What is essentially a power struggle between Parliament and the executive over Brexit has moved centre stage. Yesterday the government was defeated on the motion to hold the UK Government in contempt of Parliament, over its refusal to fully publish its legal advice on the deal. This in itself was a rare but very significant shift in the balance of power between the two arms of government in Britain’s unwritten constitution. The debate is now focused until 11 December 2018 on the approval or rejection of May’s deal with the EU, and the crisis will now move further up the scale.
The crisis has become fundamental
Rejection of the deal could mean that Parliament will have to take control to prevent a no-deal Brexit. The conflict has become fundamental, as well as existential, and has all the hallmarks of a potential constitutional crisis. It’s a struggle in my view between two competing visions of the UK, that of the neo-liberal, post-Thatcherite, closed, Brexit-led revolution and that which envisions an open, liberal, respectful, tolerant and collaborative world-view.
The conflict has memories, believe it or not, of the conflict between Charles I and Parliament in the 17th Century no less. Today, as in 1640, Parliament needs to assert control over the executive, in this case to prevent a no-deal, extremist Brexit. The Brextremists have had a strangle-hold over the Prime Minister who until now has feared to take them on and thus the only Brexit legislation that has passed has been ones that suited them. If May’s deal falls, and I stress if, there is a major risk of a disastrous no-deal Brexit that only the extremist revolutionaries of the ERG et al can commend. Thus Parliament has, ironically, to take back control, as happened in 1640-42 and in 1688-89. The Brexit legislation needs to be put on hold, if not repealed, and, failing some compromise which looks increasingly dubious, vote for a 2nd referendum and put the issue back to “the people” to resolve – and hopefully clean up Cameron and May’s mess.
Bigger issues at stake
In so doing, I would suggest that there are also bigger issues at stake here too. One of the major reasons for the Brexit vote, and UK populism generally, has been a disconnect between “the people” and their elected representatives. This is partly due to the problems now being played out in Parliament right now. The executive, through its party majority, has exercised for many years what observers have called an “elective dictatorship”, where real power has been more and more focused on the Prime Minister and a small inner cabinet, with MP’s simply acting partly as voting fodder. Hence there’s a sense that people have no real influence on or part in what is decided.
The referendum followed by May’s disastrous 2017 election blew this dilemma wide open and the conflict has made necessary and presented the very important opportunity to create a more participative and inclusive governmental system. Other reforms are also needed, such perhaps as Proportional Representation, a reformed House of Lords, and a move towards a more federal structure for the UK and its nations and regions. Even in the agony of the Brexit mess, there’s a potential for a far more modern, reformed system to emerge.
There is still a cautionary note to be made. None of this may happen, since enough MPs may take fright at the scale of what could happen that they vote for May’s deal, or an alternative that’s more of a compromise such as what is being called the Norway Plus model, where Britain essentially joins EFTA and the EEA – and the problem can is kicked further down the road and more bust-ups between government and Parliament.