Theresa May is bulldozing parliamentary democracy

Brexit is becoming an exercise in bureaucratic manipulation

October 13, 2016
Prime Minister Theresa May speaks on the final day of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham,
Prime Minister Theresa May speaks on the final day of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham,

“Take back control” was the clarion call that did so much to secure victory for the Leave campaign on 23rd June, and at its heart was the claim that by leaving the EU we would secure the unbridled return of our national parliamentary sovereignty.

Fast forward three months, and the reality is that we have an executive that is hell-bent on seizing control by unilaterally imposing its version of Brexit upon the British people, and on their sovereign Parliament. The Leave campaign assured us that Brexit would be a vehicle for strengthening our democracy, but instead it is becoming a platform for government by diktat.

The Prime Minister has made it abundantly clear that there will be no votes: no vote on the timing of the triggering of Article 50, no vote on the terms by which we enter Article 50 negotiations, and no vote whatsoever on the final terms of Brexit. The yet-to-be established Brexit select Committee will, apparently, suffice for oversight.

And then we have Great Repeal Bill, which in practice is a recipe for a harsh, ideological Brexit by stealth, as it will give ministers carte blanche to change the law without proper parliamentary debate on the floor of the House. The majority of the Bill will be passed by use of Statutory Instruments, a tool intended to facilitate the practical application of the law, but which also allows for the government to ram changes through the system, with little or no real scrutiny.

Brexit gives the government the opportunity to reshape Britain in a manner not seen since the aftermath of the Second World War: and at present, much of it will be done with little or no oversight or accountability. Forty years of legislation—of rights, standards and protection—lie vulnerable to change without votes, adequate debate or accountability.

During her time at the Home Office May took a rather different view on the role of Parliament in EU matters, insisting on two votes on UK opt-outs from the Justice & Home Affairs (JHA) pillar of the EU: first through a parliamentary debate and vote to trigger negotiations, and then at the conclusion of the opt-ins on the JHA.

Given her track record as an apparently doughty campaigner for parliamentary democracy, how can the Prime Minister possibly justify her view that there should not be a vote on the basic terms of her government's position on the most important negotiations in the history of our nation? The answer is, sadly, rather simple: it seems that the mollifying of her backbenchers is taking precedence over the national interest. May should tread carefully here—the last Prime Minister who consistently placed tactics ahead of strategy was David Cameron.

The fact is that while there is clearly a mandate for our departure from the EU, there is no mandate for our destination outside it. The Prime Minister is currently steering us towards a harsh, intolerant Brexit. And while people voted to take back control, they did not vote for a future of declining prospects and falling living standards. The British people voted to come out; they did not vote to lose out.

Moreover, May should understand that leadership is about persuasion and consensus-building, and bulldozing our parliamentary democracy is surely not the behaviour of a politician who claims that she aspires to be a one-nation Prime Minister.

The referendum campaign was a deeply divisive, confrontational and traumatic experience. May's job is to now re-unite our divided country, and to heal our fractured communities. Her first step along this road must be to start re-building people's faith and trust in our politics, and to do this she must demonstrate that she believes that Parliament is up to the task of playing a sober and constructive scrutiny role, at this pivotal moment for our country.

The vast majority of MPs on all sides of the House fully accept that the people have spoken, and that the UK must now begin the process of leaving the EU. As democrats, we have no desire or intention to play silly games with this momentous decision, and all talk of second referendums or of blocking the triggering of Article 50, must now stop. There is no hidden agenda, there is only a sense of patriotic duty. Our role is to provide the constructive criticism that is a vital pre-condition for the taking of good decisions. And we do not take that responsibility lightly.

Clarity and openness are the building blocks of trust. Let us hope that Theresa May and her government will now stop treating the Brexit process as an exercise in bureaucratic manipulation, and start instead to use it as an opportunity for democratic renewal.