People rarely get the chance to have a direct say in political affairs but when they do, the consequences can be dramatic as the constitutional crisis that has erupted over Brexit testifies.
Parliament and the government are at bitter odds with each other, and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has announced plans for a new independence referendum on the grounds that her country voted heavily to remain in the European Union.
Oh, and there’s a major court case under way over the scope of the government’s powers to formally announce the UK is leaving the EU.
The vote to leave the EU led to the immediate resignation of Tory prime minister David Cameron and the formation of a new government led by Remainers but with leading Brexiteers tasked with getting the UK out of the EU.
The three Brexiteers in question – David Davies, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox – campaigned on the basis that Britain would once again have a sovereign state and Parliament, a sentiment repeated by new prime minister Theresa May when she addressed the Tory conference.
Many were persuaded to vote for Leave on the grounds that, as Johnson put, “we would take back control” from Brussels bureaucrats who were allegedly lording it over Westminster.
How ironic, therefore, that the same Brexiteers should deny Parliament any sovereignty over what kind of exit the UK should seek, let alone a vote before May triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty sometime before next March to formally begin the process.
A divided government with a small majority is not only at war with itself over so-called hard or soft Brexit (as if the UK will simply be able to call the tune in negotiations with the EU), it is now in an inter-state conflict with Parliament itself. Tory MP Stephen Phillips took to the pages of the liberal Guardian to register his shock and what the government was doing.
He had been persuaded to ignore what he called the divisive, xenophobic and lying nature of the Leave campaign because he considered the “sovereignty of parliament” to “inform and direct the government of the day” more important. He added:
“Not giving parliament the chance, before article 50 is invoked, to say where it thinks these negotiations should end up is, at its core, undemocratic, unconstitutional and likely to exacerbate the divisions in our society to which the referendum gave rise. It also ignores the views of nearly half the people who voted in the referendum, who were perfectly content with our place in the EU. Ignoring them, even though they were (just) in the minority, is not merely divisive but plain wrong.”
Philip Johnston, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, claimed that “until now we have accepted that the popular will should be exercised through Parliament, or more precisely the Crown in Parliament”. Then he let fly:
“Persistent ministerial assertions that the referendum outcome gave the Government a clear mandate to conduct the negotiations in a particular way are simply false …the alternative is that the executive decides these matters on its own with no proper accountability. That really is a democratic deficit. Actually, let’s not mince words. That’s dictatorship.”
On top of that, a group of pro-EU business types has raised considerable funds to take the government to court over Article 50. They are challenging the right of the government to kick-start the process without first getting the approval of Parliament. Needless to say, the government is opposing the action on the grounds that it doesn’t need prior approval.
The government’s position rests on its claim to have inherited the “royal prerogative” under our ancient and confusing constitutional settlement that dates back to 1689 when the Bill of Rights voted through by MPs formally transferred powers from the monarch to Parliament.
However, with the march of time and the building of a capitalist type of state, those powers were once again transferred – this time to the government or executive. These powers have included the power to sign treaties, as Edward Heath did in 1972 when he signed for Britain’s membership of what was then the EEC. An Act of Parliament ratified membership but only after it was a done deal.
So wherever political power in Britain lies, it’s certainly not with Parliament. The government sets the agenda for Parliament and introduces legislation, which is increasingly in outline form. Parliament’s power waned and was eroded by the mid-19th century when party politics took over.
Nevertheless, the constitutional conflict within the state over Brexit reflects a deeper disquiet within society at large. The Brexit vote, while it also contained xenophobic overtones, was an historic rejection of powerlessness felt by a substantial part of the population, a vote against rampant globalisation for profit, a vote against inequality and a vote against an undemocratic EU.
Leaving the EU won’t in itself provide a satisfactory answer to this sort of rejectionism. A real democracy that puts people in control in their workplaces, communities, cities, regions and nations is not possible within a state system that is predisposed towards corporate and financial power.
A good place to start mapping out the alternative is through joining the online discussion “Towards a Real Democracy in the UK and Ireland” on Tuesday, October 18. Details about how you can connect can be found here.