(Republished. A version of this appeared on the LRB Blog, 14 September.)
The Commons vote last night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including the Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional, in spirit at least. Remember, Britain is a Parliamentary democracy, not a plebiscitary one. Parliamentary democracy is no less ‘democratic’, essentially, than more ‘direct’ kinds. What it does is to express and put into practice the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time.
The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs right against this; especially in view of the existential importance of the decision taken on that day, and the unreliable nature (to say the least) of the debate leading up to it. The British constitution deliberately sets up a process to avoid that, and to produce more considered – but equally ‘democratic’ – verdicts. That’s important. But it’s exactly what the tabloid press, together with the Daily Telegraph, are objecting to, in this and in other cases surrounding Brexit. They were surprised by the Brexit vote, as was virtually everyone, including the Brexiteers themselves, which suggests that they were aware of the fragility of it; and were consequently nervous that it might be countermanded after fuller and more mature popular consideration, on the basis of the solider knowledge that the last few months of ‘negotiation’ (so-called) have revealed to all of us – knocking some wind out of the more optimistic Brexiteers’ sails. Put bluntly, they’d prefer a knee-jerk reaction to be implemented, rather than a calmer one.
Those who insist on Parliament’s even discussing these matters, and insist on a vote at the end of the process, when we’ll know what we’re voting for, are traduced as trying to undermine democracy, and even as ‘enemies of the people’ (the Daily Mail). The Daily Telegraph over the last week has been dismissing the debates about Parliamentary accountability as being abstruse, technical, a waste of time, intended simply to delay, and ‘merely about process’. But that’s the thing. Process is vital to all constitutional democracies. (It’s what ‘constitutional’ means.) Theresa May’s gerrymandering of the Commons Committee system, and her invoking of ‘Henry VIII’ rules (allowing the executive to pass laws without legislative agreement), will gravely hinder our (British) process, and hence damage our kind of democracy.
Brexiteers claimed they wanted to repatriate British laws. This shows how much they understand them. And confirms May’s authoritarian tendencies; which were there for all to see during her stint as Home Secretary. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2017/05/04/may-and-history/. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Not a nice woman, our Theresa.
Even if there were a second referendum, after a vote in Parliament on the Brexit terms, I fully accept that it might well go the same way as the first. But at least in that case our exit from the EU would have been effected constitutionally. Which hopefully would be accepted by the Remainers with a better grace than we are bound to accept the result of the verdict of 23 June last year with, based as it was on the blatant and deliberate lies of Farage, Boris and Gove, and robbing so many of us of one of our prized identities. (I’m still waiting for my Swedish – and hence EU – passport.) Otherwise the political and social wounds of this divisive and ill-tempered contest will fester for decades to come.