Friday 4 November 2016

Brexit, parliament and the rule of law

I suspect that most of the rest of the world is bemused and dismayed that almost (I hope) half of those likely to vote in the US Presidential election can possibly support a disingenuous maverick such as Donald Trump.

Yet we are experiencing similar irrationality here in the UK.

Yesterday the High Court ruled that it would be illegal for the government to proceed with Brexit without first gaining the approval of parliament.  This is a perfectly reasonable and rational decision based on the facts.

Since the 3rd June the following has been available in the House of Commons Library as part of Briefing Paper 07212 on what was then the coming EU referendum:

This Bill [on which the law authorising the referendum is based] requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, (my emphasis) nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.

Now why this wasn't made clear during the referendum campaign I don't know.   Not making it clear that the referendum was only a consultation - to enable the electorate to express an opinion - was a gross dereliction of duty.  What on earth do our MPs, who pay themselves £74,962 a year -three times the average wage, and with expenses in addition -  think they're there for?

However, three judges of the High court have done their job and made the legal situation clear: it's the Crown in Parliament that is sovereign, so Parliament should have a say.

In response a government minister Sajid Javid, claims on television that the judgement is "an attempt to frustrate the will of the British people" and the Daily Mail refers to "out of touch judges" under the headline "Enemies of the People."  Even the more staid Daily Telegraph headlines "Judges versus the People."

Whoever wrote this rubbish  (with similar nonsense in the Daily Express and the Sun) knows perfectly well that part of any democratic tradition is the rule of law, which states that all, including the government, are equally subject to the law, and it is independent judges, not the government, who decide what the law is.  Indeed, only last year we celebrated the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which made the first steps in establishing these principles.

So, in spite of the negligence of our parliamentarians, indeed to correct the consequences of that negligence, the constitution is working. Alas, hysteria from the pro-Brexiteers and their supporting media attempts to distort the truth and hopes to avoid the quiet calm deliberation which is desperately needed.

When the matter is debated many MPs and peers, the majority of whom favour remaining in the EU, may be too timid  to vote as they believe for fear of accusations of ignoring the "will of the people."

But just what does this will of the people amount to? On a turnout of 72.20%, 58.9 % voted to leave and 48.11% voted to remain.  So, of those entitled to vote, a minority of 37.5% voted to leave, another  of 34.7% voted to remain, whilst 27.8% didn't vote.

Hardly a resounding mandate for anything.

 MPs should remember that they are elected as our representatives to use their judgement for the good of the country.  Even if the electorate's opinion were clear, under no circumstances are they mandated delegates, certainly not bound by the opinions  of just over a third of the electorate.

So MPs of all stripes should do their duty, use their judgement and now, properly given the opportunity,  vote for what they consider is best for the good of the country.  Then, instead of obsessing for the next two years on something they hope won't happen they can concentrate on solving the real problems facing us: growing inequality, lack of affordable housing, a frightening balance of payments deficit, a poisoning planet and low productivity, to mention just a few.

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