit - The Irish Times 3rd January 2017
Is the Westminster Parliament, the model for parliaments around the world, about to roll over and meekly consent to a fundamental reversal in policy which a majority of its members believe is contrary to the national interest, possibly disastrously so? Is the national interest instantly redefined by a one-off narrow vote in a referendum held after an extremely ll-informed debate?
Even before the Supreme Court has ruled on the need for Parliament’s approval to proceed with Brexit, the House of Commons has given massive backing in December to two motions which amount to an endorsement of Mrs May’s decision to trigger article 50 by the end of March. The Labour Party managed to win backing for some conditions but there is no evidence of even a small minority of the hundreds of MPs who have long been strong supporters of UK membership of the EU having either the stomach or the principles to vote against the move.
We do have one English MP publicly committed to voting against invoking Article 50. But alas Sarah Olney, newly elected Lib.Dem for the Richmond Park seat, weakened her principled stand by claiming that Richmond, by backing Remain in the June referendum. had given her ‘a mandate’ to oppose Article 50.
Where does that leave the majority of MPs, last elected in May 2015 when they were committed to UK membership of the EU? Does the vote in their constituency in the referendum now negate both their own judgement and the basis on which they were elected in 2015?
One may have sympathy for MPs whose constituencies voted Leave and who, in the present climate, are facing the possibility of de-selection or defeat next time round. Many Labour Members will be looking at the rout of their party in the Sleaford by-election.
But what does it say of a Parliamentarian who puts the saving of his own political skin ahead of what he still believes to be the national interest?
The man many regard as the greatest Parliamentarian of them all, Edmund Burke, faced similar dilemmas as MP for Bristol in the 1770s, also over vital matters of trade. The merchants of Bristol were at odds with Burke over his support for plans to ease restrictions on Irish trade with England. Burke’s view was that the measures were necessary in the national interest, and therefore overrode the particular concerns of Bristol.
He had set out his own views on the relationship between constituents and Members in his address to the electors of Bristol in 1774. On representations from constituents he said the Member ought to hear these and consider them seriously, but when ‘instructions or mandates’ were issued which the Member ‘was bound blindly and implicitly to obey ...though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and … arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.’
Parliament, he argued, was not ‘a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests’ but ‘a deliberative assembly of one nation’ where the general good, not local purposes or prejudices, ought to guide’.
(When it was clear by 1780 that the electors of Bristol had had enough of his views, Burke stuck to his principles, quit Bristol and found another seat, admittedly a ‘pocket’ borough where he had no problem with electors.)
Now the English and Welsh MPs who voted against the motion of December 7, are accused of ‘appalling arrogance’ for ‘dismissing the public’s verdict’ and of delivering ‘an insult to democracy’.(Daily Mail) This equation of referendums with democracy, plus the implication that they are a superior form of it, is at odds with the history of the use of referendums to circumvent democracy by Hitler, Mussolini and others, and with the whole tradition of parliamentary government in the UK.
The first statutory recognition of national referendums came as recently as 2000 with the Political Parties and Referendums Act, though this merely laid down a framework as to how referendums should be run. Separate legislation is still required for each UK-wide vote, specifying the question to be asked and other details. The legislation authorising the Brexit vote made no reference as to how the result would be implemented, no suggestion that its decision would be mandatory, so leaving the reasonable assumption that it was advisory.
The referendum did result in a vote for Leave, but only 38% of ‘the people’ (the total electorate) voted to Leave, with about 34% to Remain. Does that in itself constitute a mandate for the biggest constitutional change in 43 years? Two years ago a committee of the House of Commons produced a report on options for UK constitutional reform, including a proposal that any change would require both a majority of people voting in a referendum and two thirds of MPs. In other words ‘the people’ could have their say, but could not overrule Parliament.
The idea that the July referendum settled, once and for all, the UK’s exit from the EU looks naïve as the complexities of a policy reversal of such fundamental importance emerge. Bland assurances that there will be no return to a ‘hard’ border in Ireland look increasingly hollow, there is almost total uncertainty as to what the overall trade relationship between UK and EU might be after Brexit. So to keep repeating ‘Brexit is Brexit’ and ‘the people have spoken’ when we still have no clear idea of what it will really mean is inane and irresponsible.
What if Article 50 is activated next March and thereafter it becomes clear that any deal emerging from the subsequent negotiations is going to be seriously damaging to the UK’s vital national interests? The time to ponder that question is before Article 50 is triggered, not after, and the place to do so is in Parliament.
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