com­ment

MPS are meant to hon­our the re­sults of a vote. If they don’t, they un­der­mine their own le­git­i­macy

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - Charles Moore

‘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.

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