Paul's Column: who decides the future of a country?

19 June 2018

Who decides; the government, parliament or the people?  In our UK parliamentary democracy the people elect politicians at the ballot box and the political party that commands a majority in the House of Commons forms the government.  The government can then bring forward draft legislation which is then discussed and amended in the Commons and the Lords in order to then be voted on. Once agreed, it becomes the law of the land. However, if the government of the day cannot get its legislation agreed it has to withdraw the proposal.  Historically if the government is defeated on key aspects of its legislation then a vote of confidence can follow which could result in a general election being called.

A referendum has the potential to drive a coach and horses through the usual modus operandi of parliamentary procedure. We can see this in the fallout from the Brexit referendum result.  The problem we have created for ourselves is that the EU referendum was an order from the people to politicians to leave the European Union.  Alas, this order came with no instructions.  We know we have to leave the house but do we go by the front door, the back door or climb out of a window?  There is a world of difference between leaving the EU and staying in the Single Market (a soft Brexit) and crashing out on the default World Trade Organisation terms (a hard Brexit).  There are several other options in between and politicians are caught up in this tricky dilemma.

It is too simplistic to say that MPs in Leave voting constituencies should back a hard Brexit because it is the “will of the people”. During the referendum campaign there were many instances of leading Brexiteers stating that voting Leave didn’t mean leaving the Single Market or the European Economic Area.

MPs also have conflicting views to take into account.  The North East voted 58% to leave in the referendum but in every constituency in our region bar one (Redcar) a majority of Labour voters backed remain. So what does a Labour MP do given this situation?

We now know that the North East will be the part of the country hit hardest by a hard Brexit with a 16% fall in GDP.  Regional economic development experts have estimated that a fall of this level would translate into the loss of more than 200,000 jobs. That’s 1 in 6 of the current total, which is worse than at the height of Thatcherism.  Given this context you can see why MPs are caught between a rock and a hard place.

The consensus view is that there is no majority in parliament for a hard Brexit and that the Prime Minister will ultimately have to face down the hardliners in her own ranks even if this leads to the resignation of several of the key Brexiteers in her cabinet. Could this prove to be a re-run of John Major’s ‘back me or sack me’ strategy, which was also over the shenanigans that have always surrounded the Conservative Party’s view of EU membership?  The worry for the PM is that Tory MPs opt for the sacking option resulting in her demise by Christmas.

Generally referenda on complicated issues are a bad idea in a parliamentary democracy.  We are trying to put the cart before the horse - passing legislation to leave the EU before we have considered and written the content of the legislation to enable this to happen. In addition this is all happening against the clock, and as we run out of time only a destructive hard Brexit beckons. The sword of Damocles is hanging over our region.

As this all began with a referendum and for the process to be complete, the people, in a People’s Vote, should therefore have the final say. The ballot paper should give the people of UK the choice between leaving with whatever deal the Government has eventually negotiated, or staying in the EU. 

So ultimately, who decides? Perhaps if the people decide, the country can finally move on.

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