ARTICLE 50: Should parliament get a say?

December 9, 2016

To begin with, let me be abundantly clear, on 23rd June, I voted to remain in the European Union. I am a ‘remoaner’ and I still firmly believe that Britain’s interests are better served within the EU. But with that aside, I am a democrat and it would be wrong for any government to ignore the will of the British people. However, the idea of the government triggering Article 50 without proper parliamentary scrutiny is frightening and Mrs. May should not even have considered going down that route. If this were any issue other than brexit, there would have been an outcry against the Prime Minister but the brexiteers want us to divorce ourselves from the EU as quickly as possible and don’t see why our parliament should have a vote when the wider electorate had their say on 23rd June. 

A major plank in the leave argument was to restore parliamentary sovereignty and regularly described the European Union as undemocratic. It seems rather strange that people from the same campaign are genuinely advocating circumnavigating the parliament to which they wanted to restore sovereignty. Of course the main issue here isn’t brexit, it is the precedent that would be set by such a move. If Mrs. May were to use the Royal Prerogative to trigger Article 50, she would not have to set out a clear brexit plan and crucially, she would not have to undergo any parliamentary scrutiny. After such a move on an important constitutional issue, it would be considerably easier for future governments to justify using the Royal Prerogative on other issues and one has to question, where would it end? Prime Ministers would basically be able to do whatever they wanted and ignore parliament in the process. Imagine this situation: Mrs. May decides she wants to get rid of the Human Rights act but she realises that she’s going to struggle to get such a move through the House of Commons due to her wafer-thin majority. So, in order to get the act revoked, she puts together a short statement and uses the Royal Prerogative. How could anyone argue that she was acting unconstitutionally if such a move had been legitimised by the triggering of Article 50? In-fact, I challenge you to think of an issue over the last ten years in British Politics that carries this much importance and has had as many far-reaching consequences. 

Stepping back for a moment, and looking at the bigger picture, there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done once Article 50 has been triggered in order to ensure a smooth transition. No country has ever left the European Union, so we are in unchartered territory. It is important that the United Kingdom gets the best deal and we are all routing for brexit to be a success. But surely, we need to take stock before we cut our ties and make sure that every detail is meticulously thought out and scrutinised in order to ensure that no one loses out. The other reality here is that the majority of Labour MPs are sitting in seats that voted heavily to leave and therefore it would be close to political suicide for them to make any attempt to block brexit. This means that any theoretical Conservative rebellion against Mrs. May would need to involve a triple digit number of her own MPs to have any chance of success. Realistically, it isn’t going to happen.

Over the coming weeks, the brexiteers will call out against the judiciary. They will claim that the 52% are being stitched up by the establishment and that those that voted to remain are sore losers. In doing that, they will be failing to understand that the basic issue here is not actually about brexit but about maintaining checks and balances on the executive through proper scrutiny in the legislature. I’m not saying that parliament should block the triggering of Article 50, and after Wednesday’s non-binding Opposition Motion, I don’t think that they were ever going to, but it would be wrong for the government’s plan on such a pivotal issue not to go through the proper channels. The terms of the 2015 EU referendum act were clear, the result was non-binding and as per the representative democracy in which we live, it should be down to our elected officials to have the final say.

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