By Marcus Hendriks
The referendum on 23rd June was only the third in the history of the United Kingdom. In other words, it was only the third time that true, direct democracy was witnessed. With precedent set by a nation-wide vote on membership of the European Economic Community in 1975, it was correct that the decision 41 years later should also be made by the people, rather than just the 1,400 members of the Houses of Commons and Lords.
But the vote to leave the European Union was merely hopping on to the first stone across the river; many debates, many disagreements, and many more decisions are still on the horizon. It is vital for the political pulse and integrity of the system that democratic values are upheld as Britain continues to make its journey over to the other side.
On Wednesday, in order to mollify the fierce cross-party calls for more parliamentary involvement in the process, Theresa May conceded to holding a debate in the House of Commons. She held firm, however, on her refusal to grant MPs a vote on triggering Article 50. Despite that, it transpired the following morning that senior judges will hear the legal case for granting MPs a vote, revealing how there is still widespread denial about the definitive nature of a national referendum. Both of the developments contributed positively to the democratic process behind Brexit, but the result threatens those values.
Firstly, a debate in the House of Commons signified that the government is being monitored by those whom the people elect to represent them in a representative democracy. Logically, the more representatives involved in brainstorming an approach to the looming negotiations with Brussels, the more democratic that approach will be. For the Davis-Johnson-Fox triumvirate to have free rein in this regard would be more akin to the Aristocratic Guardianship endorsed by Plato in The Republic than any form of democracy, and I doubt that even Boris Johnson’s most ardent aficionado would see him as a ‘philosopher-king’. As it is unfeasible for the entire of the United Kingdom’s population to gather and thrash out a plan of action, the power endowed to the MPs – to act on our behalf and supervise the government– is most sensible and apposite in our political system.
The other reason why the events of yesterday were auspicious for those who value democracy is that these MPs are not to be given a vote on triggering Article 50. On 23rd June, the people exercised their democratic rights directly on this issue of national importance by choosing to temporarily rescind the compromise of representative democracy. As a result, the MPs were relieved of their duty to represent the people, instead being free to join them in voting on membership of the EU. Indeed, the fact that the MPs have already had the chance to contribute their opinion on the matter is one that should be remembered whenever the case for a parliamentary vote is heard from one of them.
A parliamentary vote on triggering Article 50 would, in effect, give the representatives of the general will a veto on a decision made by that very general will. The argument coming from the lawyers arguing for a vote in the Houses – that the referendum was merely a ‘consultation’ – is simply absurd; since when do 650 MPs view the result of a nationwide vote merely as advice which they are free to listen to or ignore?
Last month a committee of peers argued that a lack of vote in either of the Houses would be “constitutionally inappropriate”. Ironically, the exact opposite is true. Even if the MPs and Lords were to acknowledge the weight of a national referendum and duly trigger Article 50, the notion that parliament trumps the people would still have been established. Those elected in the faith that they will uphold the people’s wishes have no right to reverse, or even question their decision.
The role of parliament in the Brexit process is, therefore, one of surveillance. Debates such as the one held yesterday, during which Theresa May was faced with 170 questions from across the political spectrum, are healthy, beneficial, and should take place. Those in government appointed to take centre stage in the negotiations must be reminded that there is more at stake than simply their own personal legacy: the livelihoods and futures of millions of people, both in the UK and on the other side of The Channel.
Moving on to when a prospective deal is eventually agreed with the remaining 27 members of the EU, it should then be within the people’s prerogative to vote on its ratification, not the MP’s. In other words, a second referendum will be necessary to conclude the process in a manner true to democratic values.
Any deal which can be satisfactory to all 28 countries will inevitably require compromise from all sides. It seems likely, for example, that the United Kingdom will have to choose between full control over immigration and access to the free market. Given that the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU all had varying reasons and priorities, the exact nature of a proposed Brexit deal will elicit different reactions; if concessions have been made over border control, voters who chose to leave the EU for this reason might feel that it is in fact better to remain in the Union after all.
The idea that the UK could drag 27 other states through 2 years of painstaking negotiations, only to reject a final deal, might seem rich and even impudent. The fact is, however, that the national debate was conducted in purely hypothetical realms. Both sides were making arguments and claims about unprecedented and future issues which were (and still are) impossible to predict, despite the confident clairvoyance and bumptious bravado on display. It was on these tenuous arguments, rather than concrete facts, that people had to decide which box to tick.
The reality of a deal agreed in the future could be radically different from the one imagined by voters in June. The effects of ratifying this deal will be enormous, and so they are effects which the people themselves must have the power to consent to, or reject. For this decision to be made by 1,400, who are clearly not in accordance with the views of the 64 million, would be an affront to democracy.