Friday, 4 November 2016

How does Britain want to be governed?

This is no longer just about Brexit. This is about how Britain wants to be governed.

The new unelected Tory administration under Theresa May – a million miles away from David Cameron’s government elected only a year ago – wants to pass Brexit by bypassing Parliament.
Yesterday three high court judges unanimously ruled that this would be illegal. Parliament must give permission before Britain can Brexit.
Yes, 17 million people voted for Britain to leave the European Union, against 16 million who didn’t want that to happen.
But we do not have ‘rule by referenda’ in Britain. We have a representative, Parliamentary democracy that has ruled supreme in our country for hundreds of years.
The 2016 EU Referendum was an advisory exercise. People gave a simple answer to a complicated question: should Britain remain in the EU or not? Now, the government is trying to second-guess what the electorate meant by voting for Brexit.
Did the Referendum decide that Britain should leave the EU, but still retain full and unfettered access to the EU Single Market? No, says the government. The Referendum clearly stated that Britain wants to end being part of the Single Market.
But the Referendum didn’t ask any questions – and therefore could not provide any answers - about the Single Market.
Did the Referendum decide that Britain should leave the EU, but still retain ‘free movement of people’ across our continent? No, says the government. The Referendum clearly stated that Britain wants to completely end ‘free movement of people.’
But the Referendum didn’t ask any questions – and therefore could not provide any answers – about ‘free movement of people’.
This is the problem of referendums. They are hopeless at dealing with complicated issues. And as issues go, there cannot be anything much more complicated than whether Britain should, or should not, remain a member of the European Union.
That’s why Britain has a system of representative democracy, where our Members of Parliament, on our behalf, earnestly consider, debate and decide  issues and laws in the best interests of the country, with full responsibility and accountability. If they make the wrong decision, the electorate can vote them out of office at the next election.
But in a referendum, who takes responsibility for making the wrong decision? Are we going to hold to account the referendum vote of Mr John Smith of 64 Acacia Avenue?
He is not going to be held responsible for making a mistake in the Referendum. Nobody can even be sure how Mr Smith voted. Nobody can be sure why Mr Smith voted the way he did.
Unlike in Parliament, there is no openness or accountability in a referendum vote or, crucially, detail. Referendums only give yes or no answers to one simple question. But politics – and life – doesn’t work like that.
When we’re confronted with complicated issues in our personal lives, we often have to weigh up many questions that can’t necessarily be answered by yes or no.
Often when considering solutions to our own problems, the resolution is multi-faceted, involving compromises, variations, detailed turnarounds and more than one way forward.
So, why should it be any different with questions affecting the future of the country?
That’s why our Parliamentary democracy is better than making decisions by a popular vote. And that’s why, when agreeing to the Referendum, Parliament decided that it should be an advisory exercise only, that would not bind Parliament or the country.
How could it be any other way? A referendum decision cannot be set in stone, because it would then not allow for any fuller or further consideration or change in circumstances.
It would be like voting, yes or no, on whether your leg should be amputated. On your basic understanding of what you’ve been told, you vote yes, take the leg away.
But later doctors find that the information on why your leg should be amputated was wrong.
How would you feel if the doctors then said, “But you voted to have your leg removed, so sorry, we are going to have to go ahead, even though, as your doctors, we now know we really should leave your leg where it is”?
Yesterday’s ruling by three high court judges was 36 pages long and gave substantial, rational and fully considered legal arguments on why our government would be breaking the law by taking Britain out of the EU without the consent of our Parliament.
Of course Parliament should be fully involved in the decision on Brexit. And of course we should respect the decision of the courts in this matter.
But today’s front pages of some our media claim otherwise. The Daily Mail called the judges ‘Enemies of the people’.
On the contrary, those papers and politicians now pushing for Britain to be governed by simplistic, facile popular rule are the ‘Enemies of democracy’.
Some of today’s front pages are a direct attack on our country’s system of Parliamentary governance and accountability that, mostly, has served us well for centuries.
Of course, our democracy could be improved, but relying on referenda to solve complicated questions would be taking this country back to the dark ages. 
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  1. The pro-Brexit media have got hold of the wrong end of the stick here, and are refusing to let go. The judges have in no way "blocked Brexit": as they made clear in their ruling, this case was not about the arguments for or against leaving the EU, since that's not their decision. Their job was to determine whose decision it should be under current UK law, and that's what they've done.

    The Daily Mail and their ilk clearly have no sense of irony: they advocated leaving the EU on the grounds that Parliament should be the ultimate authority in making the laws of the country, but now they're howling in protest at judges who have ruled that Parliament should be the ultimate authority in making the law which will (or possibly won't) trigger Brexit.


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