The Brexit Article 50 trigger Bill : a greater betrayal

The House of Commons has given a first reading to Mrs May’s Article 50 trigger Bill by a large majority.  Triggering Article 50 before the end of March, or at any other time, will start the process, probably unstoppable, of taking Britain out of the EU on whatever dismal terms we can get.  A substantial majority of MPs of almost every party knows that Brexit will be a disaster for Britain economically and on every other level.  Those of every party who voted for the Bill in that knowledge have betrayed their country and their duty as members of parliament.

But this parliamentary vote and the justification offered by numerous MPs for the way they voted, both for and against the Bill, represent another betrayal whose consequences may turn out to be almost as damaging as Brexit itself.  Too many MPs on both sides have explained their votes as “representing” the views of their constituents, in cases where an MP for a constituency where a majority voted to Remain last June voted against the Bill for that reason, or an MP whose constituents mostly voted to Leave voted accordingly in favour of the Bill.  It’s understandable, in a way, for an MP to want to avoid voting in parliament in ways that will disappoint or even anger a large number of his or her constituents, especially the handful of party activists who may well see it, inexcusably, as a reason to for deselecting the MP and thus terminating his career. But it can’t be too strongly stressed that this cannot ever be a justification for any MP to vote contrary to his own judgement of the best interests of the country, whether or not that means voting contrary to the wishes of his constituents, or his local party members, or its passionate activists.  MPs are elected to act in parliament according to their own best judgement, not in obedience to their constituents, or to the electorate at large as expressed in a referendum or an opinion poll or in mass emailings, nor even in obedience to their party leader or his whips.  MPs’ plain duty is to lead public opinion, not to be enslaved by it.

The decay in understanding of that principle and respect for it poses a great danger to our democracy.  It risks making public opinion – or, worse, the opinion of political zealots in the local parties, of the gutter press and the unaccountable social media – the arbiter of great and complex decisions that can’t safely be made on the basis of catchy slogans and misleading simplifications.  Such decisions may require prolonged technical research and debate with professional advisers inside and outside government.  Ordinary voters in the High Street, even the party zealots, have no obligation or ability to carry out such research and discussion.  We elect our MPs to do those things for us.  If they get it wrong, we have our remedy at the next election.  But we are in danger of slipping into a culture of MPs’ obedience to an uninformed and often misled public opinion, especially that part of it in each MP’s constituency.  The claim to your MP’s obedience to instructions from his constituents not only means a demand that MPs must if necessary betray their consciences and best judgement of the public good:  it makes a nonsense of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, which Brexit was supposed to restore.  Even worse, it is bound to lead to bad decisions, contrary to the country’s best interests, likely to damage the living standards of ordinary British people as well as Britain’s standing in the world.  Such was the bad decision made in the House of Commons the other night, when most of those who helped to make it knew that it was bad.

It will be said in defence of those who voted for last night’s Bill that they acted out of “respect” for the result of last June’s referendum, with its tantalisingly narrow majority for Leave. But this won’t wash either.  As a matter of unvarnished fact, the referendum was advisory only – as not only the wording but also a reading of the debates on the legislation that set it up confirms. Yesterday a Tory MP had the gall to declare in the debate on the Article 50 debate that while the referendum had been only advisory, the promise in the Conservative party manifesto to act on its result had made it binding – as if a Conservative party manifesto has the force of law and the power to override a parliamentary statute.  The referendum had the status of an official opinion poll. It provided information about the state of public opinion on an over-simplified issue, shorn of all its conditions and contexts – in or out?  The only legitimate conclusion to be drawn from it is that on a specific date seven months ago, the opinions of those who chose to vote were almost equally divided, and that this was also probably true of opinion in the country as a whole.  This left parliament and government with the freedom and above all the obligation to follow their own best judgement as to Britain’s future in the EU. To interpret the referendum result as a “decision” and an “instruction” to parliament, requiring an obedience that must override MPs’ and ministers’ own best judgements, is patently perverse, and plain contrary to constitutional principles.  Those are the fundamental principles that last night’s parliamentary vote most blatantly betrayed.  Hats off especially to the minority of MPs who voted in accordance with their conscience and judgement, not just to placate their constituents.

Let’s hope that the House of Lords will show itself to be made of sterner, more principled and more courageous stuff.  They may be – are – unelected, but at least they have nothing to fear from enraged constituents. Nobody is going to abolish or “reform” the House of Lords for delaying the Article 50 trigger when everyone’s hands are full with the enormous issues arising from the disastrous referendum result.  And many will see delay as offering opportunities.


7 Responses

  1. Glen Plant says:

    Agreed, and one might refer to the Code of Conduct at

    We are in for a long haul.

  2. Mark Adler says:

    Bravo! I’ve been saying the same thing, though far less eloquently, and have not been able to understand why this fundamental argument has not been more widely acknowledged.

    In particular, parliament has a duty to consider the many material changes in circumstances since the referendum. These make Brexit more damaging than was anticipated and many Leavers — now left unrepresented and without a voice — might now vote the other way.

  3. Michael Hornsby says:

    I agree with much of what you say. It is of course true that there is no such thing as a “binding” referendum under the British constitution. Ours is a deliberative and representative and not a plebiscitary democracy. In the words of the House of Commons Library briefing paper on the European Referendum Bill, issued on 3 June 2015, the plebiscite held on 23 June of last year was “a type of referendum known as ‘pre-legislative or consultative’, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions”.  The difficulty is that the Government chose, in effect, to waive its right to regard the referendum result, whatever it turned out to be, as merely “advisory”. Presenting the referendum Bill to parliament, Phillip Hammond, then Foreign Secretary, declared: “The decision about our [EU] membership  should be taken by the British people, not by Parliamentarians in this chamber”. In a leaflet sent to every household in the land, the Government, though itself backing Remain, none the less promised: “This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide”. I can find no evidence that this commitment was qualified in any way by Parliament when approving the referendum bill. In the circumstances, it was not unreasonable that a majority of MPs, whatever their own views, felt they could not renege on that promise (however recklessly given).

    In my view it is questionable whether a referendum, requiring a binary “yes or no” answer,  can ever be a sensible way of deciding a question with as many, largely unforeseeable and unknowable, implications and ramifications as that put before the people on June 23. Leaving that aside, there was one crucial difference between last June’s referendum and that held in 1975 by Harold Wilson’s Government to decide whether the UK should stay in the EC, as it then was, only two years after joining it. The 1975 plebiscite was held after the re-negotiated terms of the UK’s EC membership had been agreed by all EC members and the terms set out in a Command paper and agreed by both Houses of Parliament. So people then at least had a pretty clear idea of what they were voting for or against, in stark contrast to the situation last June. It is still open to Mrs May’s Government to submit the exit terms, once negotiated with the EU, to Parliament for its approval or disapproval. The difficulty is that by then the choice would seem to be between either accepting whatever exit package (however unsatisfactory) emerges or rejecting it, in which case the UK would likely  find itself outside the EU with no agreement at all on its future relationship with the EU’s remaining members since  the Article 50 process appears not to allow for any continuation of negotiations beyond  a certain  point or for a change of mind on the part of the country triggering it.  The inflexibility of the Article 50 process appears, alas, to rule out one rational way out of the current mess that would in everyone’s interest: namely, that it be used, first, to attempt a renegotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU, which the Government could then recommend to the country, with exit only as a last resort if that renegotiation failed.



  4. robin fairlie says:

    Brian echoes my own beliefs; Michael Hornsby succeeds in explaining the horrible mess into which MPs have – (recklessly indeed) landed themselves. But we all know why these reckless promises were made in presenting the Referendum Bill – simply because the Government wished to give the most rope to its own right wing, while nobody remotely supposed the referendum could be lost. Now that it has been it is clearly time to admit, with Nick Clegg over University fees, that some promises can’t be kept, and this is one of them. I can see the dilemma, but not forgive the coward’s way out which involves destroying the interests of the country in pursuit of a stupid pledge to give constitutional weight to a foolish referendum.

  5. sentinel says:

    What we need is a change in circs that persuades a sufficient chunk of the Leavers that staying in the EU is now a good idea. Our salvation may lie in further deterioration in German-US relations. If Germany concludes it can no longer rely on the US for its security it might start a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. In the meantime, as part of his ‘America First’ doctrine, President Trump demands that other NATO members must buy more US kit with the implied threat that otherwise NATO’s Article 5 might be construed more loosely. The EU might then revisit a European Defence Community. Leavers that share doubts about Trump’s commitment to Europe might think it sensible (for the moment at least) to remain in the EU.

  6. Peter Martin says:

    “A substantial majority of MPs of almost every party knows that Brexit will be a disaster for Britain economically and on every other level.

    I’d say that should be “believes” rather than “knows”. A substantial majority of MPs also thinks “knows” cutting spending and raising taxes will reduce the deficit! When all it does really is send the economy into  a downward spiral. It’s quite possible they are wrong. Majority or no majority.

    We can find some expert opinion to the contrary.

    Not just for Britain but for struggling EZ countries too!

  7. Oliver Miles says:

    A bit late, but now see my article in Comment is Free” – how to cast a useful vote in the “Brexit election” (I owe some debt to this blog)