Thursday, 10 November 2016

The future of British democracy is in the hands of our MP's - my Catholic Universe column


I’m sure that like the vast majority of middle aged fathers that I bore my children. Just like countless generations that have gone before, I’m sure I was no different, I see them sat around me at the dinner table or in the car pontificating on the past.

I know all too well that I am turning into my own mother when it comes telling in particular my eldest son, he’s at exactly the right age for peak cynicism, how things used to be.

I talk about the little things, you know the sort, “You don’t know what it was like before mobile phones / the internet” (in retrospect, bliss) or “GCSEs were much tougher in my day” (objectively they were).

But I also talk about big news stories; the Ethiopian famine followed by Band Aid, the unprecedented outpouring of public grief after the death of Princess Diana, the world changing events that took place on September 11th 2001.

I like to think that secretly young people are interested in those ‘where were you moments that so many of us lived through’.

It is entirely possible that waking up on the morning of Friday 24th June 2016 and hearing the results of the previous days EU referendum may well become one of those moments we all end up talking to our children and grandchildren about.

Let me be clear. In and of itself the result of the EU referendum was a significant news story. I’m not sure many commentators, even on the side of Leave, really believed Brexit was going to happen but in the event the British people decided they wanted to withdraw from the European Union and that after all is democracy in action.

But where the story of Brexit becomes iconic may well be what happens in its aftermath.

Let’s go back to the start.

The referendum campaign on both the side of Remain and Leave was a horrible one. Quite aside from the fear mongering of some on the side of staying and the patently racist overtones from some on the side of exit there was no shortage of personal name calling or abuse either.

Both sides of the argument without hesitation lied. No matter what those in favour of leaving now say promises were made about extra funds for the NHS but at the same time Remain told tales of emergency budgets and financial meltdown.

The immediate aftermath has shown the truth is, in all likelihood, going to be somewhere in the middle. The scare stories for the most part haven’t materialised neither have the promises of new found riches.

But, and this is the crucial part, the British public are not stupid and we all knew that the reality was unlikely to be one extreme or the other.

No, the British Public considered all of the evidence and propaganda that was being put before them and decided that on balance Britain was best off out of the EU.

I might not have liked the decision. It certainly wasn’t how I voted. But that is democracy for you. Every adult had the opportunity to have their say and the clear unequivocal majority decided.

The question of course is just what did they decide? For me at least the answer is easy.

Some voters voted because of a lack of sovereignty for our parliament, they didn’t like the idea of rules being made by ‘unelected bureaucrats in Brussels’. Others voted because they were concerned about immigration. Others still wanted to leave for greater say on how our money was spent.

But ultimately every single one voted to leave the European Union and the clear, well publicised, way to achieve that is by declaring Article 50. In some senses that is the one certainty that comes out of the EU referendum and if we believe in democracy it is the one certainty that must be delivered.

Of course it is also the one thing which many on the side of remain, including many MPs, want to avoid and the one thing which many will seek to take any avenue to obfuscate.

This week judges in the High Court decided, although their verdict will be appealed, that the Prime Minister and her Government does not have the executive power by themselves to declare Article 50 withdrawal. The court, to cut a long story very short, says that Mrs May must consult with Parliament.

Of course the prospect of doing so means that both the hugely pro-Remain majority of MPs and Lords may seek to water down or even stop the process of Leave.

Unlike much of the right wing media I have absolutely no problem with learned judges interpreting what is clearly obscure constitutional law. Similarly I have no problem with their decision being appealed to the Supreme Court for a final decision. It is the job of our judiciary to weigh the import and persuasiveness of convention and precedence and come to difficult, and by their very nature, conflict fuelling decisions.

Where the problem lies and where there is a capacity for a large story to become very, very big indeed is in the actions that Parliament now takes.

I’m not particularly a betting man but I would wager that what the vast majority of those who voted Leave expect to see now is Parliament to swiftly approve the formal declaration of Article 50.

What they and I’m sure many who voted Remain too, do not expect is for MPs and unelected peers to seek to undermine democracy. But if parliamentarians start adding clauses or demanding a lesser form of Leave that is exactly what they will be perceived to be doing.

No one would argue that parliament has not got a major role in the aftermath of Brexit, where we go to next, but morally right now they have very little right to stop Britain starting that journey.

Britain doesn’t have a particularly long history of the type of direct democracy we see through referendums. It’s said by some that populist solutions to complex problems are dangerous.

But the point is we did have a referendum, arguably the most pure of democratic processes, and the decision was clear. Delivering anything less than what the people demanded, and let’s be honest what they demanded is clear too, will be seen by a great many as a gross disregard for democracy.

The outcome of the EU referendum is a big story but it has the capacity to be much bigger.

It’s quite conceivable that being seen to ignore a democratic process will finally break the tenuous trust we have in our politicians to deliver. Given that possibility who is to say what might happen? Civil disobedience? The widespread rise of a far right willing to take matters into their own hands? Neither possibility is beyond comprehension.

I have a real fear that Parliament is now at a turning point. This is bigger than staying in or leaving the European Union this potentially is about whether people can ever put their faith in politicians again.