Nine months after the UK voted to leave the EU, the government has now invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, signalling Britain’s intention to depart and beginning two years of complex negotiations. TCM has supported Brexit as a necessary step for reviving Britain’s degraded representative democracy, and thereby popular control over politics, against the twin perils of technocracy and populism. We have never been under the illusion that Brexit would instantly achieve this goal, still less create some leftist paradise. Whether representative democracy is revived depends on how political forces act now. The Brexit process involves two major challenges to popular control: the Article 50 negotiation process itself, and the “Great Repeal Bill”, both of which risk centralising power in the hands of a narrow, technocratic elite.
First, the Article 50 process re-submits the UK to anti-democratic EU processes. Against those Brexiters who argued, in a populist manner, for the immediate triggering of Article 50 after the referendum, TCM warned that this was a technocratic trap. Article 50 was deliberately designed to make it difficult for member-states to leave. The cacophony of voices now warning that a deal cannot be done in two years merely illustrates the point: by imposing an unrealistically tight deadline, Article 50 clearly seeks to deter anyone from even daring to leave. More importantly, the negotiating process will convert the democratic moment of the EU referendum into a technocratic process. In keeping with an institution that has transformed public policymaking into nineteenth-century-style secret diplomacy, the negotiations must be conducted in private, with representatives of the Council and the Commission. We wanted as much democratic contestation over the terms of Brexit before UK officials entered this technocratic process to decide our future.
Remainers have squandered this collective opportunity to shape the process by indulging in pointless fantasies of parliamentary revolt against the electorate. The last nine months have not seen substantive debates over what form Brexit should take, but rather an anti-climactic struggle over who – the executive or parliament – has the right to pull the Article 50 lever. This legal battle was only waged in the hope that parliament would refuse to pull it; but parliament could not deliver. Parliament’s “victory” was empty because it was a gift of the courts. It was the government that retained the democratic mandate of the referendum, and parliament had nothing of substance to add. The government was forced to produce a White Paper, but this provided scant detail. The main commitments made were on leaving the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, but little else of substance has been discussed, and the bill was not seriously opposed in the Commons despite widespread disquiet about these terms. MPs finally seemed to realise that they could not oppose Brexit, but they completely failed to offer any vision for it.
Parliament therefore passed a pro-forma act, authorising the triggering of Article 50 but not imposing any significant conditions on the negotiations. The government merely pledged to report regularly to parliament – necessary, but hardly sufficient for popular control over the process – and to permit a final vote on the outcome – which, as we have argued, does not create real democratic choice. Most bizarrely, it was only after the bill was passed that the sclerotic Labour Party issued a list of “conditions” that the final deal must meet to gain their support in 2019. Remainers taunt Theresa May for having no plan for Brexit, but in reality it was they who had nothing substantive to offer, and therefore – feebly and irresponsibly – released the executive into Article 50 talks with the freedom to negotiate whatever it likes.
Parliament’s inability or unwillingness to take any real ownership of the process bodes very badly for the so-called “Great Repeal Bill”. The government plans to leave the EU by first domesticating the entire body of EU laws (the acquis communitaire), which parliament can then amend or repeal. This would be an appropriate restoration of parliamentary sovereignty. However, the executive is seeking a so-called “Henry VIII clause”, which would allow ministers to issue “secondary legislation” (edicts) that would amend this primary legislation. This is justified partly in technical terms: there is a lot of law to enact (over 170,000 pages), and much of it needs tweaking for the UK context.
The threat to representative democracy is obvious enough from the sinister “Henry VIII” label. Allowing ministers to dictate primary legislation is incredibly dangerous and amounts to a massive “Whitehall power grab”. Parliamentary sovereignty would be restored with one hand, then stolen away with the other.
This is clearly unacceptable, but it also underscores a key reason for leaving the EU. It is precisely because law-making has been transferred from parliament to internationally-networked executive agencies that this problem exists. For decades, laws and regulations have been initiated by the unaccountable European Commission, then adapted and finalized via secret negotiations between national ministers and European Parliament representatives in so-called “trilogues”, far removed from either public scrutiny or political debate (see here, pp.37-41, for more details). The vast acquis that now governs our lives – and must now be either retained or discarded – has been made primarily through the secretive exercise of executive power, not through our elected representatives. The proposed “Henry VIII” clause seeks to perpetuate this misallocation of authority by allowing UK ministers to decide which laws will stand or fall, or how they should be adapted to the UK. Nonsensically, it posits excessive executive power as the solution to a problem caused, in large part, by excessive executive power facilitated by EU structures.
The failure of parliament to influence the Brexit process so far, and the risk that it will be further sidelined, speaks to the degradation of representative democracy that was both expressed in, and accelerated by, the EU’s formation. As TCM’s Chris Bickerton has argued, as part of a general crisis of political representation, European governments retreated from their citizens into secret negotiations with one another behind closed doors, creating structures that further undermined democracy. European states thereby became “member-states”. As Britain leaves the EU, it casts off the legal form of member statehood, but the rotten content still remains: a political class disconnected from the masses, a parliament unused to exercising popular sovereignty, and an executive and bureaucracy accustomed to unaccountable rule.
The rot is most obvious in the party that ostensibly “leads” the official opposition. Jeremy Corbyn, betraying his own Eurosceptic principles, lost the opportunity to lead a progressive Brexit campaign. Labour, fatally alienated from the working classes it claims to represent, could not lead Remain to victory. Corbyn’s residual democratic principles, plus straightforward electoral calculus, meant Labour lacked the spine to oppose the referendum result; yet it now has absolutely nothing meaningful to offer on Brexit. Its total disarray, its inability to lead – borne of its decades-long alienation from ordinary citizens – is what allows a political pygmy like Theresa May to dominate the political scene, and the polls. She at least seems to grasp that there is a solid block of opinion requiring representation and leadership, and is seeking – however objectionably – to provide it.
The next few months will be decisive in determining whether there is anyone in the UK willing to recognize and then tackle this rot directly. Parliament needs to recover its function in representing social constituencies, take charge of the Great Repeal Bill, and exercise meaningful oversight over the executive’s conduct of the Article 50 talks. If the Remainer opposition merely persists in sneering from the sidelines, hoping to thwart Brexit two years hence, it will squander any chance of influence and, more importantly, the enormous opportunity for democratic renewal that Brexit has created.