THE BLOG

We Must Not Allow Parliament And 'The People' To Be Pitted Against Each Other In This Phoney Row Over Article 50

05/11/2016 09:40
Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

We are in a phoney row about Parliament, the Judges and Article 50. And it is getting dangerous. Everyone needs to calm down.

Theresa May must not get caught up in this manufactured hysteria. The Prime Minister has an opportunity to show some leadership and start trying to build a consensus. She must seize it, not make matters worse.

To read some newspaper headlines, you'd think the Judges had just blocked Brexit. They've done nothing of the sort.

To hear some Government Ministers talk, you'd think Parliament was about to vote to overturn the referendum result. It won't.

Most MPs will not vote against Article 50. Nor is there any serious chance that the House of Lords will block Article 50 - as Labour in the Lords has already made clear.

We've had a referendum, people voted in good faith. In the interests of democracy, that result has to be respected. I voted Remain in June, but I am among very many MPs in Parliament who believe that we have a responsibility to try to make Brexit work in everyone's interest now.

Parliament won't block Brexit, but it does have to execute it. The courts have concluded that because Parliament passed the law to join the EU in 1972, Parliament has to pass the law for us to leave. So this is a court judgement about process not outcome because the outcome (triggering Article 50) won't change. And given that Theresa May would probably have been forced into some kind of Parliamentary vote by political pressure in the end, the Judges' decision makes less difference to events than people think.

Then why all the fuss?

The reason some Government Ministers are complaining so loudly about a vote on Article 50 is not because they fear they would lose it but because they want to keep Parliament out of the picture altogether. They want to hide the fact they don't know what they are doing. And they want to make complex decisions behind closed doors keeping power in the hands of a small group with no scope for debate, scrutiny or amendment. That's not democratic or sustainable.

The reason that some Ukippers are making such a fuss is worse. They want to sustain a sense of grievance. That's how they get support. For years they have demonised the EU for supposedly frustrating the will of the British people. Now we are leaving the EU, they need a new enemy. So they are targeting Judges and Parliament instead.

Far from trying to strengthen British democracy as we leave the EU, they are trying to undermine it. So the two most important democratic institutions we have - democratically elected lawmakers and the independent judges charged with upholding the rule of law - are caricatured as "enemies of the people". Instead of treating democracy as the peaceful way to express and implement the popular will, the far right are starting to treat democracy as the subversion of it.

And here's where the real danger lies. People are being encouraged to think that the popular will can only be executed through the unfettered power of the executive. Or that if they don't like any decision made by judges or MPs then they can denounce them as enemies. Or that it is OK to target someone like Gina Miller, because they disagree with her, with appalling racist and violent threats.

It's all getting very Trumpian. We are appalled from this side of the pond at the sight of a Republican Presidential contender suggesting he won't respect the result of the election if he loses, that he will lock up his opponent if he wins. But his core assault on democratic institutions and the rule of law is being echoed here too.

As for those parts of the media that are shamefully whipping up populist anger, they should reflect because they will be undermined next. That other vital pillar of democracy - a free press - is already being attacked and discredited by both far right and far left.

Brexit was always going to be bumpy. There were always going to be rows about single market access, the detail of new immigration controls and so on. But we have to start being grown-ups about it, and find a way to resolve these differences through democratic institutions rather than by destroying them. We should not allow Parliament and "the people" to be pitted against each other in this way when Parliament has to be the legitimate voice for people across the country and for the diverse views they hold.

But most of all that means Theresa May has to handle this right. She must stop her Ministers pandering to Farage and the anti-democrats as Sajid Javid did on Thursday night. She should avoid demonising Parliament or judges or whichever half of the population she disagrees with. Instead she should set out a process to build consent in Parliament and the country. She should be open rather than defensive about the options, inclusive rather than secretive. The country divided in June. The Prime Minister's job should be to pull us all together. For the sake of our democracy, Theresa, please don't screw this up.

Yvette Cooper is the Labour MP for Normanton, Castleford and Pontefract, and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee

166 Comments

CONVERSATIONS