Friday , June 21 2024

Parliament must not thwart democracy

Imagine if Yes had won the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 by 52% to 48%. There would have been much celebrating and there would have been the expectation that soon Scotland would be independent.

Imagine however if someone resident in Scotland, but born in England had been so horrified by the result that they brought a court case to the High Court in London. Imagine if the person bringing the court case was from Australia or indeed South America. How would this have gone down in Scotland?

Suppose that the High Court said that the decision in fact lay with the UK Parliament, the majority of whom opposed Scottish independence. Imagine if this UK Parliament so watered down Scottish independence that the UK Parliament retained sovereignty over the whole of Great Britain. Imagine if the UK Parliament, despite the Yes vote in Scotland, ruled that the Scottish Parliament was to remain subordinate.

What would you think about this? I oppose Scottish independence, but let us be absolutely clear, such an action on the part of the UK Parliament would be an absolute disgrace. It would mean that we no longer lived in a democracy.

This is exactly what happened on Thursday November 3rd 2016, when the High Court in London ruled that the UK Parliament can in effect overturn the result of the EU referendum. They could, for instance, vote to prevent Article 50 being triggered. What is to stop them? Alternatively they could make “leaving” the EU in effect the same as remaining.

If this remains the case, then any future referendum on Scottish independence would be utterly pointless. The UK Parliament could simply overrule it or water it down so as to be meaningless. The same indeed goes for any other referendum that may be called in the future. Why ask the people at all if you can simply overrule what they say?

I am in favour of representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy. We could all have little buttons on our computers which enabled us to decide everything democratically each evening. But this is a recipe for poor government.  But we must have direct democracy on two occasions. The first is when we have elections. The second is when we have referendums.

We the people appoint MPs to rule in our place. They are our delegates because we hope they have the time and competence to take decisions for us. But in any democracy the source of power is the people. It is for this reason that Parliament governs with our consent. If this were not the case, we would live in a tyranny.

During elections and during referendums we briefly have direct democracy. The people can choose who they will. No-one can stop us electing this candidate rather than that one. So too during a referendum our choice is free. We can pick either option. This choice is not mediated through our parliamentary representatives, in the same way that our choice of these MPs in the first place is not mediated. It is a direct choice.

Imagine if the 650 MPs after an election decided that they were not going anywhere. What if they refused to recognise the result? After all being in Parliament is pleasant. Who wants to lose? Imagine if there were a court case that said that those MPs who had lost their seats could vote in Parliament to Remain. What would this mean? It would mean that we were no longer living in a democracy.

The same is the case with a referendum. Parliament ceded authority briefly to the people to choose. This is the purpose of having a referendum. If Parliament refuses to accept the result, if it declares that it is merely advisory, then it is the same as if it were treating a General Election as merely advisory.

When Parliament refuses to recognise the will of the people then the people have no legitimate means of changing the law. Under those circumstances the law lacks the consent of the people. The people are then justified in following the principles set out in the United States Declaration of Independence. They can seek a new form of government and they can seek to achieve this by force if necessary. I am, of course, not suggesting this for the reasons set out in the Declaration. There must be patience and all other means must be exhausted. But ignoring the will of the people is a serious matter. Let none of us treat this matter lightly.

Theresa May has done fairly well as a Prime Minister, but we are paying the price for a Conservative leader who was neither a Remainer nor a Leaver. She lacked conviction on the only issue of importance of our time. It is this above all that has led her to make a major error. She should have triggered Article 50 as soon as she became Prime Minister. Cameron could have done so. So could she.  All we need to do is to tell the EU we are leaving. There is nothing to negotiate.  “We are happy to trade freely with you, but if you don’t want to reciprocate, it’s your loss. Bye.”

What May should do now is prepare a debate at the nearest convenient opportunity. The debate should be on her right to trigger Article 50 whenever she pleases and in whatever way she wants. There should be no need to tell Parliament any more than that.

There should be a three line whip on Tory MPs. Any Tory who votes against the Government should lose the Whip and face deselection by his or her local party. If Theresa May loses this vote she should treat it as a vote of no confidence in her Government and should go once more to the people in a General Election.

Too many people whether in Scotland or other parts of the UK are unwilling to accept the result of democratic referendums. This has gone on long enough. It is dangerous. It is a threat to our democracy. If you are a democrat, it is time to metaphorically prepare to man the barricades whether you supported Leave or Remain. This is not about what democratic decision you made, but whether you have the right to make it at all.

There is nothing I like less than the idea of Scottish independence, but if this idea were supported by a democratic majority in a legal referendum I would fight for the right of the majority be upheld. If Remain had won the EU referendum and was threatened by a Parliamentary coup to leave the EU, I would likewise fight to uphold the will of the people to Remain. This transcends political division. Either you believe in democracy or you don’t.

This post was originally published by the author 4 November 2016:

About Effie Deans

Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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  1. Ian Pye

    Another superb article, Effie. Sovereignty lies with the people and is ‘loaned’ to MPs in Parliament to exercise it at our behest. That is the point of the oath of allegiance. The High Court should have refused to hear the challenges by Miller and co but having decided to hear their desire for an extra vote,, one assumes having already voted on June 23rd, should have thrown it out as did the High Court in Belfast a week or two ago with challenges to Brexit.
    For disaffected Remain voters to now want the referendum re-run or impose nonsensical caveats such as remaining in the single market or adhering to the ECJ flies in the face of any sane reason or logic. Staying in the single market and leaving the EU are mutually exclusive.