Following the Supreme Court’s ruling that an Act of Parliament will be required before the government can send its formal Article 50 notification to the Council of the European Union, Graham Allen MP explains why he will not vote for such a bill while the government’s negotiation strategy is unclear. He clarifies that his decision is not about ignoring the referendum result, but about making sure Parliamentary sovereignty is exercised in a meaningful way and not as a mere rubber stamp.
The decision in the Supreme Court on Tuesday was not so much about the rights of Parliament as it was about its duties. All parliamentarians have a responsibility to represent the public. In the House of Commons, we have a special relationship with the constituents who elected us; and as a collective, parliaments in both Houses need to make the best possible decisions on behalf of the people of the whole United Kingdom.
At the moment, in the wake of the European Union referendum, there are a range of opinions across the UK, and within every constituency. Not just over ‘remain’ or ‘leave’, but over what type of Brexit we should try to obtain. A wide variety of different outcomes are possible. Even apparently minor differences in the final deal could have big implications for my constituents and for the UK.
That is why it is so important that the Supreme Court decided that Parliament had to be given the chance to fulfil its most important function, working with the government on behalf of all of the people to devise the best possible policy. This task is too important to leave to the executive alone. But at the moment, the government seems set on complying with the judicial decision in the most minimal way possible; denying Parliament the chance properly to hold it to account.
Despite the Prime Minister’s speech of 17 January, we remain in the dark about many aspects of the government’s intended approach. Of course, there is a need for some discretion when approaching negotiations with the remaining EU Member States. But it would be possible to provide far more information than is currently available without compromising the confidentiality ministers need. And even if we were given a clearer account of what will be the opening move of the UK, that does not tell us how the position might change in response to discussions with our EU counterparts.
That is why – in line with my responsibility to represent my constituents – I will not vote for a bill authorising the activation of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union until they and I know what the government has in mind; how it intends to keep Parliament and public informed about how negotiations are developing; and consult with representatives in Westminster at key stages throughout the process. It is not about ignoring the referendum result, but about ensuring a democratic input into the process of leaving as it unfolds.
A recent pamphlet by Andrew Blick has noted how a parliamentary colleague of mine, talking about referendums in 2002, insisted that ‘We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards… [r]eferendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.’The name of the speaker was David Davis, then an opposition spokesperson, now Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. It is important that we do not write out for him the blank cheque he warned us about. Principles of representative democracy require that we draw up a detailed contract.
It is a shame that it took Gina Miller rather Parliament itself to take a case to the Supreme Court, to remind a feeble Parliament of the mythology that it, rather than the Executive is sovereign. But we now have a chance to exercise that sovereignty in a meaningful way, rather than have the executive continue to use us as a rubber stamp.
Please read our comments policy before commenting.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. It first appeared at British Politics and Policy at LSE.
Graham Allen – UK Parliament
Graham Allen is a Labour Party politician, who has been the MP for Nottingham North since 1987. He was Chair of the Political and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee between 2010 and 2015.
Well said. The more MPs who can be persuaded to assert their primacy over the executive, the healthier for the country. It is deplorable that the Government should have failed to consult Parliament in any meaningful way at all following the referendum result in order to establish what kinds of future relationship with the EU have or don’t have majority support in each House, and what issues should be given priority. (Self-evidently these are issues that divide parties, and both Conservatives and Labour are at fault in requiring their members to vote along party lines before any significant debate.)
That debate should moreover have been preceded by a White paper setting out best available objective estimates of the costs and benefits of each option. In particular, if MPs are to be able to make any more informed choice than the electorate was after the totally inadequate and mendacious referendum campaign, they must be given estimates of the inevitable massive administrative burden on the UK in the event of a hard Brexit, in both money and need for newly recruited highly trained staff, in repatriating the vast number of administrative tasks currently carried out by or under the aegis of the EU Commission. Far more intensive border controls, home-based chemicals and pharmaceuticals regulation, and negotiating all those new trade agreements we hear so much about, are just a few examples. (Whether intended or not, there is bound to be a real risk of a hard Brexit if negotiations fail and/or if Parliament were to vote against a deal negotiated without its prior agreement, and we must understand what risking that outcome would be likely to entail.)
Only after all that should the Government have prioritised its objectives for the Brexit negotiations and, having secured Parliament’s approval of its approach, felt prepared to trigger Article 50. Her disdain for Parliamentary democracy and attempts to side line Parliament at all stages, makes Mrs May unfit to be an MP, let alone Prime Minister.
In other words you intend to ignore the wishes of your constituency and the wider public who voted to leave.
Karl: The words of Edmund Burke about the duties of an MP are as apposite today as when he first uttered them. If anything, the present tribalisation of party politicians and the insidious power of the whips makes them all the more important. They include:
“It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. …… But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. …… Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Richard: I am not so sure that it was true when he said it, it certainly isn’t true today.
As for betraying us by prioritising our opinions over their judgement, that is a joke.
How can voting to spend £12billion+ a year of our money, whilst preaching austerity and reducing our police, fire and ambulance services and closing hospital beds while people live in pain whilst waiting for hip / knee operations etc. be in our best interests?
How can imposing personal ideological beliefs on us, such as multiculturalism and mass immigration be in our best interests?
How is ever closer union with the EU (which we never voted for) in our best interests.
There are many more examples.
It is time that we had a Government which put British citizens first and hopefully the next GE will be the beginning of that.
“How can voting to spend £12billion+ a year of our money, whilst preaching austerity and reducing our police, fire and ambulance services and closing hospital beds while people live in pain whilst waiting for hip / knee operations etc. be in our best interests?”
Because unfettered access to our largest export market (access which we’ve now openly accepted we’re going to lose) is worth more than contributions to the EU budget? Really, it’s not complicated.
No, Karl, it is no joke at all. It was good to see a letter in today’s Times making much the same point as me, and quoting the identical words of Edmund Burke. If our MPs ever think they should act as you would have them do, then we will have abandoned democracy for demagoguery, and that would be no fun for any of us.
I see no use in pursuing this exchange further.
Just to clarify, the £12billion a year mentioned in my previous comment refers to overseas aid, not the annual contribution Britain makes to the EU, which, as we all know, is less than £12billion.
Karl, You are a typical Tory: you know the price of everything (in this case EU membership) and the value of nothing.
Ron Alpe: I may be a lot of things, but a Tory I am not.
By the way, If your comment is not just an empty statement, I would be interested in just what it is you think I don’t value?