It’s been a year and a half since the British public voted for Brexit, but the people are becoming increasingly frustrated by a lack of progress toward actually getting out of the European Union. This week, the Westminster parliament added yet another stage to the process by voting to give themselves the power to veto any deal agreed by the British and EU negotiating teams.
The House of Commons secured themselves the right to a “meaningful vote” on any final Brexit deal, subject to the approval of the House of Lords, by amending the EU Withdrawal Bill. The change was supported by the opposition Labour Party, who has become increasingly resistant to leaving the EU and its associated common market economic zone.
This result is widely considered to be a humiliating defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May, not least because it was made possible by 11 “traitor” members of her own Conservative government voting against the party’s official policy.
The move was met with outrage by Brexiteers and frustration by much of the public, though “Remainers” claim that giving parliament a final say on the deal is democratic. In a representative democracy, parliament certainly has a right to decide on policy, but in this case, the decision was made directly by the people, so what role does parliament really hold when it comes to Brexit?
A VOTE FOR DEMOCRACY OR A TACTIC TO STOP BREXIT?
Reactions to the vote have been mixed, with some claiming that it could be a good thing for Brexit, given that parliament will have the power to reject any unfavorable deals wrought by Theresa May’s demonstrably weak negotiating team. Others perceive the move as merely another tactic to scupper Brexit entirely, particularly as the politicians who voted in favor of the move were Remainers, who never actually wanted to leave the EU, and still don’t.
Government “traitor” and staunch Remainer Nicky Morgan was lambasted when she appeared on the BBC panel show Question Time after voting to secure the “meaningful vote.” Members of the audience booed and said that she tried to “subvert the will of the British people,” while journalist and Brexit supporter Emily Oakshott confronted her, saying, “You have humiliated the Prime Minister, you have undermined her negotiating position and you are not standing up for what the people of this country voted for.”
Ms. Morgan defended her actions, saying “The question is how we leave the European Union.” Fellow rebel Stephen Hammond published a defense in the Guardian titled, I’m proud to be a Conservative Brexit ‘traitor’. We had to take back control. He writes, “This amendment does not stop or delay Brexit,” and backed up Nicky Morgan’s sentiments on determining what kinds of Brexit would eventually occur:
Nicky Morgan Conservative MP
“The referendum told us to leave the EU, but it was completely silent on how we do so. Indeed, some in the leave campaign said we should stay in the single market. Yet, how we choose to leave the EU (not whether we do) will have a significant effect on people and businesses across our country, and it is the most significant and complex constitutional decision this country must make for a generation. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial that this decision is made by parliament, and by each of us on behalf of our constituents. Anything else would be an abdication of our duty as MPs.”
“We put our country first exerting British principles of democracy and free speech,” tweeted another Remainer parliamentarian, Anna Soubry.
While it is fair to say that the referendum put to the British people didn’t specify the process by which the country would leave the EU, it can’t be ignored that these politicians were against Brexit all along, and one wonders whether they aren’t making some attempt to undermine Brexit. Lord Andrew Adonis, who will be reviewing the bill as it passes through the pro-EU House of Lords, gleefully tweeted that decision was, “another step to defeating Brexit.”
DIRECT DEMOCRACY VS. REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
The argument over whether to give parliament a vote at the various stages of the Brexit process is at its core one of how democracy should be carried out. Virtually all modern democracies are representative democracies, where the public trust elected representatives to carry out their will. But what happens when our elected representatives no longer truly represent the people?
While 52% of the British public voted for Brexit, only 27% of the country’s parliamentarians support it. Members of the political elite who are being entrusted with securing Brexit simply do not believe in it, and politicians like Nicky Morgan have here voted against the wishes of their own constituencies.
During the UK’s recent General Election, 85% of people voted for parties that promised to follow through on Brexit, however, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has since betrayed this promise, leaving the public without a viable alternative to Theresa May’s weak government.
“These same people claiming parliamentary democracy…have spent their entire careers trying to get rid of national parliamentary democracy and transferring it to a European level,” noted Nigel Farage, leader of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group in EU parliament.
The referendum on Brexit was an example of direct democracy, which gave the public a rare opportunity to make a direct policy decision. The decision, however, is being inspected and interfered with by so-called “representatives,” who simply do not agree with the people.
It is too early to tell what this divisive defeat means to Brexit, but the questions raised by the seeming betrayal by elected politicians do not bode well for the faith and trust we have in representative Democracies.