Post-Brexit Britain: Parliamentary democracy or street pugilism?
Whilst most British media today decided to focus their headlines on Vladimir Putin, Russia and the way Jeremy Corbyn distanced himself from the Government’s position, nobody has reported on a significant event that took place in the House of Lords, yesterday afternoon.
Totally unreported in the media was the extraordinary moment, during yesterday’s debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in the House of Lords, when Lord Callanan, the Minister of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union (aka, the Brexit Department), asserted before the Peers that the so-called “will of the people” now tops Britain’s Parliament sovereignty because of the 2016 EU referendum.
A very controversial statement as, in a Parliamentary democracy, parliamentary representation (MPs and Lords) is sovereign, not the executive (Government), nor the daily anger in the street (referendums).
The exchange between Lord Callanan and the Peers went thus:
“Let me say directly to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that while there are many possible outcomes for our future relationship, remaining in the EU is clearly not one which can be reconciled with the decision taken in the referendum.”
“But there was no decision taken; it was an advisory referendum. My noble friend refers to a leaflet distributed in the course of the referendum. If so, it was totally incompatible with what this House agreed.”
“My noble friend and I will just have to disagree on this one. We have also made our position clear that the notice given by the Prime Minister in accordance with Article 50, and which was approved by both Houses of Parliament, will not be revoked. It will not be extended as Amendment 199 tabled by my noble friend Lord Cormack and Amendment 216 tabled by my noble friend Lord Hailsham seek to do.”
“If the Minister will forgive me, he is not in any position to make that clear because that is a decision which the House of Commons will take. It is not for the Government to say that there will be no rescinding of the notice under Article 50. If the House of Commons votes to rescind the notice under Article 50, that notice will be revoked. We are a parliamentary democracy.”
“The Government’s position is clear that Article 50 will not be revoked. We will discuss the question...”
“My Lords, with everything he says my noble friend is repudiating the authority and position of Parliament, and asserting the supremacy of the Executive. That is inimical to parliamentary democracy.”
“I think I am asserting the supremacy of the people who voted in a referendum.”
“My Lords, we will discuss the appropriateness of a second referendum later today...”
Lord Reid of Cardowan
“The Minister has just, perhaps inadvertently, said something of profound constitutional consequence. Is he asserting from that Dispatch Box that parliamentary representative democracy is no longer sovereign if there is a plebiscite? This is an extremely important constitutional issue and he has just made that assertion. Would he like to withdraw the assertion or to reassert that parliamentary democracy is no longer sovereign?”
“I am asserting that Parliament voted to hold a referendum. The referendum took place, and we all know the result. We believe that that referendum should be respected. I am sorry that noble Lords do not agree with me, but that is the Government’s position.”
Lord Falconer of Thoroton
“Am I not right in saying that the Government have taken power to extend the exit day beyond the date in the Article 50 notice? That is contained in Clause 14(4). Why did they take that power if they were determined, as the Minister is saying, never to change the date?”
“We are leaving the European Union on 29 March next year in accordance with the Article 50 notification and we have made it very clear countless times. The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Article 50 notification will not be revoked.”
Since his appointment last year, replacing Baroness Joyce Anelay as Minister of state, Lord Callanan, a former MEP who once advocated scrapping EU workers’ safeguards for pregnant women and agency workers and who was caught trying to infiltrate Labour in 2015 to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, has been familiar with making wrong statements and confusing arguments.
In November 2017, the very Brexit minister had already had to apologise for incorrectly stating in the House of Lords that the UK Supreme Court had ruled that Article 50 was irreversible.
In February 2018, Lord Callanan had only one thing to to say about the Peers: “The House of Lords is the epitome of the establishment, full of ex-foreign office luminaries and people who think that their view is much more important than that of common oiks in the House of Commons or the public as a whole.”
Under ordinary times, a Government minister asserting live on TV that the “will of the people” now supersedes Parliament sovereignty would make all newspapers’ headlines, social media users shout “Scandalous!” and constitutional lawyers and other experts be interviewed on all news channels and talk radios.
But these are no ordinary times and, conveniently, and rightly so, the Russia story gathers more attention today than a Brexit faux-pas. Journalists, however, would be well-inspired to keep reporting on other significant events as well as the headlines of the day, especially when it is about keeping the Government and Government ministers to account.
(Read transcripts of the debate in the House of Lords on the Hansard website.)