The Brexit Vote Is A Fundamental Challenge For British Democracy [Opinion]

Theresa May at Downing Street

On Thursday June 23, 2016, the British public made a historic decision. In large part to control divisions in his own political party, Prime Minister David Cameron called a referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union. To the shock and surprise of almost every commentator, the result was a three percent majority in favor of leaving the EU.

The Brexit victory was touted as a triumph of democracy. A popular slogan for the “leave” campaigns was that the country needed to “take back control.” Strangely enough, since then Brexit has become a fundamental challenge for British democracy. Brexiters have campaigned relentlessly against anyone who doubts the wisdom of the most extreme forms of Brexit, while the government has attempted to stifle democratic debate at every turn.

The Win Was A Close Thing

It’s traditionally very difficult to get the British public to turn up for a vote, but in this case, turnout was an impressive 72.2 percent. Out of over 33 million votes, 51.9 percent of the British electorate voted to leave the EU. Brexiters have argued that this result, with over 17.4 million people choosing Brexit, gives them the greatest popular mandate for a political decision in British history. As significant as the numbers may be, the reality is that the case is probably overstated. After all, the second most popular mandate was undoubtedly the vote in favor of remaining in the EU, with 16.1 million choosing that option.

Meanwhile, it’s worth stressing that this was what’s called an advisory referendum. The results were not binding upon the government. Rather, they were seen as an indication of the people’s will, to then inform democratic debate in Parliament. Both sides of the campaign were aware of this, but it suited them to ignore that fact. Brexiters argued that this was a historic vote to determine Britain’s place in the world, while those in favor of remaining stressed the economic disaster awaiting the country if it chose to Brexit. Ultimately, this created the false sense that the referendum result was irresistible.

Theresa May's Brexit speech in Florence

Matters become even more complicated when you consider that the vote was a simple choice between “leave” and “remain.” But what does “leave” actually look like in practice? Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, has insisted that the referendum gives her certain so-called “red lines” in negotiations with the EU.

  • She insists that Brexit means leaving the Single Market, the trade rules that lie at the heart of the EU. This means freedom from the European Court of Justice, which has long been something of a bug-bear to hard-line Brexiters.
  • Likewise, to the surprise of commentators, May argued that Brexit means leaving the Customs Union. This is an arrangement that allows goods to cross European borders without customs checks.

It’s worth noting that neither of these “red lines” were actually on the ballot paper. The country voted Brexit, but it didn’t vote in favor of any particular model of Brexit. Perhaps sensing that she lacked a strong democratic mandate for these important decisions, May called a General Election in the hopes of shoring up her majority in the House of Commons. This radically backfired, leaving May forced to negotiate a confidence-and-supply agreement with the DUP in order to continue her government. In spite of this snub from the electorate, May’s stance and priorities remain unchanged.

Avoiding Democratic Scrutiny

Disturbingly, May’s government has done its level best to avoid democratic scrutiny at every turn. The government initially argued that it could kick off the process of leaving the EU without reference to Parliament, but was defeated in court. Rather than accept the motion and table a bill before Parliament, the government wasted time and taxpayers’ money in appealing the decision, taking it to the Supreme Court. Again, they lost and were ultimately forced to push what they called a “straightforward” two-line bill that allowed them maximum leeway in the process.

This has been followed by the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, a more detailed response that attempts to resolve the significant legal problems created by leaving the EU. The U.K. has been a member of the EU for over 40 years, and all legislation passed in that period assumes EU membership. That means countless amendments need to be made to the statute book. Worse still, May kicked off the Brexit process at the end of March 2017, and it only runs for two years. All these changes have to be made before Brexit finally happens.

The government has argued that it needs sweeping powers to deal with this problem. As a result, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill grants ministers the power to amend swathes of existing legislation without reference to Parliament. Most concerning of all, the bill stresses that ministers can even amend the Withdrawal Bill itself. Critics argue that it would essentially be granting the government a “blank check” to avoid democratic oversight.

Equally disturbing, the bulk of any oversight will take place in so-called parliamentary committees. Although May’s ill-fated election saw the government fail to secure a strong majority, she’s been able to change the composition of those committees to ensure the government has a majority in them. Needless to say, the Opposition was not impressed.

Stifling Democratic Debate

Brexit is an ongoing part of British political life now, but both the ministers and the country’s pro-Brexit right wing press seem determined to stifle any debate. It all started when the High Court ruled that Parliament should decide on whether to launch the Brexit process, much to the fury of the Daily Mail.

Disturbingly, the government failed to defend the judges. Justice Secretary Liz Truss took 24 hours to give a response and even then avoided criticizing the press. Months later, during May’s General Election campaign, the Mail took the same kind of extreme view.

According to the Mail, to oppose anything other than the most extreme form of Brexit is to be a “saboteur.” They viewed May’s General Election as an attempt to destroy political opposition to a “hard” Brexit and campaigned cheerfully in favor of that approach. It’s worth noting that the Mail’s website is the most popular English language newspaper website in the world, while in 2015 it became the country’s most popular print newspaper. This anti-democratic stance is a disturbing one from so influential a paper.

In October, the specter of censorship was raised once again when Conservative minister Chris Heaton-Harris penned an ill-judged letter asking every university for details of their teaching on Brexit. Naturally, the universities refused, advising that most of their syllabuses were online — and going public about the letter. Heaton-Harris swiftly backed down, insisting this was only for a book and not for government purposes. This argument was neatly undermined by the fact he printed the letter on official Commons notepaper. The Mail, naturally, followed this up with an attack on the university deans who’d exposed the letter.

And then we have the most recent example. Fifteen Conservative MPs have just rebelled against the government whip in opposing an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that fixes the date of Brexit in British law. They argue that this would prevent the government negotiating any extensions should the negotiations not go well. This time around, it was the Daily Telegraph that took the most extreme stance.

It doesn’t seem to have intimidated anyone. According to Tom Newton Dunn, political editor for The Sun, a number of MPs were slightly jealous that their names weren’t on the list.

A Disturbing Time For British Democracy

Essentially, Brexit seems to have actually become an excuse for avoiding democratic oversight and debate. The result of the referendum was hardly the overwhelming victory ardent Brexiters claim, and it didn’t commit the government to any specific model of Brexit. May’s “red lines” have no democratic mandate behind them whatsoever, and to oppose them is not to be undemocratic.

Likewise, in any democratic country it is not a thought-crime to take a different view on a political issue. MPs have a responsibility to exercise their own judgment in the benefits of their constituents. Although Parliament has approved launching the Brexit process, it is not bound to sit back uncritically, refusing to comment on the government’s direction.

The “leave” campaign argued that Brexit was all about taking back control. But who gets the control? It seems the British government, and indeed some of the most important British newspapers, don’t believe the democratically elected Parliament should be the one to regain its power from Brexit.

[Featured Image by Jack Taylor/Getty Images]