It’s the PM not MPs who is guilty of constitutional arson

InFacts,  31.03.2019
David H.A. Hannay, miembro de la Cámara de los Lores y ex embajador británico (UE-ONU)

As the government apparently contemplated bringing the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal back to Parliament for a fourth attempt to get a majority for a proposition which has already been rejected three times by substantial majorities, it is surely time to be aware of the extent to which the Brexiters are simply making a monkey out of many of the constitutional conventions which have guided this country’s practice of parliamentary democracy for centuries past. One does not have to be a constitutional lawyer, which the present writer is not, to get some idea of the enormity of what is being proposed.

First, we are taught at school that in Britain one Parliament cannot bind the hands of its successors. That, after all, is the doctrine that has enabled the last and the present Parliaments to overrule the decision by the 1970 Parliament to join the European Communities (and also the referendum result in 1975, endorsed by Parliament, to accept that decision). But now it seems that the 2016 referendum result is sacrosanct for eternity, and any attempt by this Parliament to mandate a further referendum would mean the end of civilisation as we know it.

Then, secondly, a ruling by the Speaker of the Commons to apply a convention that has been practised since 1604, that the government should not submit the same proposal twice in one session has been denounced as an affront to democracy, despite the fact that it is designed to protect the legislature against the executive’s powers of influence and patronage being deployed to get its measures through.

And, thirdly, you might think listening to Brexiters like Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the Commons, that we had turned ourselves into a fully-fledged plebiscitary democracy like Switzerland, not the representative parliamentary democracy we fashioned for ourselves over many centuries. Except that she does not even apply Swiss practice very faithfully, since it is not unknown in Switzerland to hold a second, confirmatory referendum which comes to rather different conclusions to the first (that is what has happened in the case of freedom of movement of labour between the EU and Switzerland).

We are also taught that Parliament is sovereign and that its will prevails over the executive if it votes that way. Not anymore apparently. Even if this week Parliament finds a majority in favour of an alternative to the government’s Brexit deal, the government is refusing to say that it will go back to Brussels and ask for more time to negotiate on a new basis. And even though both Houses of Parliament have categorically rejected leaving the EU without a deal, the government refuses to accept that this requires them to avoid crashing out on 12 April.

So, why are all these constitutional conventions being flouted? The answer is really quite simple. Because applying them would cause a split in the Cabinet and the governing party which does not even have a majority in Parliament. That cannot be a justification for what is being contemplated. Let us hope that Parliament will uphold that view effectively in the days ahead.

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