Democratic dilemmas and constitutional crises

The High Court ruling this week that the UK government does not have the authority to trigger Article 50, and must seek Parliament’s approval to do so has got the t’interweb world in a bit of a tizz. ‘It’s a constitutional crisis!’ they all shout, failing to remember that the UK is fairly unique (and sensible) among modern states in that it has no fixed constitution.

Anyhow. This particular decision by three chaps in funny wigs has been hailed as a democratic triumph by all those people who were perfectly happy previously to cede Parliament’s authority to the EU, and as a democratic tragedy by all those who were championing the sovereignty of Parliament rather than an unelected EU body.

Clear? Yeah, me too.

Let’s just examine for a moment the origins of the word “democracy.” Hailing from the Greek, it comes in two bits: ‘demos’ (the people) and ‘kratia’ (power, or rule). Demos-kratia: the people rule. Boom!

So there you have it. The people have power.

Boiling this whole thing down to the bare bones, the UK government, who are elected by the people and nominally given delegated authority by said people on a proxy basis to act on their behalf, decided that in this particular instance, they wanted to cede that power back to the people to make the decision for them. “This is your decision: the government will implement what you decide.”

There you go. Pretty straightforward, eh?

And the decision to be made? Should the UK leave the EU.

Not, “What deal would you like to see if the UK leaves the EU?” And not, “Should we stay a member of the single market?” (and for the love of all that’s tedious, please note that pretty much the whole world has ‘access’ to the single market and can sell into it, or buy things from it – membership is very different). Never mind what the question should have been. No, the question was, ‘do you want to leave our club?’

The country, as a whole, answered, “yes please.”

The particular of what ‘leave’ means, oddly enough, still seems to be torturing a number of people. Can we shuffle a bit further west so that we’re sort of out of the EU, but not really? Let’s do all the things we used to – pay them money, accept authority from their judiciary over ours, let their people move freely, and keep the same tariff arrangements – but just say we’re not part of the EU any more.

I’ve already blogged on what leaving means – most people would have a fairly instinctive grasp of this. If I said, “I’m leaving this relationship,” to my wife (not that I ever would, she’s fabulous, and I’m punching well above my weight), I’d anticipate that it would be interpreted to mean that we’d stop co-habiting, I’d lose all the privileges and obligations that being in a relationship brings, would stop funding her Coca-Cola habit, and basically put a bit of distance between us.

So to say we’re leaving, but not really leave… really? What cojones, pardon my International English. Come on folks. Brexit means breakfast, and let’s have a blinkin’ full English fry up here.

Ok, so assuming the Supreme Court affirm the decision that was made in the high court (and despite the Government’s protestations to the contrary, I’m anticipating this), then the question that they ruled on was, “does the UK government have the authority to trigger Article 50 by itself?” And the answer was, “no.”

Now. Please note: this is not the same as asking whether the UK government has the authority to negotiate the terms by which it exits from the EU, but simply, can it notify them of exit.

So, UK parliament – this is your mission, should you choose to accept it: can you acknowledge the will of the people (which you voted 6 to 1 in favour of passing to them) and vote to leave the EU by triggering Article 50? No mention of what the deal at this point. Can you just acknowledge this?

If so, we trigger Article 50.

THEN we start the process of negotiating a deal. The whole of Parliament can then knock themselves out debating the T&Cs of that whilst the clock ticks and answer to the electorate if they filibuster the UK’s negotiating chances into touch whilst Owen Smith and Tim Farron read the EU working time directive, line by line, and blow out any chance of meaningful debate.

My point? Well, I’d hope it’s pretty obvious by now. Any ruse which tries to prevent the country from leaving the EU by tying Parliament’s acceptance of this to the deal we are able to negotiate is just not on.

Demos-kratia. The people have power. They decided to go.

Deciding what sort of negotiating position we plump for is up for grabs – that’s fair play. Deciding to leave the EU is not. Any parliamentarian believing otherwise has just turned themselves into a power-grabbing despot.

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