In Praise of Process

Bernard Porter

The Commons vote on Tuesday night to give the Tories majorities on all the committees that are supposed to scrutinise legislation, including Brexit legislation, despite their not having a majority of seats in the Commons, has been described by the shadow leader of the house as a ‘power grab’. It’s also deeply unconstitutional. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, which expresses and enacts the ‘will of the people’, but only once that will has been scrutinised, debated and tested over a (fairly short) period of time.

The idea that the ‘will of the people’ as expressed on a single day in June 2016 should be set in stone, never to be amended, runs against the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy; especially in view of the existential importance of the decision taken on that day, the uncertainty surrounding what actually was decided, and the unreliable nature (to say the least) of the debate leading up to it. The British constitution deliberately and wisely sets up a process to avoid hasty decision-making, and to produce more considered – but no less democratic – verdicts.

So it’s the British constitution that the tabloid press, together with the Daily Telegraph, are objecting to, in this and in other cases surrounding Brexit. They were surprised by the Brexit vote, as was virtually everyone, including most Brexiters, which suggests that they were aware of the fragility of it; and were consequently nervous that it might be countermanded after fuller and more mature popular consideration, on the basis of the solider knowledge that the last few months of ‘negotiation’ (so-called) have revealed to all of us – knocking some wind out of the more optimistic Brexiters’ sails. Put bluntly, they’d prefer a knee-jerk reaction to be implemented, rather than a calmer one.

Those of us who insist on Parliament’s even discussing these matters, and insist on a vote at the end of the process, when we'll know what we’re voting for, are traduced as trying to undermine democracy, even as ‘enemies of the people’. The Daily Telegraph over the last week has been dismissing the debates about Parliamentary accountability as abstruse, technical, a waste of time, intended simply to delay, merely about process. But that's the very thing. Process is vital to all constitutional democracies. It’s partly what ‘constitutional’ means. Theresa May’s gerrymandering of the Commons Committee system, and her invoking of ‘Henry VIII’ rules (allowing the executive to pass laws without legislative agreement), will gravely hinder the process, and strike at the roots of Britain’s version of democracy.

Brexiters used to claim that they sought to repatriate British laws. This shows how little they understand them. And it confirms May’s authoritarian tendencies, which were there for all to see during her stint as home secretary.

Even if there were a second referendum, after a vote in Parliament on the Brexit terms, I fully accept that it might well go the same way as the first. But at least in that case our exit from the EU would have been effected constitutionally; which hopefully would be accepted by the Remainers with a better grace than the result of the verdict of 23 June last year, based as it was on the blatant and deliberate lies of Farage, Johnson and Gove, and robbing so many of us of one of our prized identities. (I'm still waiting for my Swedish passport, to restore my own European identity.) Otherwise the political and social wounds of this poorly thought-out, divisive and ill-tempered contest will fester for decades to come.


  • 15 September 2017 at 9:25am
    Stu Bry says:
    While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments in the blog I find it strange that there is no consideration of Process in terms of EU accountability. The potential nightmare of TTIP and the secrecy around the talks seems to have been wiped from the memory of ardent Remainers.

    • 18 September 2017 at 9:11pm
      thebears says: @ Stu Bry
      The EU's approach to TTIP was truly shocking. But the UK government was fully supportive of this approach, and would have had a veto over the final outcome. So oo, unsurprisingly, and as with most of the (many) things I dislike about the EU, this is one the UK is fully on the hook for too.
      Based on that, it's hard to believe that the UK is any better off in this regard as a result of Brexit. I'm still waiting to see what horrors of treaty negotiating process (and outcomes) we have to put up with as we pursue bilateral trade deals from a desperate negotiating position. TTIP gives a good indication of what a country like the US will be looking for, but the consequences of saying no will now be much higher.

  • 16 September 2017 at 7:56am
    XopherO says:
    I think Marx exposed the 'rational actor' fallacy in historiography. Surely the 'will of the people' falls into the same category. There is no such 'will', certainly not a rational one, yet the Brexiters, some of whom should know better, keep appealing to it. And what is 'the people'? Does it include the abstainers, the unregistered, those denied a vote, etc? Isn't this why we have a parliamentary democracy, sadly undermined by a first-past-the-post system, and the power of the rich and selfish, (and Boris Johnson!)? Are we going to have a referendum on capital punishment, when we know what the 'will of the people' is and yet we know the arguments against far outweigh those for? Isn't that why we have a parliamentary democracy?

  • 18 September 2017 at 9:13pm
    thebears says:
    I read somewhere that Trump was "a stress test of the US constitution". Brexit is clearly a stress test of the UK's, except that, of course, we don't actually have one...

    • 19 September 2017 at 1:33am
      Joshua K says: @ thebears
      Yes, where can one obtain a copy of this oft-mentioned UK Constitution?

  • 22 September 2017 at 8:23am
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    Funny how remainers love to complain about the "lies of Farage, Johnson and Gove" while pushing a second referendum; failing to mention the fact that the only choice within the government's power to offer in such a referendum would be between leaving the EU with whatever deal they manage to negotiate, and leaving with no deal at all.

    At best, from their point of view, a second referendum could provide a mandate to start negotiating to rejoin; and surely there would then have to be a third referendum once the terms for rejoining were known? We must have a considered democratic verdict, after all.

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