In Praise of Process
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.