Saturday, 15 October 2016

The first victim of Brexit was the Truth. Swiftly followed by Good Judgement

It’s become a commonplace to say that the campaign which led to Britain choosing to leave the European Union was riddled with lies.

It’s a cliché, but clichés aren't necessarily untrue. Both sides spouted a lot of rubish, making it one of the least edifying campaigns I’ve ever seen. Sadly, the flow of misleading claims hasn’t stopped and, indeed, looks likely to sweep us all the way to the Brexit door.

For a time, the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, wouldn’t say what kind of Brexit she favoured. The broad options are:

  • soft Brexit: Britain remains in the European Single Market. That would minimise the negative impact of departure on the economy, but it would mean continuing to contribute to the EU budget and accepting EU regulation, including freedom of movement of EU citizens into this country, without having any further say in the matter
  • hard Brexit: where Britain leaves the Single Market and accepts the cost, but takes back control over its legislation and its borders

Recently, May has begun to lean towards the hard Brexit option. She told the recent Conservative Party conference, “let’s state one thing loud and clear: we are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again.”

That was a rare moment of honesty in the Brexit debate. It confirmed the glaring fact that a lot of those who voted for Brexit were actually interested in only one thing: how do we get Johnny Foreigner out of our green and pleasant land?

Apart from that glimpse of truth, the continuing debate seems mostly drowned in falsehood or ignorance.

The most glaring deficiency of the vote was that it answered only one question: should we stay in the EU or leave? It’s one thing to vote to leave, but there was no way of specifying what kind of Brexit you wanted. Hard or soft? No one said because there was nowhere to say it.

To call for a second referendum once we know the actual terms proposed is, however, to be considered a traitor to the democratic will of the electorate. It can lead to accusations on Twitter of refusing to accept the verdict of the “massive majority” in favour of Brexit. That was one explicit charge made against me, as part of an indictment of my allegedly anti-democratic views. 

A 52%–48% split? A massive majority?

Even to call for a parliamentary vote on the matter leads to virulent denunciation. And that’s quite curious, because it usually comes from people who clearly view themselves as patriots. And yet denying Parliament a vote strikes me as a fundamentally anti-British stance.

Our constitution doesn’t place sovereignty in the hands of the people. Unlike the US, we don’t have a founding document that opens with the words “we, the people.” In fact, we don’t have a document at all. We have an unwritten constitution which evolves, sometimes dramatically – votes for women, for instance – but mostly in a slow, barely noticeable way.

Sovereignty in Britain doesn’t reside with the people but with the Sovereign in Parliament. That’s why an essentially silly ritual continues to matter so much.

At the beginning of each parliamentary session, a man in tights – he holds the title ‘Black Rod’ – approaches the doors to the House of Commons, which are ritually slammed in his face. That underlines the principle that the Commons is under no obligation to admit the monarch or her representative. He then hammers on the door. My wife and I visited the place just a few days ago and were shown by our able guide and local Member of Parliament, the place where the wood has been worn away by the hammering.

Black rod hammers on the doors of the Commons
The members of the House of Commons then emerge and troop along the corridor to the House of Lords. There the Queen delivers a speech – wittily entitled “the Queen’s Speech” – in which she outlines her legislative plans for the coming session.

Thus it has been for centuries.

However, though the forms endure, the substance alters. The monarch now performs an essentially ceremonial role. Her speech is written for her by Ministers, in particular by the Prime Minister. She appoints the Prime Minister, but no one can hold that office who does not command a majority in the House of Commons. Indeed, Lord Salisbury who left office in 1902, was the last Prime Minister to have led a government from the House of Lords. These days, though some ministers may sit in the Lords, the great offices are held by members of the Commons.

That means that sovereignty, while apparently unchanged, is in face exercised by the elected representatives of the people. There are still some matters of royal prerogative, but even there the sovereign’s supreme authority is actually exercised by her ministers acting in her name. In any case, their scope is being constantly reduced. For instance, after the debacle in Iraq, Parliament took to itself the authority to decide whether the nation should go to war, previously exercised by Ministers in the name of the Queen.

The evolution doesn’t stop. It feels to me that there is a big step coming, perhaps in a still relatively remote future: the replacement of the House of Lords by an elected chamber. It’s been in the air for so long that I think it will inevitably occur. 

Eventually. As is the British way.

You may like or dislike this way of doing things, but it is the British way. Power flows from the Sovereign in Parliament, but the powers of the Sovereign are now exercised by Ministers, who are themselves Parliamentarians. So political authority belongs to Parliament in creative tension with those of its members who also happen to be members of the government.

There is no provision in this arrangement for a referendum. If one is held, it takes place by Act of Parliament. Its result has no binding force on Parliament. The only obligation on MPs to follow it is the moral consideration that to ignore it would probably be career-limiting. But they and they alone have the authority to decide how they react to it.

So when Brexiters proclaim their enthusiasm for returning control to our own institutions from Brussels, what they’re calling for is the return of power to Parliament. How, in simple consistency, can they then deny Parliament a say over that process?

The alternative is simply to leave it up to the government itself, free of parliamentary scrutiny – the kind of arrangement, now abandoned, that led to the Iraq invasion. Not terribly British, is it, to go back on the process of extending the power of elected representatives and return it to an Executive answerable to no one? I suspect a lot of Brexiters would reject the very idea as the kind of misguided thinking generally associated with that pitiable figure, Johnny Foreigner.

Trouble is, if truth was the first casualty of Brexit, good judgement was close behind.


Anonymous said...

I think the continue sour grapes moaning that goes on since the vote to leave is extraordinarily damaging it sends out an extraordinary message. The UK vot d to leave full stop that was the democratic vote of the UK, secondly leave means leave and that has been made totally clear by the EU there are no degrees of leave. Having left that is when it becomes possible to start the negotiations of a new relationship when the motivators and persuaders will be commerce and the politicians will become the pawns. That's my prediction of how the strings will be pulled, save all the hot air it serves no benefit other than to deliver a message of confusion and negativity to the world. Would a business behave like this, no it would play its cards very close to its chest and reveal nothing to its partner in negotiations until the moment came.

Peter Rogers said...

Well I agree with the other comment the remainers show an extraordinary negative view and virtually no patriotism or belief in their own nation. I can't think of one single reason why it's better not to have self determination.

David Beeson said...

“Leave means leave” is a meaningless phrase. What does Leave actually mean in practice? Is it just to leave the EU? Or to leave the Single Market as well?

There was a great deal of talk before the vote of adopting a Norwegian or Swiss model – outside the EU but inside the Single Market. Many Leave campaigners suggested that was an option and many Leave voters made their choice because they believed it was a possibility. Now it’s increasingly clear it’s off the table. I wonder how many of those Leave voters would have made the same choice had they known that before the referendum? I think they were duped and had they known the truth in time there would not have been a majority for leaving.

In any case, neither of you addresses my main point. You appeal to patriotism, but you seem unaware that the country you claim to love is a Parliamentary democracy.

We have, for eight centuries, gradually increased the power of Parliament, turning it into a representative of popular will and a defence against excessive executive power. To oppose a Parliamentary vote on Brexit is to fly in the face of what makes the British political system what it essentially is. Besides, what is the effect of that position? It’s to concentrate power back in the hands of Theresa May and her Cabinet, back in the hands of the executive. Surely you can see this is a denial of the British democratic spirit?

Anonymous said...

All sounds like remain sour grapes. Leave means leave is that not simple? I would have thought we do as the mandate said leave and then negotiate a new relationship I am sure it will be hard and difficult but both sid s have a huge amount to loose and therefore are both motivated to find a profitable and commercial relationship. It was that type of relationship that the British originally voted for and that alone.

Oh well different views make the world go around.