Commons gives go-ahead to trigger Brexit
The UK Parliament has given the government permission to leave the EU. MPs have voted for something few of them wanted. Only a handful decided to rebel. Is this really democracy in action?
It is Britain’s most important decision for a generation. And at 8pm last night, the House of Commons had its final say on it. Overwhelmingly, MPs voted to give the government permission to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty — and begin leaving the EU.
This rubber-stamped the British public’s decision in June’s referendum, when 17.4m people voted to leave. There will be many more debates over the technicalities of Brexit. But MPs will not have the authority to prevent it.
The vote was extraordinary. Both the government and the opposition whipped their MPs to endorse a position they opposed before the referendum. Many passed through the lobbies with little pleasure. A significant majority of them backed Remain in June — and 48% of the country agreed with them.
‘Lots of MPs are really having a tough time at the moment,’ declared Labour’s Clive Lewis, who resigned from the shadow cabinet last night.
The UK’s lawmakers are now in unchartered territory. For the first time ever, the government has lost a referendum on a major constitutional question. The result has already caused a prime minister’s resignation; profound ructions in both of the UK’s major parties; and a bitter court fight. It may yet prompt the breakup of the UK itself.
Since 1689 Britain has been a constitutional monarchy — Parliament has had the power to scrutinise and pass laws. But MPs voted to hold the referendum, and the government made clear that it would implement the result. Yesterday many felt obliged to disregard their personal reservations and honour that pledge.
They did so in a highly-charged atmosphere. Those who voted against the government have been dubbed ‘enemies of democracy’. The judges who gave them the power to vote have been called ‘enemies of the people’. And this week, one Conservative MP compared her Leave-supporting colleagues to ‘jihadis in their support for a hard Brexit’.
So is this good or bad for Britain’s democracy?
The definite article
This is the tyranny of the majority, say some. Britain is a Parliamentary democracy. Its MPs should seek to represent everyone — not just the winners of one vote. The Brexit bullies have co-opted a close referendum result to silence dissent and stop lawmakers doing their job. Parliament can only hold the government to account when it is willing to vote against it.
Nonsense, others respond — this is true democracy in action. Scrutinising legislation should not be an excuse to ignore the greatest mandate for any political cause in British history. Moaning Remainers keep trying to obstruct Britain’s departure from the EU because they dislike it. MPs have been given a tough reminder of who their real bosses are.
- Would you like to be an MP?
- Was last night’s vote good for British democracy?
- You are an MP considering how to vote on Brexit. Write down five questions you would want to know the answer to.
- Find and interview two adults about Brexit — one who backed Remain and one who backed Leave. Report back to your class on what you found out. Have they influenced your thoughts on the process?
Some People Say...
“No country can ever be too democratic.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I’m not an MP. Does it matter how they voted?
- MPs are elected to serve the interests of ordinary people, like you. The way they voted on this issue will have an important impact on your future. Brexit is likely to change who makes laws and decisions for you, your job opportunities, and the way the society around you looks. And when you are 18 you will have a chance to vote for an MP — so would you rather choose someone who listens to the majority of people, or who trusts his or her own judgement?
- But I’m not British.
- This is not just about one country. It is about whether you should have a direct say in the laws that govern you or whether you should give more power to people elected to work on your behalf. That could affect many issues in the UK — and indeed in any democratic country.
- Yesterday was the final reading of the government’s bill requesting permission to withdraw from the EU. An amendment which would have given Parliament the chance to veto the whole process later on was defeated. MPs will vote six months before the UK leaves the EU, but only on whether to accept a deal with the EU.
- Instructed to vote in a certain way.
- Labour’s MPs were almost unanimously pro-Remain, but 37% of its voters chose to Leave. Last week more than one-fifth of Labour MPs rebelled against Brexit. Several Conservative MPs have become critics of their government.
- Speculation suggests the Scottish government may hold an independence referendum. The Scottish Parliament has voted to reject Brexit and yesterday a poll suggested support for independence had risen to 49% in Scotland.
- Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader, tweeted this last week, with a list of those who voted against the government on the second reading of its bill.
- This was how the Daily Mail described judges who gave parliament the chance to vote on triggering Article 50.