Should MPs and peers vote through the Brexit Bill and drop the thoughtful and valuable amendments the Lords attached to it?
Yes is the answer to that, and for a very simple reason: Parliament and all the political parties, for that matter, long since transferred “sovereignty” (about which there is so much argument and misunderstanding) from themselves to the people.
That is, in effect, what the Referendum Bill did, it is what was said by virtually every politician on all sides of the debate, it was in at least some of the propaganda, and it was clearly understood by the people that their vote would count and wasn’t just an opinion poll that was going to be taken into account legally, morally and politically.
Parliament abdicated its role when it passed the buck to the British people to decide the issue in a plebiscite. All that has happened since is simply hysterical shouting – a mass attempt by the political classes to come to terms with the fact that they sold the pass years ago, and it is now too late to correct the original mistake.
This, by the way, is where Jeremy Corbyn is actually ahead of his party in his understanding of what happened. For ask yourself what would now happen if Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and – in a parallel universe – a more substantial phalanx of Tory rebels actually manage to defeat the Brexit Bill or attach so many conditions to it that it became meaningless. What would the voters think about that? What would the reaction be? It does not bear contemplation.
Even if we have a vote on the terms of Brexit in Parliament in 2019, as we ought to, there will be a tumult to have a vote among the general public too. What if Parliament and people disagree? Our constitution has no way of resolving that, not even the Supreme Court.
Parliament now has no role on Brexit – as we see. It has to pass legislation to put the popular will into effect. Beyond that, though, it has no more effectiveness than a talking shop, and nor should it, given its abdication. In fact, on this fundamental issue, its role has become like that of the Queen, where Royal Assent to a bill is necessary to turn it into law, as the final endorsement of the crown and the state, but has been a mere ceremonial convention since the time of Queen Anne. Our MPs and peers made themselves functionally redundant so far as Brexit is concerned when they passed the original referendum bill.
Of course it wasn’t like this when we went into the then European Communities, in 1971-73. The then prime minster, Ted Heath, took the view that his general election mandate from 1970 and the various hard-fought but affirmative votes in Parliament were sufficient to bring the Treaty of Rome into British law. They constituted “full-hearted consent”, in a famous phrase of the day.
There was no referendum – that came later, under a Labour government, after joining, as a method of holding the Labour Party together (plus ca change). As a national referendum it had no precedents.
As we see from the trouble in Scotland about the second referendum, and, no doubt again soon, the wrangles over “border poll” referenda in Northern Ireland (abstention and non-acceptance of legitimacy on various sides being the big issues there), referenda are not as handy as they seem. Indeed, they can create more difficulties and erode political consensus rather than forge a national determination.
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When we had the 1975 vote to confirm British membership, the “anti-EEC” lobby, or some of them, said that the people had spoken, and that they accepted the result. Not for long. A few years later, in 1983, getting out of Europe was back in the Labour manifesto.
Nicola Sturgeon is no more reconciled to Scotland staying in the UK than she was a couple of years ago when 55 per cent of Scots opted to stay in the UK. It didn’t change her mind. Nor would another “Remain in UK” vote. I’m sceptical that the DUP and militant unionists would accept a Northern Ireland referendum that accepted a united Ireland inside the EU.
Referenda, in other words, do not settle things for very long, let alone for a generation. Those who are so upset about Brexit now should never have voted for or supported the idea of a national “in/out” referendum; it may have been David Cameron’s great strategic blunder, but he was not alone in his enthusiasm for it, it having even been a Lib Dem manifesto commitment in the past. That is why we are where we are now.