The UK’s political, social and economic landscape has changed beyond recognition since June 23rd. But did the Leave result mean this was inevitable? Colin Talbot argues that we appear to have overturned our Parliamentary democracy in favour of a public vote – a ‘plebiscitary democracy’ – and the enormous impact of this has only just begun to be felt.
The EU referendum result came as a shock to just about everyone, including the leaders of the “Leave” campaign (and me). The aftershocks of this earthquake in British politics are still being felt. Three of the central antagonists – the Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of “Leave” Boris Johnson and leader of UKIP Nigel Farage – have all ‘resigned’. The leader of the Opposition is clinging onto office by his fingernails.
These individual dramas and excitements are, however, mere sideshows. The real tragedy is the way the British constitution has been turned on its head.
Scotland: what could have happened
Let us start with a small fantasy. Suppose, following the 2014 Scottish independence referendum the following had happened.
Firstly, all parties agreed this was an irreversible verdict of the Scottish people on independence. The “people had spoken” and henceforth the question was forever settled – Scotland would remain part of the UK. No second chances.
Secondly, accepting this verdict the Scottish National Party – which had campaigned for decades to be free of the UK – would now reverse its position, recognize the verdict of the voters, and become a Unionist party.
Absurd? Of course. But that is effectively what has happened to the UK.
An irreversible decision?
On June 24th the Conservative party and government declared that “the people had spoken” and an irreversible decision had been taken. Despite the fact this was merely an “advisory” referendum it was taken to be a mandate which government, parliament and political parties had to accept.
The Prime Minister immediately announced his resignation, saying the decision was irreversible, and delayed his departure only to allow time for the Conservatives to elect a new leader. The aspirant leaders of the Conservative party, without exception, declared with one voice “we are all Brexiteers now”. The Leader of the Opposition called for the immediate activation of Article 50 of the EU Treaties that would irrevocably begin the process of the UK exiting the EU. The SNP accepted this was a ‘done deal’ and immediately re-activated their independence plans.
All of this in the name of taking back power to the sovereign Parliament of the UK – the one body that apparently has no real say in what happens now.
The UK has no written constitution but allegedly holds to the principle that Parliament is sovereign. Yet Parliament has just – apparently – been totally overruled by an “advisory” popular plebiscite.
It is not even clear that Parliament – which passed the legislation that made the UK part of the EU – will have any say whatsoever on when, or if, Article 50 to leave the EU is activated. Once it is, the UK is leaving the EU, come what may. So the executive (Government) will have effectively over-ruled Parliament’s passage of the legislation that joined us to the EU.
More than that, the right to Opposition – recognized officially within our Parliamentary system – has apparently just been removed. Now any challenge to the referendum result is said to be “undemocratic”. The decision to “leave” is said to be unchallengeable and irreversible.
Not only that but the political parties must now all become pro-Brexit – for that is the logic of “the people have spoken” and “we are all Brexiteers now” which the Conservatives have already embraced, and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition seemed to have endorsed. And now the final apparent overturning of Parliamentary democracy is being played out. The Conservative Party – with a tiny majority – in conducting hustings (in secret) to decide which two of the five (now all Brexit) leadership candidates will go forward to a ballot of 150,000 or so Tory members.
This tiny sliver of the UK electorate will then decide which of the two will become our Brexit Prime Minister – only a year after a General Election in which that was not on offer (except by UKIP who gained only 1 MP). Moreover this purely internal Tory party process will also decide an entirely new prospectus about what future relationship the UK to the EU and the rest of the world will be.
What did voters really mean?
Do we want to be in the European Economic Area (EEA) with all that entails – or totally outside of it? What level of control of EU migration do we want? What rights of the millions of UK citizens living in the EU are we willing to sacrifice ?
The various Tory candidates put forward their own versions and interpretations of what they think “the people have spoken” means on all these issues, but the actual people – the voters – will have no say in choosing which of them they really “meant”. The only question on the ballot was ‘remain’ or ‘leave’.
The effective over-turning of Parliamentary democracy in favor of plebiscitary “democracy”, the removal of the right to challenge and reverse decisions, the change without election of our Government from one regime to another, and the resulting probable break-up of the UK – all this heralds a massive constitutional and institutional crisis.
It won’t end here.
- A version of this blog post was first published at https://colinrtalbot.wordpress.com