The divergence between the strong preference of most MPs and the sentiment of the British people is the main reason we are having this EU referendum, not a reason to cancel it
Last week, before the awful murder of Jo Cox MP changed the character and atmosphere of the campaign, it was widely agreed that the Remain campaign were on the back foot, behind in some of the polls and certainly lacking in anything like momentum.
And so perhaps it is unsurprising that late last week, a petition started by Remainers began to circulate on social media, calling for the EU referendum to be scrapped altogether.
The text reads:
According to the BBC (as at the 26th February 2016) 444 MPs of (almost) all parties have declared their support for Britain staying a member of the European Union on the basis of the reform package negotiated by the Prime Minister, David Cameron.
Constituting more than 68% of the votes in the House of Commons, this represents a rare and overwhelming cross-party Parliamentary majority. If it is the settled will of such a large majority in the House of Commons, Parliament should now rise to the occasion and assert the very sovereignty Brexit campaigners claim it has lost. Parliament should ratify the agreement reached by the Government with the European Union and confirm Britain’s membership of the European Union on that basis.
What a cynical, opportunistic and fatuous thing to do – to seek to cancel an imminent referendum just because their own side happens to be in danger of losing.
The “444 MPs” line does not hold water, either. The whole purpose of this referendum is to settle what is in effect a dispute between past and present parliaments on the one hand, and the British people on the other. It is parliament which has knowingly and willingly signed away endless new competencies and powers to the EU, hollowing out the British state at the expense of the growing supranational European government in Brussels – a parliament often composed of many MPs who described themselves as “eurosceptic” while being complicit in the process.
This includes many Conservative MPs who were only ever selected by their parties or constituency associations as candidates because they professed strongly anti-EU sentiments to the Tory party base. Now, it has sadly been the case that many of these MPs were revealed to have lied during their selection processes, telling eurosceptic party members what they wanted to hear while themselves being ambivalent or even pro-European, as evidenced by their decision to support the Remain campaign. But it is clearly disingenuous to claim (as the petitioners do) that the majority of MPs favouring Remain represents the settled will of the people – the tightening polls, some showing a lead for Leave, prove this to be otherwise
It should also be pointed out that many of the “444 MPs” supporting Remain would not presently be sitting in Parliament had David Cameron not taken the sting out of UKIP’s tail by promising the referendum in the first place. Prior to that pledge, two former Tory MPs (Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless) had already defected to UKIP in a blaze of publicity, and more threatened to follow. If Cameron had not neutered part of UKIP’s appeal by promising the referendum, there could have been up to a dozen more defections prior to the general election, and then tens more UKIP MPs elected in May last year. If anything, promising the referendum helped to keep a pro-EU majority in the House of Commons. That same majority can not then also be used as grounds to take the referendum away.
But the root of the matter is the “parliamentary sovereignty” referenced in the petition text. I cannot speak for all Brexiteers, but I know I speak for many other liberal leavers when I say that I am not fighting with every fibre of my being to secure a Brexit vote because I want to re-establish the sovereignty of parliament and re-empower the very people who so blithely gave it away to Brussels in the first place. On the contrary, I want the British people to finally be sovereign in this country. And this is the wider debate which has been entirely missing throughout this sorry referendum campaign, but which we need to have.
What, after all, would be the point of striving to claw back sovereignty and decision-making power from Brussels only to give it back to the same people operating under the same laws who gave it away? This is why Brexit must just be part of a broader process of democratic renewal, making the people sovereign and beginning with the assumption – much as in the United States of America – that “Parliament shall make no law…” except in those areas where we the people explicitly grant permission.
This then opens up a whole load of other questions which gleeful Remainers would doubtless seize upon as more evidence that Brexit would cause problems and be “difficult”. Well, yes, it would. Unsurprisingly, great deeds require a commensurate effort in their accomplishment, and throw up lots of problems which need to be patiently solved along the way. Man did not walk on the moon the day after John F Kennedy idly thought out loud that it might be a good idea. The Apollo Programme took place in many stages after Kennedy set the initial goal, each one solving a particular problem or proving a new competency until all of the pieces were in place for Apollo 11 to finally touch down on the surface of the moon.
It is reasonable to expect that the process of extricating our country from forty years of gradual, incessant political integration by stealth should be a task of comparable difficulty. But it is not scientific and technical expertise which we must rebuild, but political, constitutional, democratic, trade and regulatory knowledge, much of which we have lazily outsourced to the EU.
And unfortunately the prize cannot be measured in pounds or euros, or any economic model pointed to by David Cameron’s hallowed “experts”. The ability of people to exercise meaningful control over their leaders, communities and futures cannot be boiled down to numbers in an Excel spreadsheet or one of the smug infographics shared by the Remain campaign. But this does not mean that democracy lacks value – rather, that it is priceless.
Those who would have us vote Remain on June 23rd look at British independence and see it as a series of problems and risks, all of which our country and our people are too small, too weak and too incompetent to overcome. They genuinely cannot understand why a country as “small” and supposedly inconsequential as Britain would want to leave a supranational political union in which we trade our democracy for the illusion of influence which comes from being a member of a big club.
Those advocating Brexit, on the other hand, see opportunity and feel a sense of optimism grounded in a healthy sense of what this country and its people are capable of accomplishing. They generally accept that there may be some short term political instability, but that there is just as much instability in our future if we remain shackled to an EU beset with so many intractable problems it is simply unwilling and unable to address. And they also value democracy sufficiently highly that endless, apocalyptic scaremongering with doomsday economic scenarios simply doesn’t resonate. The prime minister appears genuinely frustrated that we Brexiteers are not more responsive to his Project Fear, because he fails to appreciate that the core Remain argument does nothing to neutralise the reasons why many of us want out of the EU.
And sadly, this difference in mindset is not one which we can reconcile (or persuade any hardcore Remainers to the Brexit side) in the little time left of the campaign. But while we Brexiteers are happy to fight on to the end, making the case as best we can, some on the Remain side want to circumvent the process and take the choice away. Hence this ridiculous petition, arguing that because a majority of the very people you would expect to love the EU think that we should stay in it, there is no need to further consult the British people.
I would state again that the very existence of this petition shows a contempt for the will of the British people – but when the entire Remain campaign focuses myopically on short term economic indicators rather than the long term health of our democracy, it hardly needs saying.
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