Friday 26 April 2019

John Bruton: 'Why it is utterly undemocratic to deny second UK referendum'

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John Bruton

The underlying organising principle of the UK constitutional system has been that parliament, not the monarch, and not people by referendum, is sovereign.

This principle may not be contained in a written constitution, but it is a long-standing one.

It was established in the 17th century by the outcome of the Civil War of 1646-69, in which parliament defeated the monarch, Charles I, and his ministers. It was reaffirmed by the revolution of 1688, whereby parliament deposed the legitimate monarch, James II.

Parliament, not the king, became the source of legitimacy.

In contrast, in Ireland, the Houses of the Oireachtas are not sovereign in the sense that, since 1937, it is only the people who, by referendum, can change the Irish Constitution. There is nothing in the Irish Constitution to prevent a second referendum on the same question.

The developing clash this week between the government of the UK (the queen's ministers, to use the 17th-century term) and the majority in parliament, over the latter's rejection of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, is creating a crisis in the UK constitution.

This crisis is derived from the fact that the UK government intentionally ran down the clock and delayed voting on the Withdrawal Agreement so that it could use the Article 50 deadline, and the threat of a no-deal crash out, to force parliament's hand.

It is arguable that this level of pressure on parliament by the executive is contrary to the traditions of the UK constitution and the sovereignty of parliament.

The government of the UK should, in accordance with those traditions, act as a servant of parliament, not the other way around.

 But instead the government is demanding that parliament vote over and over again on the same question, citing the idea that it would be undemocratic to have a second referendum on Brexit, and claiming that to respect the referendum result Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement must be voted through by parliament.

If parliament is to be asked to change its mind, there is no logical reason why the people of the UK, in a referendum, should not also be allowed to do the same. Politics is all about mechanisms for changing one's mind. The whole process of passing legislation through different stages is designed so that the legislation can be changed, amended or abandoned if parliament changes its mind. Changing one's mind is intrinsic to democracy. So it is actually undemocratic to claim that a second referendum would be wrong in principle, as some are saying.

The Brexit saga shows the UK needs to revise its unwritten constitution, so as to define more clearly the respective roles of government and parliament in regard to international negotiations. This is a legitimate issue for the EU to raise.

The EU needs to have a reliable negotiating partner in the UK. That is not really the case now. It is not just a matter of personalities or incompetence. The party system has broken down, discipline has been lost.

The UK's straight vote system at election time polarises opinion artificially. The way parliament makes decisions on motions reduces complex questions to simplicities, and allows MPs to vote against everything without ever being obliged to compromise.

In the years to come, the EU is going to have to negotiate with the UK, whether it wants to or not, on a vast range of highly controversial and divisive issues.

It cannot afford to go through this week's drama over and over again on the various trade and other agreements that the UK must make with the EU, if or when Brexit goes ahead.

The parliamentary system of government is, in many respects, a British invention, a British contribution to democratic governance.

It is in the interests of the entire world that the systemic problems of the parliamentary system revealed by the Brexit saga are resolved, and quickly.

Parliament needs to find a way of making decisions through a government in which it has confidence.

The latest European Council conclusions require the UK parliament either to accept Mrs May's deal, or to indicate a different "way forward... for consideration by the European Council".

If that "way forward" involves delaying Brexit beyond April 12, it will mean the UK holding European Parliament elections. Mrs May has set her face against that.

A different "way forward" might also include a longer delay and a referendum.

If it did, it would probably also need a different prime minister and some form of coalition or understanding involving the Labour Party and other opposition groups.

It is hard to see all that being accomplished before April 12.

Irish Independent

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