Parliament is as deadlocked as it was a month ago. Theresa May’s Brexit deal continues to satisfy neither Remainers nor Leavers and is widely expected to be defeated when MPs vote next week. It may prove difficult for May to continue as prime minister, but it is difficult to see any viable alternative. Whatever happens, MPs are unlikely to agree a way forward anytime soon.
Those who want Brexit at any cost, even if that entails no deal, are in the minority—as was made clear in the vote yesterday evening. Those who want to hand the decision back to the people in a second referendum have been gaining support. But another bitterly divisive campaign—one which might result in a majority voting for May’s deal or, worse, no deal—is surely not what most MPs want. And even in the Labour Party there is hesitation about a general election, the preferred solution of the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a long-term Brexiteer, which in any case would not resolve the deadlock.
Yet, in this impasse, a clear majority in parliament agrees on this proposition—the voters reached the wrong decision in the 2016 referendum. When MPs voted two years ago to give the prime minister the power to trigger Article 50 (the process to start the UK’s withdrawal from the EU), most of them did so only because they felt bound by the referendum result. They thought the result was wrong. Most current MPs still do. But they voted to implement it anyway.
Not all MPs felt their hands were tied: 114 voted against invoking Article 50, albeit only after the Supreme Court required parliament to decide. Kenneth Clarke, the only Conservative MP to vote against, paraphrased Edmund Burke’s oft-cited remark to justify his decision: “if I no longer give you the benefit of my judgment and simply follow your orders, I am not serving you; I am betraying you.” But now Clark says he will vote for May’s deal, a “dog’s breakfast” which he expects to be defeated, after which he believes Article 50 should be revoked to delay Brexit. This question of outright Article 50 revocation deserves our attention.
If MPs believe Brexit is bad for our common good, they have a duty to oppose it. Opposing Brexit entails no affront to democracy and is not the same as opposing “the will of the people,” which is a myth. Our constitution has valued representative democracy over direct democracy—parliamentary sovereignty over popular sovereignty—for very good reasons.
Referendums are generally terrible ways to make decisions. It’s not just that they put decisions to voters who may not (and perhaps, as with Brexit, could not) have informed opinions. It’s also that they reduce complex issues and diverse ranges of views to simplistic, binary choices. That’s why a referendum cannot clearly tell us what the majority view is. Even if it could, there are all sorts of reasons why representative democracy is a better process for making decisions.
Of course, the 2016 referendum feels politically binding, because most politicians don’t think they could get away with refusing to implement it. MPs are therefore unlikely to revoke Article 50 without plans for a second referendum. There needs to be some re-opening of the question. Politically, holding a second vote looks like the only way to do that.
But we should be under no illusion: morally as well as constitutionally, parliament is not bound by the referendum result. And it has the right to revoke Article 50 without a second referendum if it so chooses.
The question of Brexit or no Brexit needs to be re-opened because of the very nature of the decision. The effects are long-term and irreversible—after all, while Article 50 gave member states a right to leave the EU, the UK will have no right to re-join on the same terms. Decisions such as this ought to reflect the enduring, deep-seated belief of a clear, overwhelming majority. If it reflects a majority at all, the June 2016 referendum reflects, at best, only a temporary, extremely narrow majority. It was always wrong to treat it as conclusive.
In the traditional politics of representative democracy, a sign that there is an enduring and overwhelming majority for Brexit would be when the Brexiteers manage to persuade a majority of our elected representatives that leaving the EU is in the country’s best interests. But pro-Brexit MPs are still overwhelmingly in the minority in parliament. MPs made a mistake when they enabled a referendum on something few of them wanted. It is not too late for them to take back control. Parliament has the right to revoke the Article 50 notification, and it is the right thing to do.