MPS are meant to honour the results of a vote. If they don’t, they undermine their own legitimacy
‘If the House of Commons now wishes to frustrate the referendum result, it needs to understand that it is breaking the compact upon which its own existence depends’
On Thursday, I was away from home and my desk. For information and news, therefore, I relied on my iphone. But my iphone is on the O2 network, which went into a coma at 5.30 that morning, so I had no information or news all day. As I needed to prepare for going on BBC Question Time that night, I was alarmed. How could I remind myself of the details of the Norway option, the Attorney General’s formerly secret backstop advice or whether the Dominic Grieve or the Hilary Benn amendment was the more tiresome?
After panic, however, came calm. Cut off from the Brexit information overload that almost crushes MPS and media, I sat still and reflected on the issue more – I hope – like an ordinary citizen. Clearly something big is at stake in next Tuesday’s “meaningful vote”. Clearly it is not a calculation about “just in time” car manufacturing or how checks can be made on goods crossing between Northern Ireland and the Republic or what the size of the divorce bill should be, although all these are important questions. Obviously, it is deeper. But what, exactly, is it?
When I appeared on Question Time that evening in Bishop’s Stortford, the studio audience seemed in a similar frame of mind. I have been on the programme – and its radio sister Any Questions? – four or five times since the referendum hostilities broke out early in 2016. For many months after the result, the audience refought the battles of the campaign. This time, a few were still attempting this, but the general mood was different. People were now searching for what it is Parliament’s duty to do.
Therefore, the argument is now less about Brexit itself, and more about the question which the EU has never satisfactorily answered: who governs us, and by what right?
A bearded, middle-aged man in the audience put it well. He went back to the referendum. It had been legislated for and presented, by David Cameron and by Parliament, as the direct and final decision of the voters. On a high turnout, they had voted by a clear, though not enormous, majority to leave the EU. So, said the bearded gentleman, MPS must now “prove to us” that they can “exercise the power Leave voters chose to give you”.
That is exactly it, dear Members of Parliament. You gave us the power to decide in the ballot box. We did. Now you must keep your part of the bargain. Obviously, voters are not – cannot be – detailed lawmakers, so we entrust you with the task of giving full legal form to our wishes.
If Parliament does not carry out those wishes, this will be the first time in British history when MPS will have chosen to defy the electorate. Such defiance never succeeds at general elections (though Edward Heath had a bit of a go in February 1974, and Gordon Brown in 2010). It has never happened after the now quite numerous referendums held in this country – the Scottish independence vote, the votes on Scottish and Welsh devolution, Northern Ireland’s vote on the Good Friday Agreement, and so on. The voters decided. Where consequent change was needed, Parliament enacted it. Any other way of behaving would have been inconceivable. How could it possibly be, then, that today MPS are even considering rejecting (or evading) our largest vote for anything ever?
One of the reasons the EU exists, I think, is that European elites have never fully accepted what universal suffrage means. Few dare flatly oppose the right of every adult to vote, but many powerful people fear its consequences. In countries like France, where the conflicting urges for violent revolution and reactionary repression have always been dangerously strong, there lurks a permanent fear of the mob and a permanent mob ready to turn nasty. We have seen both these phenomena there this very week. To the elites in such a country, the EU is a godsend. It lets people vote, but strictly on the understanding that their vote cannot seriously impede the Union’s destiny, which is safe in the hands of unelected political bureaucrats.
In the Anglo-saxon tradition – in Britain, Australia, the United States – the vote is primary. It doesn’t just register a view: it decides. It makes the legislature legitimate. This difference helps explain why, in 1940, some French government ministers ran away – and some stayed to do a deal with Nazi Germany – but the British government rallied in the House of Commons.
So if the House of Commons now wishes to frustrate the referendum result, it needs to understand that it is breaking the compact upon which its own existence depends. Some MPS say they are exercising their sovereign right to vote as they wish. True, perhaps, in strict theory; but how perverse to use it against a measure designed to restore their sovereignty in full. How can even the most ardent Remainer imagine that trust in Parliament can survive such behaviour? In the 17th century, Parliament fought the Crown and won important freedoms. Is it proposing, in the 21st century, to reverse this, and fight the people?
It is therefore illegitimate for Parliament to rescind Article 50. There can be no argument about this (though there will be plenty). It is also illegitimate to have a second referendum. Whatever its result, a second referendum is an insult to the first and therefore to the voters. The first was complete and clear. The second is intended to undermine that fact. If you respect a vote, you ask people to vote again only if the result was too close to call. This one wasn’t.
The more difficult question is whether some semi-brexit is illegitimate. The “Norway” option does mean we formally leave the EU, but since, in doing so, we stay in the single market and the customs union, and have to permit free movement, it nowhere near meets the control of laws, trade and borders which is what Leave has always meant.
On Tuesday, Mrs May will tell Parliament using, I fear, phrases that she has repeated a million times, that her deal “delivers on the vote of the British people”. She will also gently insert a new doctrine that true delivery involves a 52:48 balance to reflect how people voted. Thus does Leave become half-in, half-out – a way of splitting the difference when the whole point of the referendum was to decide one way or the other.
The Prime Minister has tried hard to get her deal, but her efforts are fatally flawed because we cannot get out of the backstop – and therefore of the customs union – unless the EU lets us. That is an almost satirical repackaging of the EU problem as if it were the solution. One might laugh, or cry: one cannot vote for it and respect the referendum result at the same time. Only if Mrs May can close the backstop trap – and not just make pious promises that it won’t be used – could her deal scrape through.
Her reaction to her difficulty is to intensify Government warnings about “no deal”, thus exposing her own Government for leaving everything so late. “No deal” is a form of true Brexit, and very likely, after Mrs May’s mistakes, the only one available. This weekend, she is sending out ministers to preach to the public. The public should hit back, writing politely to their MPS to remind them that they made a contract with us in 2016, and now they must honour it.