A Remain Parliament Living in a Brexit World
That Britain will have within the next two months its second female prime minister would in normal circumstances be a cause for cheer - whatever her party affiliation. However, as the new prime minister will begin the tortuous process of Brexit there is little cause for short-term optimism. As wealth inequality grows and access to public services becomes harder, our government will be distracted by negotiating and setting a new framework to replace forty years of economic, trade and security policies which has been part of the UK’s European membership.
The two women, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, going forward to the final round of membership voting have competing visions not only on what post-Brexit Britain will look like but also how to get there: the Home Secretary has refused to back down from her position that EU migrants are not guaranteed residency once our final relationship is settled; Andrea Leadsom has declared that as prime minister she will trigger Article 50 immediately should she become Britain’s next prime minister. We can debate the merits - or lack thereof - of such policies but the ultimate judgement on their wisdom now lies in the hands of 150,000 members and activists of the Conservative Party.
For the first time in our history Britain will change prime minister midterm through a party membership ballot. And we are doing it at a time of unprecedented political turmoil.
The European referendum result has left people reeling: David Cameron’s resignation and the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership are only the surface displacement activities of a political establishment whose centre has shifted decisively and unexpectedly. George Osborne’s declaration that the government, elected on a platform of deficit reduction, will no longer be aim to be in surplus by 2019-20 is another demonstration of how our politics has changed in the last few weeks. It is humiliating u-turn - and will not be the last.
THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE TIMES MEANS THAT THIS NEEDS TO BE A LARGER DEBATE
Four million people signed a petition calling for a second referendum on European membership; there is a strong case that the people should once more be consulted on the terms of any new deal the next government negotiates. The EU referendum was a vote against Britain’s EU membership, it was not a vote in favour of a specific arrangement. This is not anti-democratic but a reflection of the complicated, changeable world we live in. The rapidity with which Leave campaigners abandoned the tenets of their campaign is an indication of this - and other things.
But do we need to cast the net wider? In recent memory James Callaghan, John Major and Gordon Brown have all assumed the premiership without any public endorsement, each allowing the parliament to run to its near full term. In 1957, Harold Macmillan took over from Anthony Eden, who had won an election eighteen months previously, and did not called an election until 1959. However, from older political history, 1924 and 1931 saw early elections to deal with changing political circumstances.
The British constitution - famously unwritten - has no set conditions for when a general need be called except at the end of a parliamentary term or when a government loses a vote of confidence. The terms of trade have also significantly changed following the Fixed-Term Parliament Act. Very often it is a question of judgement.
At times the referendum campaign was conducted as it were an entirely Conservative party affair. Putting the fate of the country in the hands of such a narrow group of people, as now appears the case, is not “taking control”. It represents the absence of democracy. Between now and the result there will be a lively debate, conducted in newspapers, on TV debates and in party hustings; but Brexit is not just the preserve of the Conservative party: the seriousness of the times means that this needs to be a larger debate. The country needs to decide - having narrowly rejected EU membership - how it wants to achieve Brexit and what are its acceptable terms.
Governments - and indeed parties - cannot be judged merely by how they respond to their members, the tenets of a representative democracy hold that they must be judged against the promises they make at elections to the country. Mandates are a balance. It must equally be remembered that technically we elect individuals - although all represent parties at the moment - who are representatives not party delegates, free to exercise their judgement and consciences as they vote.
479 MPs supported Remain, while only 158 supported Brexit. In terms of democracy the situation we face is unprecedented. In a national plebiscite the people have rejected the consensus endorsed by the vast majority of their elected representatives. This is a Remain parliament living in a Brexit world.
the positions of the two main parties will clarify themselves. Then the question of their democratic validity arisesTheresa May has appeared to rule out the need for a snap general election. This could be canny tactics of a frontrunner who does not want to scare her narrow band of supporters and voters.
The European establishment is conflicted with how to deal with post-referendum Britain as the Commission and leading members split on the best way to divorce one of its largest members. Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader has already declared his party will fight the next election on a platform of remaining in the EU or reapplying for membership; Nigel Farage, the outgoing Ukip leader - silver linings, eh? - wants a quick exit, which doubtless means triggering Article 50 sooner rather than later; SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has been touring European capitals trying to begin negotiations on a special status for Scotland within the group. There is also the issue of the Labour leadership which needs to be resolved one way or another.
After only a few weeks it is impossible to expect such certainty after such an unexpected result on such a complicated issue. Within time the positions of the two main parties will clarify themselves. Then the question of their democratic validity arises.
Remain lost. Leave won. Yet the winning side does not have a true mandate except on where the people do not, at present, wish to be. Their win lacks genuine accountability. They won on the basis of irreconcilable policy positions, which were largely unscrutinised by the media. Their stances are too easily wiggled out of and there are certainly longer term questions about how we better manage our democracy.
Albania, Canada, Norway, Switzerland were all cited as examples of model countries: should not Britain’s politicians be called upon to put these to further scrutiny? In the short term if “taking control” is to mean anything it is that our future must be tested in a general election.
About the author
Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.
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