14 Feb 2017

Democracy, sovereignty and Brexit

I was brought up to believe that we lived in a representative democracy – that we elected MPs to form governments and govern us under the rule of law.

Of course we have no written constitution to which we can turn for guidance, but when it came to the EU referendum, the act of parliament creating it actually said that it would be “advisory”. It wasn’t fought as such and this was not widely understood or regarded – and, of course, many point to the Government’s own leaflet saying that it “will implement what you decide”. But as far as the judges were concerned, at least, the legislative position was clear.

The accepted view is that the schism within the Conservative Party over the EU could not be resolved in any other way. That’s how David Cameron saw it, and most commentators accept that the referendum, which he thought he would win, was designed to sort the party feuding over Europe for all time.

What he didn’t realise, of course, from the vantage points of Westminster and Witney, was that genuine public anger had built up in various ‘forgotten’ parts of the country over a number of years. Would he have still called the vote had he known or truly calculated the risk ? Could he have foreseen so much would now be in flux ?

Concerns over immigration played a huge part, of course, but another deciding issue for the many of those opposed to EU membership was that of sovereignty. There was outrage in the anti-EU ranks that the laws made in Brussels had sovereignty over so much of our lives.


Many have remarked that some of those self-same folk proved just as outraged when their own UK Supreme Court ruled that parliament had to be involved in any vote to leave the European Union.

Our Prime Minister was among those who wanted to Remain – yet her government had little hesitation in appearing to ignore the very role of the UK parliament that anti-EU campaigners had claimed they were fighting for. Brexit might have meant Brexit, but did sovereignty mean sovereignty? There is also the other irony that she has not yet led her party into a general election, though if current polling is anything to go by she would most likely emerge with a bigger majority.

Initially, not only was parliament to be denied any vote on the matter, but even a white paper outlining what the Government proposed to do in any future European negotiations. Thanks to the courts, eventually MPs have managed over the past weeks to claw back something of our parliamentary sovereignty for which anti-EU politicians had supposedly so passionately yearned to return to for so long.

Even since the Brexit vote, a lot has changed. The US has had its own Brexit moment, and turned away from the European Union. Putin is now lurking around the borders of the bloc and appears dominant in the Middle East. Many of the central tenets of western security cannot be guaranteed – and while Project Fear has not come to pass, the economic outlook is still uncertain. The triggering of Article 50 will begin a process that will last for years. What else could change in the meantime?

While several big and small countries say they have put us at the front of the queue for trade deals, there is still much need to plan the negotiations that follow. This is particularly true because the Cameron Government appears to have made no preparations in the event that they were to lose the referendum. Is the scrutiny that our sovereign parliament has undertaken really proportionate with the magnitude of the decision?

Many prominent MPs think so, despite the majority with which the Brexit bill passed. The work needed not only to plan the negotiations that follow, let alone the confirmed need for our sovereign parliament to have ultimate say in the matter, requires considerable time.

Of course, many would say that we live in an increasingly inter-connected world. We have a permanent seat on the UN security council, a significant role in paying into NATO, and a place at the table in many other major international institutions. Will Brexit strengthen our role in these other supranational bodies, or lead to a reduction of our influence? With this too, it’s too early to say.

Our unwritten constitution has been tested more in the past six months than at any other time in the past 60 years. It may be time, in this brave new world, to write down what some of these rules are.

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