What’s strange about Brexit is how it’s clumped with the election of Donald Trump and the collapse of the Italian constitutional referendum and subsequent resignation of prime minister Matteo Renzi. If Brexit was a public rebuke of UK political elites, and of the EU itself, then it’s wrong to create a false, post-modern narrative which congeals specific national grievances with others across the West.
Consider the UK’s recent, quiet, revolution. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. It wasn’t Brexit, even if Brexit did seem to follow the rise of UKIP (3,881,099 votes were cast for the party at the 2015 general election but the votes didn’t translate to Westminster seats),
Unusual, capricious and inconsistent decision-making at the ballot box is not new for Great Britain. The events in recent weeks are nothing but an end to Britain’s 40-year experiment inside the EU club, which itself is part of a thousand year story of political, military, economic and social engagement which isn’t going to stop.
The real revolution is much more perverse, and nothing short of an attempted coup by Theresa May’s government to usurp its subjugation to the scrutiny of Parliament.
This week Parliament voted in support of May’s non-binding timetable to invoke Article 50 by March 2017. The Government, however, maintains that the right to invoking Article 50 negotiations belongs to them despite having no published Brexit strategy and thus Parliament, as much as the public, remain in the dark. The closest anyone has to an idea of what might be coming next is the unofficial battle lines and proclamations coming from ministers and their EU counterparts.
What makes this shocking is not that the UK Government believes power should be concentrated with themselves, but rather the fact it has so parochially pursued the results of a non-binding referendum whatever the consequences.
EU directives and the House of Commons legislation which have allowed for them to overrule British law has touched on all corners of British life for over four decades. Parliament must have a say on every proposal and stage of the negotiation because the consequences of withdrawing from the EU will profoundly affect every level of national life.
This is not the Government’s position.
Save for the suspicion that Tony Blair lied to Parliament over the Iraq War (he was later, largely, exonerated by the Chilcot Report) May has made an unprecedented breach to overreach the power of the British executive, sparking nothing other than a constitutional crisis in the UK’s Supreme Court.
Do referenda have an overriding power over the will of Parliament’s collective right to exercise its judgement? There are 650 MPs, all with their own constituencies, opinions who would – for better or for worse – be affected by the Gordian knot of not just leaving the EU, but by whatever legislation is enacted to fill the void of the EU’s absence.
The basic tenants of constitutional monarchy are worth going over. The British Cabinet is the supreme decision-making committee which acts in the Queen’s name who is head of state. The historic powers officially held by the Queen, the ‘royal prerogative’, are in practice used by government ministers and the prime minister, representing the party with the largest number of MPs, who are all of the House of Commons and are accountable to it. This creates a UK executive which Lord Hailsham called an “elective dictatorship” because the party with the most MPs dominates the Commons.
Coupled to this is the system of indirect democracy which sees constituents elect MPs who act on their behalf but without consultation on every decision. At the ballot box, we entrust our representatives to act in accordance with the principles on which they campaigned and won. The ability to instigate, review and repeal legislation ultimately rests with the members of the House of Commons, who despite mostly adhering to party discipline, can lose their confidence in leaders and ministers which has resulted in the fall of several high profile figures.
Last Wednesday’s vote is not only not binding, but it technically does not have any bearing whatsoever on the Supreme Court case and the question of whether the Government has a right to extricate the UK without consulting Parliament. Why the Government would try to buck the trend of consultation and indulge in undemocratic behaviour not seen since absolute monarchs, like Charles I above, is a disturbing parallel.
The House of Commons has evolved precisely so that the people can be heard on matters which are important to them through representatives that vote on their behalf. Theresa May herself is behaving in a matter befitting her prime ministerial antecedents: she herself slipped into office, unelected, but was invited by the Queen to form a government.
With no loss of irony, Brexit doesn’t pose the biggest risk to the UK. Here and now, quietly under siege, is the constitutional settlement which has governed the United Kingdom together for more than 300 years.