Who governs Britain is the question we must now answer.
One week ago, the British people voted, by a slim majority, in favour of leaving the European Union.
The voters gave their opinion. That is all they did. But by doing so they provoked a Constitutional crisis for the United Kingdom, which may yet turn into an existential one. The question is no longer about Europe; the question today is simply ‘Who governs Britain?’
The Constitutional position is this: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern is governed by Parliament. Parliament has sovereignty, except in exceptional circumstances such as wartime when the Government, which is the executive formed of Parliamentarians, may use special powers, called ‘Henry VIII powers’ to force through legislation without debate.
Britain is at a moment of real crisis.It is exacerbated by the fact that the Parliamentarians, those very people who today should be uniting and resolving to deal with the threat, are bickering and fighting amongst themselves like spoiled children. They are wrangling for narrow advantage when they should rise above. They are ignoring their duty in the hope that it will go away. They must stop, take a deep breath, and get back to work. Their country needs them more than it has in over three decades.
They have to confront and answer the question, ‘Who governs Britain?’ and they have but little time to do it.
If they get the answer wrong then the UK will leave the EU, the membership of which has been the cornerstone of the UK’s economic development for four decades.
Consequences of getting it wrong
Already the pound, that much-vaunted currency, is in free-fall. It has lost over 10% in a week.
Interest rates for homeowners will rise, because the UK’s credit rating has been lowered by all the rating agencies now. So it will be more expensive for UK banks to borrow money and they will pass on that cost.
Commodities, which are paid for in dollars, will become more expensive. Your nice new iPhone will cost more.
It’s not just financial: racist attacks have proliferated across England. People are going to get killed; indeed, that tragedy has already begun.
At the same time, the ‘Leave’ campaign is now saying that the UK will have to accept a continuation of free movement of people and accept that British goods being sold in the Euro free market area must conform to EU standards. Across the board of claims they made prior to the vote, they are climbing down.
This agony will be protracted. According to Michael Gove, it will take at least two years before Article 50 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty might be invoked and then another two years (subject to extension by mutual agreement) for it to be finalised.
None of this period even begins until September and the country has a Prime Minister again. So it might not finish until late 2020 or even beyond. Under the terms of the 2011 Fixed-term Parliament Act, there must be a General Election in spring of that year. Since no Parliament is bound by the acts of a previous, the new Parliament could just tear it all up and say ‘We changed our mind.’
The EU will welcome us back and, if we’re lucky, even let us retain part of our budget rebate, which is the mechanism by which British people pay less to be members of the EU than they should.
In the meantime, economic turmoil and uncertainty will continue and it is very likely that by the end of it the UK will be in the depths of a recession the likes of which we have not seen since the 1980s — or worse. Savings will evaporate, house-prices will tumble and lives will be ruined.
As if that were not bad enough, from the UK’s point of view, Scotland is already preparing for a no-holds-barred struggle to get out of it and remain in the EU. And no matter how much blimps in the shires might think Scotland powerless, at the end of the day, Scotland can simply declare itself independent. You seriously think the English Army is going to take it back? This is not 1850.
Almost every promise made by the ‘Leave’ campaign has proven to be a lie, in under seven days.
So: a non-binding referendum has been held in which, by a narrow majority, on the basis of a pack of lies, electors voted in favour of leaving the EU. The consequences of doing as that Referendum suggests would be catastrophic, as described above.
Suppose Parliament does its duty and governs.
All of that misery can be avoided if Parliament does its duty and governs. If it says that the sovereign body in the UK is Parliament, not some slick trumped-up referendum created by Parliament with no powers over it. If Parliamentarians assert their independence and authority.
What happens if Parliament says, ‘Well, that’s all very interesting and thank you for your opinion, but it’s our decision and we reject it. We will not agree to leave the EU.’
Well, our European friends will be elated. They might even give us some more concessions, seeing as how close it all came. The economy will stabilise. Uncertainty will be removed from the markets. The pound will rise and so fuel and other commodity prices will drop. It will take some time for the UK to recover its ‘triple A’ credit rating, but it will eventually get there and in the meantime mortgage pressure will ease. There will be no protracted recession. The world can turn its attention to the real crises that face us.
The Scottish case for Independence will not vanish and Scotland may well leave anyway; but it will be that much harder for it to do so without the boost of being told it must leave the EU against its will. Scots, as I have always said, must build a solid majority for independence; the country should not be bounced into anything.
We live in an interconnected age when ‘people power’ seems very strong. We forget that it is strong only for the privileged.
The representational Parliamentary democracy that the UK enjoys is a model for successful governance and it has been largely adopted through the free world. It provides for people of sincerity and good intent to make sensible decisions for the benefit of everyone.
Populist demagogues like Trump, Johnson and Farage are not so constrained. They are motivated by petty self-interest and they do not care whom they harm. These people are the modern equivalents of Hitler and Mussolini. Their tactics are ever the same: blame all the ills of society on a defenceless minority; set out to persecute that minority; and then claim the credit for fixing the problem. Of course, in reality, nothing has been achieved but misery.
So what is Parliament to do? The referendum result is not binding upon it. It must exercise its judgement. It must do its job. Parliamentarians must, for a while, leave aside their self-interested bickering and do what they are elected and paid to do: govern.
The only body in the UK that can decide who governs Britain is Parliament. That is why this is its moment of truth. It can decide to stand to the line and accept the solemn duty placed upon it, to provide wisdom and just decisions. Or it can abrogate its responsibility and cede its sovereignty to a pack of populist demagogues, who have stoked up a firestorm of racism and hatred on the back of blatant untruths.
Democracy will be served by Parliament asserting its sovereignty. Who governs Britain is the most important question in the country today, and this has to be settled. If Parliament refuses to shoulder this burden, instead allowing the country to be ruled by hatred and fear, then it is right that it should fall.
Being British is a conundrum in a pluralistic, multicultural age. I am Scottish, British and European. But if to be British has merit at all, then it is in being part of a culture that believes in fairness; that protects the weak; that is ruled by just laws, decided on by decent men and women acting in the interest of all their constituents.
If Parliament denies this role and enacts the will of the referendum willy-nilly, then it will have shamed itself. It will have shamed the memory of every great Parliamentarian from Oliver Cromwell to Tam Dalyell. It will have publicly proclaimed its own cowardice, spinelessness and unworthiness.
Communicate with your MP. That is how British democracy works.
There is a legitimate way that the public will may be expressed: through Parliamentarians. It is a method that has always existed and today is easier than ever before. That is to engage with your Member of Parliament tell them what you think.
You can write to them or go to their surgeries. That is why these conventions exist — so that you can express your opinion to your representative. It doesn’t matter whether you share a political affiliation with your MP. He or she is your representative first, and a member of a political party second.
That is how our democracy works, by direct contact with our representatives, not by cheap, slick referendums. Not by the political conveniences of a vapid Prime Minister who thought running the country was the same as orchestrating a PR campaign for a brand of soap.
The electors of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland must, right now, communicate with their MPs and tell them: ‘We, the people, expect you, our representatives, to do your job. To declare that you will not be swayed by the result of a non-binding popular opinion poll. That you will decide what to do in the best interest of your electorate and your country, after considering the consequences and the options. That you will behave as an elected Member of Parliament should.’
Parliament governs Britain.
Who governs Britain? Parliament does. It merely has to reassert its authority. But our elected representatives need to know what we expect of them.
They must be told that we will not stand by and watch them turn Parliament, that greatest of institutions, into the poodle of dishonest, popular demagogues or blatant racists.
That we expect them to govern in our name, without fear or favour. That we expect them to implement and defend democracy, as it is constituted in the United Kingdom.