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UK Politics

As we take back control from Brussels, we must not forget to protect the British constitution

BY Owen Polley   /  19 December 2017

Ever since the referendum result, the debate around Brexit has too often been conducted in a tone of shrill hysteria. Opponents of leaving the European Union have probably screeched the loudest, predicting catastrophe and slinging around insults, but some Brexiteers are culprits too, with their incessant cries of ‘treachery’ and ‘sell-out’.

Less temperate Leave supporters seem to view the referendum as the defining event in the history of British democracy. They’ll allow nothing to impede this ‘popular uprising’ against the establishment – certainly not the arcane machinery of the UK’s constitution.

It’s particularly alarming when incendiary rhetoric comes from professed conservatives, who should be defending the customs, institutions and conventions of our parliamentary democracy.    

That’s not to argue that there’s a valid case to obstruct Brexit or delay it seriously. In the interests of democratic credibility, that mustn’t be allowed to happen. And there are plenty of powerful people, including MPs, who would like to stop it by methods fair or foul, irrespective of the clear mandate from British voters.

Many of those with a new-fangled enthusiasm for the sovereignty of parliament argued previously that it should be constrained by the powers of the European Union, so it’s not difficult to understand why Leavers suspect their motives.

Yet, that’s not the only source of hypocrisy in this debate. As Remainers have pointed out gleefully, Brexit was supposed to be about restoring power to Westminster. Now, many Leavers seem determined that a deal with the EU should be struck with as little parliamentary oversight as possible.    

There was little justification for the levels of fury directed at eleven Tory rebels, who drafted and supported an amendment to the Brexit bill requiring a ‘meaningful vote’ on any final deal with the EU.

Their rebellion certainly didn’t come at a convenient time for the Conservative Party. Theresa May’s government is engaged in a daily struggle to appear purposeful and united. After rescuing an agreement on the first phase of negotiations, in rather chaotic circumstances, she didn’t need a defeat that cast doubt on her ability to control her own party.

The idea that Britain’s position has been weakened in a way that hostile EU negotiators can exploit, is almost certainly overwrought. Likewise, the notion that Jeremy Corbyn is significantly more likely to become prime minister. Still, these are valid concerns and it’s understandable that they fuelled Tory indignation at the rebels, as well as dismay at the ineptitude of the Conservative whips’ office.

However, it’s entirely wrong to allow party-political anger to become directed at the underlying right of MPs to vote as they see fit, or the House of Commons’ entitlement to scrutinise, amend and defeat legislation. Some of the wilder talk about deselections and ‘people power’ is startlingly careless of the principles of representative democracy.

Some Brexiteers contend that they voted for the British people, rather than Westminster, to “take back control” from Brussels. There’s a seductive kind of reasoning to these statements and they’re calculated to resonate with the public, but what do they mean really?

Do they comprise serious proposals that parliament should no longer be endowed with the authority vested in it by voters? Should every major decision be decided by referendum? Must every refusal to obey the party whip be punished by possible deselection?   

The referendum campaign brought about some strange and uneasy alliances, so some of Brexit’s proponents really do want re-order British society profoundly.  Yet our exit from the EU is not being driven by insurgent radicals, eager to tear down hierarchies and abolish elites, but by the Conservative Party and its supporters, who are supposed to value the benefits – stability, prosperity and individual liberty – that our version of democracy has always protected.      

There’s a responsibility on politicians and commentators to consider, not just how they want Brexit to unfold, but the type of United Kingdom they want to see afterwards. If their vision includes an emasculated parliament, an overweening executive and a sense that plebiscite is the ultimate instrument of political decision-making, then we could lose many of the moderating habits that ensured the British parliamentary system worked successfully for centuries.

There are more important and enduring things in public life than party politics. And, though it may not seem like it at the moment, there are more important and enduring things in public life than Brexit.

The definitive conservative defence of independent voting in parliament was articulated by Edmund Burke, who wrote, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

At its best, leaving the EU is about giving the UK back autonomy and repatriating sovereignty, so that the ‘mother of parliaments’ can govern in a way that suits the needs and aspirations of our nation. If it’s used instead to pull down or undermine traditions and institutions that form the basis of our constitution, Brexit could yet become the type of populist self-harm that its less circumspect opponents have always claimed.