The Brexit Article 50 trigger Bill : a greater betrayal
The House of Commons has given a first reading to Mrs May’s Article 50 trigger Bill by a large majority. Triggering Article 50 before the end of March, or at any other time, will start the process, probably unstoppable, of taking Britain out of the EU on whatever dismal terms we can get. A substantial majority of MPs of almost every party knows that Brexit will be a disaster for Britain economically and on every other level. Those of every party who voted for the Bill in that knowledge have betrayed their country and their duty as members of parliament.
But this parliamentary vote and the justification offered by numerous MPs for the way they voted, both for and against the Bill, represent another betrayal whose consequences may turn out to be almost as damaging as Brexit itself. Too many MPs on both sides have explained their votes as “representing” the views of their constituents, in cases where an MP for a constituency where a majority voted to Remain last June voted against the Bill for that reason, or an MP whose constituents mostly voted to Leave voted accordingly in favour of the Bill. It’s understandable, in a way, for an MP to want to avoid voting in parliament in ways that will disappoint or even anger a large number of his or her constituents, especially the handful of party activists who may well see it, inexcusably, as a reason to for deselecting the MP and thus terminating his career. But it can’t be too strongly stressed that this cannot ever be a justification for any MP to vote contrary to his own judgement of the best interests of the country, whether or not that means voting contrary to the wishes of his constituents, or his local party members, or its passionate activists. MPs are elected to act in parliament according to their own best judgement, not in obedience to their constituents, or to the electorate at large as expressed in a referendum or an opinion poll or in mass emailings, nor even in obedience to their party leader or his whips. MPs’ plain duty is to lead public opinion, not to be enslaved by it.
The decay in understanding of that principle and respect for it poses a great danger to our democracy. It risks making public opinion – or, worse, the opinion of political zealots in the local parties, of the gutter press and the unaccountable social media – the arbiter of great and complex decisions that can’t safely be made on the basis of catchy slogans and misleading simplifications. Such decisions may require prolonged technical research and debate with professional advisers inside and outside government. Ordinary voters in the High Street, even the party zealots, have no obligation or ability to carry out such research and discussion. We elect our MPs to do those things for us. If they get it wrong, we have our remedy at the next election. But we are in danger of slipping into a culture of MPs’ obedience to an uninformed and often misled public opinion, especially that part of it in each MP’s constituency. The claim to your MP’s obedience to instructions from his constituents not only means a demand that MPs must if necessary betray their consciences and best judgement of the public good: it makes a nonsense of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, which Brexit was supposed to restore. Even worse, it is bound to lead to bad decisions, contrary to the country’s best interests, likely to damage the living standards of ordinary British people as well as Britain’s standing in the world. Such was the bad decision made in the House of Commons the other night, when most of those who helped to make it knew that it was bad.
It will be said in defence of those who voted for last night’s Bill that they acted out of “respect” for the result of last June’s referendum, with its tantalisingly narrow majority for Leave. But this won’t wash either. As a matter of unvarnished fact, the referendum was advisory only – as not only the wording but also a reading of the debates on the legislation that set it up confirms. Yesterday a Tory MP had the gall to declare in the debate on the Article 50 debate that while the referendum had been only advisory, the promise in the Conservative party manifesto to act on its result had made it binding – as if a Conservative party manifesto has the force of law and the power to override a parliamentary statute. The referendum had the status of an official opinion poll. It provided information about the state of public opinion on an over-simplified issue, shorn of all its conditions and contexts – in or out? The only legitimate conclusion to be drawn from it is that on a specific date seven months ago, the opinions of those who chose to vote were almost equally divided, and that this was also probably true of opinion in the country as a whole. This left parliament and government with the freedom and above all the obligation to follow their own best judgement as to Britain’s future in the EU. To interpret the referendum result as a “decision” and an “instruction” to parliament, requiring an obedience that must override MPs’ and ministers’ own best judgements, is patently perverse, and plain contrary to constitutional principles. Those are the fundamental principles that last night’s parliamentary vote most blatantly betrayed. Hats off especially to the minority of MPs who voted in accordance with their conscience and judgement, not just to placate their constituents.
Let’s hope that the House of Lords will show itself to be made of sterner, more principled and more courageous stuff. They may be – are – unelected, but at least they have nothing to fear from enraged constituents. Nobody is going to abolish or “reform” the House of Lords for delaying the Article 50 trigger when everyone’s hands are full with the enormous issues arising from the disastrous referendum result. And many will see delay as offering opportunities.