Sheila Lawlor is the Director of Politeia and the author of Deal, No Deal? The Battle for Britain’s Democracy.
The Prime Minister’s proposed EU withdrawal treaty has, to put it mildly, had a mixed reception. Two cabinet ministers and other members of the Government have resigned. They, like MPs across the political spectrum object to a plan under which Britain would commit to being under EU laws over which the people of this country have no say, with the UK bound to EU law under an EU customs union, potentially forever.
There are a number of reasons why the proposed Brexit withdrawal deal should not go ahead in the interests of legal, trade and economic independence and the prosperity of the country which others will analyse. But there is one commanding reason on which I will touch here: it signs away Britain’s historic freedoms.
Since time immemorial, people in this country have had a say in how they are governed. From Anglo-Saxon times, through to the barons and Magna Carta, and during the tumultuous battles for free trade in the 19th century, they have shaped the laws under which they are governed. Monarchs, parliaments and governments stayed in power or were removed in a country characterised by freedom and the stability this brought – to the envy of its continental neighbours. By contrast, they, even as late as the 20th Century succumbed to violent change, unstable government or authoritarian and dictatorial rule.
In Britain the universal franchise, fully in place by the early 20th Century, was used to topple one government and usher in a new era through the ballot box not the barricades. Winners and losers settled down to give the winning side a chance.
In 1922, voters sent the historic Liberal party packing as a main party of government. In 1924 they ushered in Britain’s first Labour government, and 21 years later gave Labour under Clement Attlee an overwhelming victory in 1945, defeating Churchill, the leader who won the Second World War. Nearer to our own time, voters seized the chance to put Margaret Thatcher into power to change the direction of Britain in 1979, with consequences for economic and political systems the world over.
Radical decisions, radical change, were upheld by losers and winners alike.
That this did not happen with the referendum is now a challenge to Britain’s historic freedoms and its carefully nurtured democratic tradition. In the House of Commons and the Lords, Remain MPs and peers sought to turn the referendum decision on its head, citing the interventions of those business lobbies who, like them, had opposed the Leave vote or campaigned, through fair means or foul to reverse the Brexit decision, to stay in one or other part of the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union.
After March this year, the Government, which until then publicly had been on course to honour the referendum decision, changed direction, assisted by the break down of collective cabinet responsibility.
Having boxed itself into the EU’s demands for withdrawal, it now prepared to abandon constitutional precedent, by delegating negotiation of these important matters to unelected civil servants to reach deals with their EU opposite numbers. Out went the accountability of which good government is the beneficiary, with subterfuge, secret deal-making and deception in its place, to the shame of Britain’s unique system of government. The Prime Minister side-lined the cabinet, presenting ministers with a fait accompli, first at Chequers in July (to keep UK goods under EU law), and, as we saw last week, the draft withdrawal agreement.
Against the best traditions of Britain’s successful institutional arrangements we saw one of the world’s oldest and most stable democracies descend to the chaotic scenes of recent months. The instability which followed has been more characteristic of the EU: there, voters are ignored as policy, and the institutional arrangements that govern the bloc are designed to serve the elites to keep them in power.
That failure to respect the constitutional arrangements protecting freedom will go down as a major blot on this government. Even in the Second World War, despite tight wartime secrecy and security, Churchill debated strategic and tactical options daily with the defence committee and cabinet (often twice a day) as he discussed, tested, hypothesised and finally reached a collective, agreed, and minuted, formal policy decision.
Mistakes have been made. Had the voters’ wishes been followed, and the institutional arrangements designed to protect their freedom and prevent elected dictatorships respected, these mistakes would most likely have been avoided, and Britain’s system of government would have won through for its voters.
Now, as the proposed Withdrawal Treaty is to make its way through Parliament, MPs and government alike should remember this country’s hard won freedom must not be signed away to an unelected power in the EU. They should heed the warning of one of Britain’s most successful 20th century prime ministers:
“Never forget…it is the people who put you here. It is they who will remove you.”