The Brexit teacup storms
In debates that are due to last until this evening, the House of Lords have started scrutinising the government’s EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill.
The process takes about two days because a record 191 peers have declared their wish to speak out on the subject of Britain formally giving notice of its intention to leave the EU.
Getting the EU Bill to this stage has been far from a smooth process.
A legal challenge resulted in the Supreme Court deciding that the government couldn’t bypass parliament before sending an email to Brussels to cancel its EU membership.
Judges and MPs have been declared ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘enemies of democracy’ by some newspapers and politicians who’d rather see Britain leave today rather than tomorrow.
I personally think this sets a dangerous precedent.
It implies a ridiculous notion that ‘the people’ are – or should be – a homogenous group who all think alike. Open a random page in a history book and you’ll find that time after time this has proved a slippery slope.
Phrases like ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘traitors’ have no place in a parliamentary democracy. You’ll have better luck trying the section marked ‘totalitarianism’.
Many voters wanted to return democratic powers to the island. Well, behold!
The protests, the court cases, the debates in parliament and the Lords, it’s all part of it. Like it or not, this is how a democracy is supposed to work.
It started with Theresa May’s government thinking it didn’t need parliament to decide on triggering Article 50. Since then, we’ve seen one storm in a teacup after another.
People got upset about an individual making a legal challenge against the government (= democracy), independent judges ruling on the case (= democracy), and directly elected parliamentarians discussing a bill before they decided to adopt, amend or reject the bill (= democracy).
I’m oversimplifying but in broad terms this is what happened.
Why the commotion over such a seemingly straightforward democratic procedure?
Well, the people who protested agreed with the government that the referendum vote was in itself a mandate to leave the EU. No need to run it past parliament.
However, the government agreed in 2010 that referenda cannot be legally binding. Ministers left it up to parliament to decide how to proceed after the result of any referendum.
I’d say that course of action is even more legitimised since the referendum asked for a ‘yes or no’ answer to a complicated question.
While a vote for ‘Remain’ more or less meant keeping things the way they were, ‘Leave’ was a more open-ended answer. As such, Britons’ decision to exit the EU without it implying a single course of action warranted an interpretation of the result rather than the simple implementation of it.
Some people then feared MPs would have the nerve to defy the public and throw out the result. Understandable if you consider that a clear majority of MPs favoured to remain in the EU.
But it’s also important to understand that it’s one thing for Westminster to go against public opinion. It’s quite another to explicitly ask for people to vote on an issue and then ignore the outcome.
David Cameron resigning his premiership over the result the day after the referendum should already have demonstrated that Westminster is taking it seriously.
A few weeks ago these fears proved once again unfounded. An overwhelming majority of MPs backed the EU Bill, without any amendments, even though for a number of MPs doing so went against every bone in their body.
Seems pretty democratic to me.
I guess I just don’t understand the impatience.
The government has made it clear it intends to invoke Article 50 by the end of March. So far I’ve seen no reports that suggest Theresa May’s cabinet won’t make this self-imposed deadline.
The government has committed to this course of action. I realise that the democratic process can appear slow sometimes. But to me that doesn’t justify the government bypassing the rules of democracy, as it tried to do before it was defeated in court.
If you’ll allow the people in power to take a shortcut once, you can be sure they’ll use that road again. Even if you don’t see the harm in it happening now, the next time you might not be so happy about it.
So, why the haste?
Neither judges, nor parliament, nor the Lords have so far given us any indication they don’t intend to respect the outcome of the EU referendum.
All we’ve seen thus far is a desire that the democratic procedure is followed to the letter and everything goes through the proper channels.
Everything that’s happened since the referendum – the court cases, the pro-EU demonstrations in the streets, the discussions in the Palace of Westminster – is democracy at work.
And thus far there’s no reason to believe any of this will even delay the Brexit process as set out by the government.
Brexit is already getting on people’s nerves. Good thing it hasn’t even started yet.