The body should reaffirm long-standing democratic principles like the independence of the judiciaryby Helen Mountfield / December 23, 2019 / Leave a comment
“My ministers will promote the United Kingdom’s interests, including freedom of speech, human rights and the rule of law,” said the Queen in her speech on 19th December. She was speaking in the context of foreign policy. But it is good to know that the incoming government is committed to these fundamental values. The Queen also announced a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission “to develop proposals to restore trust in how our democracy operates.”
Restoring trust in democracy is now indeed necessary. Long-standing constitutional principles, not seriously contested in Britain since the Civil War, have been thrown into question over the past three and a half years. So it is useful to restate some of the fundamental principles of how our democracy operates, in which trust needs to be restored.
First, we are a representative democracy. We elect our MPs to represent our interests, as they judge best. We should restore faith in this idea, because parliament’s role has been challenged since the 2016 Brexit referendum. The language of the referendum question was a simple one: should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave? It sounded like direct democracy. It was presented as direct democracy. But we remain a representative democracy. The European Union Referendum Act only gave authority for “the people” to be asked a question. As a matter of law, whether, and when, and how, to leave the EU was—and remains—a question for parliament to implement through legislation.
Second, flowing from this, the government only gets its authority from parliament: it is parliament that gets its authority from the people. The Queen appoints the government because it commands a majority of support in the House of Commons.
The government cannot act in a way which cuts across parliament’s laws or its authority and assume that MPs will follow. Theresa May and her cabinet committed the constitutional mistake of believing that the government of the day, rather than parliament, had power to start the process of leaving the European Union, by triggering Article 50 without first getting an act of parliament to permit this. She was wrong. She needed to get parliament’s authority before she took steps which would undo the terms of the European Communities Act 1972 because parliament…