Let us start Brexit this week, ministers plead
Today MPs are expected to give the government unconditional permission to leave the EU. The decision will turn last year’s referendum result into a reality. But is this democracy in action?
Today, the European Union (notification of withdrawal) bill will probably become law. It is just 137 words long, but it is the UK’s most momentous piece of legislation for a generation.
It will give Theresa May permission to begin leaving the EU, which she may do as early as tomorrow. And it is unlikely to place any constraints on the prime minister. MPs will debate two amendments proposed by the House of Lords, but they look unlikely to pass.
Yesterday David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said the amendments would undermine the UK’s position in the upcoming talks. “The majority of voters want the prime minister to be able to get on with the job, with no strings attached,” he wrote in The Sunday Telegraph.
One amendment says there should be a “meaningful vote” in Parliament over any deal the UK and EU reach. Davis says this would create a “veto” on a decision which 52% of voters supported in June.
But is his position democratic? In yesterday’s Sunday Times, Lord Heseltine — who was sacked as a government adviser last week for criticising Brexit — said the government was demanding “loyalty” to silence opponents.
“The referendum empowered the government to leave Europe but nothing more,” he wrote. “In a democracy a mandate is not a signal for the opposition to fall silent.”
Brexit was the first time ever a British government has lost a popular referendum, and it has presented an unprecedented challenge to British democracy.
There have been rows over the independence of the judiciary and civil service. A majority of MPs have already voted for a measure which they openly disagreed with.
Meanwhile critics say the government is unclear on several negotiating points. Yesterday an MPs’ committee said the government had not planned enough for a breakdown in talks. Business leaders criticised Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, for saying the economy “would be perfectly OK” in such a scenario — a view contradicted by Liam Fox, the international trade secretary.
Democracy has been damaged, say some. June’s referendum result meant little: the winners only had a vague idea what they wanted and the losers are now unrepresented. The phrase “will of the people” is being used to bully lawmakers, judges and civil servants. It is sinister when the government does not fear those who scrutinise it.
On the contrary, others respond: this is a moment of democratic renewal. The referendum showed Britain’s institutions had lost touch with the people — who give them their legitimacy. The government is simply getting on with a task which most of the public supports. Parliament voted for a referendum — and now MPs who dislike it have no right to ignore the result.
- Which do you trust more: the opinion of a majority of people, or the view of an expert?
- Has Brexit damaged or reinvigorated Britain’s democracy?
- You have been asked to interview someone working on the Brexit negotiations. In pairs write a list of five questions you would ask. As a class, discuss which questions you would choose and why.
- Would Aristotle, Plato or Rousseau have approved of Brexit? Find out more about how a thinker you admire understood democracy, and explain your answer in one page.
Some People Say...
“The referendum is a device of dictators and demagogues.”Margaret Thatcher
What do you think?
Q & A
- So a complicated round of negotiations is going to begin. Won’t my life carry on as normal?
- If you are British, Brexit will affect your society and the job opportunities open to you when you are older. But this is really about power. If the UK is becoming more democratic, then people like you will get more power to change things you care about. If its democracy is damaged, it means people in power will not have to listen to you as much, even when you are older and have the chance to vote.
- But I’m not British.
- The UK’s decision could be an example for people in democracies all over the world. Other countries could pull out of the EU; perhaps individual states could withdraw from the USA. Brexit can help you to understand what these decisions will mean for the amount of power you have.
- May will tell the EU she is triggering Article 50 of the 2009 Lisbon treaty.
- House of Lords
- The upper chamber of Britain’s Parliament scrutinises bills passed by the House of Commons before they become law. If the Commons rejects its amendments today it will have the chance to send the bill back again — but is not expected to take it.
- The other seeks to protect the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.
- On June 23rd, the UK held a nationwide vote on whether the country should remain in the EU or leave it. Leave won by 51.9% to 48.1%.
- Some Leavers called judges “enemies of the people” after they said parliamentary approval was needed to activate Brexit.
- Civil service
- In January Britain’s ambassador to the EU resigned. Some said he had been forced out of his job because he was pro-EU.
- On issues such as whether Britons will need visas to visit EU countries; European health insurance cards; and mobile phone roaming charges.
- The foreign affairs select committee, a group of MPs from various parties who specialise in foreign affairs issues.