If – before the EU Referendum – I had of told you that in a historic move MPs would vote to take power out of the hands of the executive; that the Prime Minister would be forced to bring back a withdrawal agreement before Parliament on four separate occasions, and that the Speaker – John Bercow – would invoke parliamentary precedents dating back to 1604- you would be totally disbelieving. And rightly so.
Difficult to grasp- I know – but the UK has been engulfed by the biggest constitutional crisis since the reign of Charles I. British politics has changed beyond recognition. Today, any American that cares to glance across the pond at what is happening in Britain would get an overwhelming sense of political role reversal. Indeed, it was a fear of tyranny that inspired the founding fathers to create a system of government that would ensure the president could never wield the kind of unchecked powers that the Prime Minister, selected for their ability to command that all-too important majority in the Commons, has enjoyed.
Yet, ironically it is President Trump who is overruling Congress, while May, despite a slim majority, is being defied by the Commons. Today, the balance of power, which traditionally rested with the executive branch, hangs very much in the balance. Someone unafraid to use this to his advantage was Sir Oliver Letwin who, during the series of ‘Indicative Votes’ felt that “there’s no way we can continue to act as though we [MPs] were merely a body to which the Government were accountable”. It is unsurprising then that, as the leading figure in the decision by MP’s to take control of the parliamentary timetable, he has come in for criticism. He sounds like a ‘constitutional revolutionary’ of sorts- a singular MP willing to alter the way democracy has worked for generations.
Of course, while the actions of MPs is unprecedented, should we be shocked? After all, the 2016 referendum plunged Parliament into this situation, disempowering it from the very beginning, and dismantling our politics as we know it. Previous referendums have only asked the electorate to endorse policy decisions of the government and a majority in Parliament. Now, however, the executive insists on implementing ‘the will of the people’, sidelining a very wary, reluctant group of MPs.
However, the blame does not rest solely with Parliament. The Government has overridden the norms of the British constitution by translating the result of the referendum as a mandate for an extreme version of departure. For May, it’s as if the “will of the people” is to be interpreted as being completely removed from the single market and customs union. As such, Brexit is not so much a constitutional crisis as it is political: MPs fail to grasp the logic of their own decisions. They ratified the EU Withdrawal Act while simultaneously rejecting its implementation.
Perhaps far more concerning than the failure to agree on the best outcome for Brexit is the inability to agree on the principles that could validate the outcome that is eventually achieved. There is no denying that the constitution – the agreed set of rules for determining whose will prevails when people disagree – is the cornerstone of our democracy. In the United States, it is widely lauded as a source of unity. But in Britain, the constitution has become the pinnacle of impasse. Its worrying to think that, in the case of Brexit, there is so little we agree on. Was the vote legally binding? If it wasn’t, why are we continuing? Can the referendum be legitimately reversed? And to be legitimate, must Brexit be a form that the Government has collectively agreed to pursue?
Ultimately, the old way of settling disputes – the method employed in the absence of established procedures for resolution – is the resort to violence. And as difficult questions continue to ember, we risk drifting into this dangerous realm.