The High Court’s ruling on Brexit: When democracy and constitution collide | The Friday Article

Brexit is a political enigma. Whilst Theresa May continues to scratch her head at what it could possibly mean – apart from the very helpful ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – the British public’s vote to leave the European Union has caused an economic crisis (until a recent decision saw it increase dramatically) and now, a constitutional one as well.

The High Court said the government must consult Parliament on the triggering of Article 50. Photo: James Cridland on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode.
The High Court said the government must consult Parliament on the triggering of Article 50. Photo: James Cridland on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode.

What is democracy? It’s a question with a sense of political existentialism which can only come around after such an important vote. The winning ‘leave’ vote was democracy in action, but now a ruling by the High Court has thrown up this question once again. Is it a decision which undermines the voice of the people, or is it a constitutional necessity? Now is a time when constitution and democracy collides.

The EU Referendum was nothing more than an advisory vote. Constitutionally, legally binding decisions come from Parliament and not the British people. MPs do that job for us and on this occasion, a little blip in the writing of the European Union Referendum Act 2015 means that the view of the public may be ignored in order to make a decision which is encased in law. Whilst making the ‘leave’ vote legal would do a good job of ending some aspects of the debate and add another big string to the government’s bow, the big concern lies with MPs: will they represent the view of their constituency, stick to the party line or vote based on their own opinions?

Keen to get to work on leaving the European Union and ‘make a success out of Brexit’, Theresa May and the rest of her cabinet seem to have shut themselves off from Parliament when it comes to triggering Article 50 and the negotiations that follow. Although the Prime Minister’s point about not having ‘a running commentary’ about the government’s plans is valid, having a political party make such a big national decision without criticism, commentary or accountability through Parliament sounds awfully familiar. In particular, it’s arguments you heard from the ‘leave’ side about the European Union. Oh, the irony.

If MPs do get to vote on triggering Article 50, then they should reproduce a result identical to June’s vote – to do the opposite would undermine the democratic element of Parliament. A decision as big as Brexit needs cross-party involvement. An early general election may not be at the forefront of the debate for now, but it is still on the horizon (worryingly for Labour). Although this would be great for allowing the public to choose their preferred avenue out of the EU – be it hard Brexit or soft Brexit – the Conservatives seem so keen to do the job all by themselves. Therefore, the involvement from other parties must come from criticising the government’s decisions on a regular basis.

Will politicians honour the result of the referendum if an Article 50 vote goes to Parliament? Of course, that’s uncertain, but it’s likely the Conservatives will vote to formally leave the EU to respect the view of British people (a stance they’ll promote like crazy under Theresa May’s ‘working for the majority, not the privileged few’ slogan). Meanwhile, the SNP – a thorn in the Tories’ side ever since the vote, after Scotland voted remain – are likely to oppose the triggering of Article 50. The Liberal Democrats, with leader Tim Farron keen to encourage more scrutiny of May’s Brexit decisions, will probably vote against it as well (the party opposed Brexit). As for Labour, it’s a question of whether the party is able to group together under Corbyn’s leadership to vote ‘no’ to the vote. In the most dramatic and undemocratic of u-turns, MPs could vote against Article 50, we’ll rejoin the EU and the months of crises will just serve as a haunting reminder of the right mess that the UK can get itself into. It’s a long shot, but let’s be honest, Brexit has taught us that anything could happen.

After the High Court’s ruling, what you have are numerous battles. People versus bureaucracy, government versus Parliament, democracy versus constitution. Members of Parliament are there to represent us, but if we’ve already had our say on a particular issue, are they required to do it again on this occasion?

A key element of democracy is accepting the result of a vote, but with the government announcing that they will appeal to the Supreme Court, the question of what decision is being made remains unknown, six months later.

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