Many pundits will be gleefully tweeting this week some variant on Parliament “taking back control” – of Brexit, of government or of the country. But this refrain is tiresome and misses the point of the referendum.
The latest trigger hinges on speaker John Bercow’s decision to let backbencher amendments take priority over the government agenda in Parliament. Better informed people than me have posited that this break with precedent could shift power further to MPs and away from the government.
Bercow’s move has triggered speculation that MPs might be able to take control of Brexit in the last months before we are due to leave on March 29. David Allen Green, a lawyer and legal pundit always worth reading, has been a cheerleader for this empowerment of Parliament for some months, if not the specifics of a recent Sunday Times splash.
A "coup" which comprises Parliament taking back control from an over-mighty but incompetent executive.
If our press and punditry were not so government-minded, they would be celebrating this and not condemning it. https://t.co/z2RG8fRgK8
— David Allen Green (@davidallengreen) January 13, 2019
In a Financial Times blog Green lays out a worthwhile history of May’s trespasses against good governance. It will provide good fodder for the future scholarly debates on Britain’s uncodified – often called “unwritten” – constitution, though Brexit has provided plenty besides.
The trouble with criticising politicians for only caring about procedural shenanigans when their side loses, as Labour MP Jess Phillips also did recently, is that such behaviour is the norm in politics. Brexit has long proved an excellent source of motivated reasoning on all sides, and every contentious debate in political history has done likewise.
The second, more pertinent point is that “parliamentary sovereignty” was surely just a rhetorical flourish from the pompous Dan Hannans of this world. Laymen do not care about parliamentary sovereignty, because they do not know about parliamentary sovereignty, because they largely do not think about politics.
The heehawing of gleeful remainers that leavers are getting the sovereignty they wanted might be appropriate when directed at Hannan and his ilk, but the very basis for the referendum was that MPs’ support for the EU is out of kilter with the country’s. At the time of the vote three-quarters of the Commons was pro-remain, but voters were split almost evenly.
Fundamental to Brexit is the lack of consent among Britons to be governed by EU institutions, even where MPs were happy to transfer more powers. You don’t have to be a leaver to be uncomfortable with this, which is why many noted Europhiles like Nick Clegg campaigned for a referendum.
Leavers’ desire for sovereignty, as highlighted in the Michael Ashcroft polling after the referendum, should not be seen as a vote of confidence in Parliament. Had Parliament represented the views of its constituents the referendum would not have been needed.
This is not to say that all leave voters want direct democracy to reign, nor that it is bad that Parliament is putting stronger checks on the government. But any MPs who use the present crisis to prevent a genuine exit from the EU are ignoring the referendum. That is not the control people voted for.