The Brexit crisis is not the only emergency facing the UK and leaving the EU could spell the end for another union
The UK is facing a major crisis because of the consequences and complexities involved in exiting the European Union.
But an even greater calamity lies buried in the Brexit debacle.
The underlying condition of the constitutional order – whose malaise makes the Brexit debacle possible – could see the United Kingdom exit not just from the EU but from existence.
The Supreme Court has ruled that there must be a Parliamentary debate on whether to trigger Article 50. Efforts by Theresa May and the Brexit cabal to dodge a full Parliamentary debate are in effect efforts to sideline the principles on which the Supreme Court reached this view, and the role of Parliament.
This is a subversion of our representative democracy, and is a vivid symptom of what is so badly wrong with the British polity.
To understand the crisis that the UK is facing, recollect the facts.
The EU referendum of 2016 was not prompted by any downturn in relations between the UK and the EU or any threat posed by Europe to our prosperity, security or well-being.
On the contrary, the UK was benefitting handsomely from EU membership in many respects, from the staffing of the NHS to the leading role of the UK in European science, from the huge and profitable role of the City in European as well as global finance to the equally profitable business and investment conduit into Europe that the UK represented.
No, there was no problem with EU membership, though xenophobic irritation at immigrants (often fellow EU citizens) in some quarters, mendaciously exacerbated by the Daily Mail and its ilk, masked the net contribution that their presence in the UK makes.
Instead the EU referendum was promised by David Cameron to spike the guns of the Tory right-wing, and to prevent the loss of votes to UKIP in some constituencies. It was entirely an internal Conservative Party matter.
Cameron doubtless did not expect there to be a referendum because he did not expect to win a majority in the 2015 election. When to his surprise he did so, he lazily and thoughtlessly allowed the referendum to be poorly organised.
Its main fault lay in excluding from the franchise those most materially concerned in its outcome: 16-17 year olds, a large tranche of British expatriates, and EU citizens living and paying taxes in the UK.
All three constituencies were allowed to vote in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014; had they voted in the EU referendum the result would have been markedly the other way. Their exclusion was gerrymandering.
We now approach the nub of the matter. The EU referendum was explicitly an advisory, non-binding poll. MPs were told this very clearly in the briefing they were given before debating the Bill.
They were also explicitly alerted to the fact that if there were to be any question otherwise, a supermajority would be required – the norm in most mature constitutions is a two-thirds majority.
In the event a mere 37% of the gerrymandered electorate voted Leave. This is a proportion too small for a strike to be permitted in any important public service in the UK, and by far too little to trigger a general election out of Parliamentary term, this requiring 66% of all MPs, whether they vote or not.
Treating the referendum as binding and its 37% Leave percentage as mandating is both dishonest and politically illegitimate.
In order to behave as if the outcome of the referendum were binding and had a supermajority in support, May and the Brexiteer cabal have comprehensively sidelined Parliament, despite it being constitutionally the sovereign body in our polity to which the executive should be answerable.
The Brexiteers, now alas including the once-sensible Philip Hammond, is deliberately avoiding Parliament in order to hasten the UK past the possibility that MPs will halt the Brexit process. This they could do given that the considered and informed judgment of most of them, before the referendum, was that EU membership is in the UK’s interests. The facts on which that judgment is based have not changed, so an unwhipped vote in Parliament on the rational case would stop Brexit in its tracks.
Not only has May made every effort so far to have no debate in Parliament on whether Article 50 should be triggered – this being the same as debating whether the advice of the advisory referendum should be taken – she has said that although there will at last be a debate in several years’ time, after a ‘deal’ has been struck with the EU, whatever vote results from that debate will be ignored anyway. Brexit will, she asserts, definitely happen. This of course makes that promised future debate pointless.
One aspect of the real crisis, therefore, is the drastic subversion of the Parliamentary system that we are witnessing. We are seeing what is tantamount to a coup by the executive. It is stealing the country from under our noses without any check or question from the body that is meant to be constitutionally sovereign in our polity. It is incomprehensible that MPs themselves are not mightily up in arms about this, and demanding that the executive present itself before both Houses of Parliament to be called to account.
The degrading of Parliament in our political process is happening because the Party system has enfeebled our democracy. Whipping votes in Parliament, party patronage and disposal of ministerial office, and the closed shop nature of electoral candidature, have together made the vast majority of MPs mere lobby fodder for most purposes, with revolts against leaderships a very rare and usually timid occurrence. In Robert Walpole’s day the robust independence of MPs would never have allowed an executive to scorn Parliament in this unconscionable way.
Moreover the nature of representative democracy, in which MPs are meant not to be simple messenger boys and girls reporting their constituents’ sentiments, but informed and rational agents acting on their behalf in their best interests by getting the facts and examining them carefully, seems to have been forgotten by MPs, and not known by the public.
The second aspect of the crisis, and the reason why the UK will leave history if it leaves the EU, is that Scotland and perhaps Northern Ireland will leave the UK. That is why the UK will leave history: it will no longer be the UK.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have every reason to refuse to be dragged into the morass of negative consequences into which English right-wing Tories and English tabloid newspapers and English xenophobia are plunging us. Along with many who campaigned to keep the Union together at the time of the Scottish independence referendum, I would now strongly support it: Brexit is an irrational and damaging project, and there is no reason why a strongly pro-EU Scotland should be forced to eat the rubbish that the Brexiteers are seeking to serve up.
The end of Parliamentary sovereignty, the end of the UK, and not just the end of all the advantages of EU membership, add up to the real crisis we face. Professor AC Grayling, Master, New College of the Humanities