British parliamentarians returning to work this week will be thrust immediately back into the Brexit fray. Tempus fugit, as the Romans say, and with the October 31 deadline for leaving the European Union mere weeks away, there’s no time to lose in the debate over whether or not Britain will achieve its independence.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to ask Elizabeth II to prorogue Parliament from September 11 (the likely start date) to the Queen’s Speech on October 14, so as to clear the political calendar for domestic business, has excited the expected howls of protest. But as Westminster was scheduled to be in recess anyway for the parties to hold their annual autumn conferences, it is likely no more than four or five days will be lost to Brexit mayhem.
No matter. While anti-Brexiteers outside Parliament are searching for ways to stop Boris’s prorogation — an unlikely event, given conventions dealing with royal prerogatives and the unwillingness of the judiciary to cross the line into the jurisdiction of the purely political — inside Parliament the usual suspects are preparing legislation to force the Government, in lieu of reaching a withdrawal deal, to ask the EU for yet another extension to the end of January 2020.
If anti-Brexiteers are successful in passing legislation forbidding Britain to leave on WTO terms — “No Deal” — what is the Government to do? MPs critical of Brexit plead they act in the spirit of British democracy. They are wrong. Their machinations in favor of the EU are in direct defiance of the people’s referendum vote three years ago to exit.
These shenanigans in the House of Commons pervert its historic role to hold the Executive to account, whether in the form of an “absolute” monarch or a prime minister leading a cabinet government. But the aim of the Commons has never been to usurp and abrogate authority to itself in defiance of the party in power.
The illogic of Remainers’ attempts to wrest control of the order paper away from the Government, in effect to create two competing jurisdictions, is clear. The Executive must be united, explained Thomas Aquinas, as it has responsibility for society’s “welfare and safety” that “lies in the preservation of its unity.” Authority thus lodged in a single entity “is more efficacious in producing its effect than a force which is scattered or divided.” In fact, Aquinas thought that divided authority was “rather a punishment.”
Let me add that this is not to disparage the idea of political checks and balances or the Madisonian insight that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
It is a question of where ultimate authority rests. Indeed, in the civil sphere, plurality is a benefit, certainly when contrasted to the omnipotent state. On the matter of economic planning, for instance, F.A. Hayek observed that the dispute is not over whether planning is beneficial or not; it is “whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.”
Is this not a fair analogy of Brexit? Whether Britons should enjoy self-government, to set their own legislation respecting trade, border security, regulatory oversight, and judicial rulings, than to outsource to Brussels bureaucrats — unelected and unaccountable?
British historian David Starkey describes it as a clash between “national (popular) sovereignty” and “parliamentary sovereignty.” Fealty to the democratic principle means Parliament is subject to the will of the people. Yet Remainer MPs enthralled with self-satisfaction grab at any gimmick to subvert the 2016 referendum decision to leave.
Were “anti-No Deal” legislation to pass, Boris Johnson’s continued premiership becomes untenable. He will either ask the Commons for a general election (two-thirds majority required, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) or resign office. Given the duration of this Parliament since its formation in 2017 and the state of the opposition parties (none of which can realistically command majority support of MPs), a general election becomes inevitable.
Conservatives probably welcome a return to the polls, apart from nagging fears of overconfidence. The latest YouGov survey shows the Tories leading their Labour opposition by 11 points, 33 percent to 22 percent. These numbers complement an August poll that a plurality support prorogation as a means of achieving Brexit, with 40 percent surveyed believing that Boris is more in tune with the public than Parliament (only 25 percent believe that Parliament is more in tune than Boris).
In consequence, a Labour Party that has spent months threatening a vote of no confidence to bring down the Government is now less assured of electoral victory; while their former leader, Prime Minister Tony Blair, is saying that another referendum is a better gauge of the public’s Brexit mood than a general election.
This is where we find Brexit and the fate of British independence, so seemingly close and yet still so far — the outcome no one can foretell with certainty.
Brexiteers, needful of support to bolster morale, can ruminate on John Milton. “They who seek nothing but their own just liberty,” he wrote, “have always right to win it and to keep it, whenever they have power, be the voices never so numerous that oppose it.”
Stephen MacLean maintains the blog The Organic Tory.