Why revoking Article 50 or suchlike would make me really really angry

I voted leave in the 2016 referendum, for reasons outlined here, and would vote the same again. What has happened since then has in my mind rather served to confirm my reasoning, and indeed emphasis the need for accountability in some nearer places too. Obviously a number of people disagree with the result – the majority of MPs for one – and a number of these figures – the Liberal Democrats as a whole, key figures amongst Conservatives and Labour and so on – have proposed revoking Article 50 (our notice to leave) altogether, or holding a second referendum (which for some reason they dub a “people’s vote”; I suspect the hand of Tony Blair in this, since he liked to add “people’s” to all sorts of things in an attempt to generate support) or a “confirmatory vote”.

The issue has become highly contentious, and there seem to be some who think if the whole thing can be undone, such disagreements would disappear. For those who liked or benefited from the political status quo prior to the referendum, such is likely to be highly attractive. It is also impossible. Setting aside the arguments over Brexit itself, what I want to communicate is why I personally find the suggestion to revoke article 50 or similar so objectionable, and why in many respects this issue is now far bigger than Brexit itself.

What should not be forgotten is that the referendum itself, voted for by an overwhelming majority of Parliament, was presented to the British public as:

This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.

Upon the result, many MPs now committed to revocation or to a second referendum spoke about the need to respect and implement the referendum result (including luminaries such as Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna). Many of them subsequently stood on an election manifesto in the 2017 election promising to implement the result, the Conservative members explicitly on a manifesto that no deal would be preferred to a bad deal.

So when MPs argue for revocation, they are explicitly arguing that Parliament should break a promise it made to the British public to respect the public’s vote, one that many of the members subsequently remade by the platforms they stood upon for the 2017 election. Some might argue that legislatively, the referendum was “non-binding”. But that doesn’t change the commitment made to the electorate, the assurance that it was there decision. To argue this is to confuse legality with legitimacy. It would be legal, but it would be illegitimate. And Parliament’s authority to make laws for the rest of us depends on its legitimacy.

To revoke article 50 would in short be to void my vote; it would effectively disenfranchise me by making my vote of null effect. This strikes at the very heart of the implied social contract by which we give Parliament any right to rule over us at all. We permit Parliament to fill this role because we are assured we have a say in what happens, via our exercise of our vote. Thus even if a vote doesn’t go our way, the result is legitimate if we had the opportunity to have our say. This has been the situation for most of my life: there are very few decisions the Blair government made that I agreed with. But while I disagreed with that government and its decisions, I could give a broader consent to the legitimacy of that government, because I’d had the opportunity to vote but was sadly on the losing side.

That calculus changes if it appears that my vote is to be ignored if it is on the winning side: then it appears my vote is a fraud, designed to give the illusion of a say, but to be ignored lest there be any danger of me having an actual say. It breaks the implied social contract upon which our system of government depends. To attempt to defend any such moves on the idea of Parliamentary supremacy is to ignore the question of why should we permit that supremacy. What gives Parliament the right to rule over us? Until now, it has been that it has, imperfectly perhaps, reflected our communal decisions. But if my vote is to be outright rejected, then Parliament doesn’t reflect or allow for my input at all. It is, perhaps ironically, making a new claim to a “divine right”, but in this case a divine right of MPs. A right I must reject. As I must likewise reject any supposed “government of national unity” that takes as its starting point excluding the votes of the largest vote in British history. They would be no government of mine, and I’d reject their right to rule over me.

It is particularly infuriating when many of those pushing for revocation within and without Parliament have been seemingly happy to go along with the system so long as the results were congenial to upper middle-class politicians and lawyers. It is a seeming double standard that I have had to consent to results I disagree with most of my adult life, but the moment a result is reached they disagree with it is the result that is to be dispensed with. I say a seeming double standard, because in reality it sets up a new single standard: they get to decide, whereas the rest of us will have things decided for us. We are to be effectively disenfranchised, while they effectively enthroned as our new masters.

What then of a second referendum or a “confirmatory vote”? Note again the double standard. The Blair government, for instance (and indeed feel free to use the example of any post-war government of your choice), introduced sweeping changes to public life and law. Do we get a confirmatory vote on all of those? Why not? If some argue that the referendum result was too close (despite having an outright majority of votes cast, by over a million votes), then what do we say of the Blair government with 43.2% (1997), 40.7% (2001), and 35.2% (2005) of votes cast, i.e. no majority of votes at all. No British government since 1935 has had a majority of votes. Once again, my vote is to be subject to confirmation, while their vote is to be implemented without question. Of course, the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have already admitted that were a second referendum produce a leave result, they’d ignore that too.

In a democracy, the ultimate civic right and the ultimate means of redress is the ability to vote. It is this that allows Citizens to reign in their governments and to secure their interests and all other rights. Conversely, establishing a principle by which votes may be ignored if they go against the desires of the influential is to effectively strip people of that civic right and render effectively meaningless that means of redress. And so I ask of you, if MPs and others are to ignore my vote and render it null and void, what means of redress remain open to me?

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On Prorogation

It’s worth pointing out:

1) Prorogation is what happens – every single time – before a new session of Parliament with a new Queen’s speech can take place.

2) The current Parliamentary session is the longest since the Rump Parliament was dissolved in 1653, which had similarly out-stayed its welcome. It’s been over 2 years since the last Queen’s speech and anything like a legislative programme existed. If we’re looking to constitutional “outrages”, one can begin there.

3) Anything we are proceeding towards in the meantime – such as an exit from the EU on WTO terms in the absence of any alternative treaties – will happen only because of legislation voted for by the current crop of MPs. They legislated that into law.

4) Of course, the reason certain MPs are protesting this (in rather overblown terms) is because of the desire they have to undo the laws they’d already agreed to and effectively void the largest vote in British history. Their proposed “government of national unity” would be a real outrage, since it wouldn’t represent national unity, only parliamentary unity against said vote and the nation.

Why I am voting leave

I am voting for the UK to leave the European Union in Thursday’s referendum. This will be of little surprise to anyone who’s spoken to me on the subject at any time over the last twenty years. However, as the referendum approached I wanted to elaborate on my decision, particularly as I’ve seen some people express some confusion over the whole topic. There seems to be some sort of belief in some quarters that if we had all the “facts”, that there would be a single obvious correct decision. But that’s not how human beings or politics work. The issues at stake in the referendum are not simply a matter of empirical facts, they’re about principles. I happen to believe that some principles are more correct than others, but it’s not the sort of thing one can establish by simple numbers.

 

First principles

It’s worth establishing some basic principles that go into my thinking:

  1. The worth of the individual human soul is supernal. As a Christian and a Latter-day Saint, I believe human beings to be eternal, and and that the exercise of our agency plays a crucial part in fulfilling the purpose of our life here on earth (D&C 101:77-78). By political conviction, I believe that freedom under a just law is essential to allowing human beings the opportunity to express their full potential.
  2. In contrast, all governments, nations and political institutions will have an eventual end. No state lasts forever. For this reason I am patriot, not a nationalist, as there are principles that are more important and longer significance than national aggrandizement. In the long run both the EU and UK will cease to exist. Combining that with the above leads to:
  3. The legitimacy of government depends upon the extent to which it protects liberty (especially of conscience) and life. Government was made for man, not man for government. Any government that does not serve these purposes is not legitimate, no matter what it is based upon or how it is selected. Democracy, after all, is not the same as liberty; where those conflict, I come down squarely in favour of the latter.

It’s entirely possibly, of course, for people to share the same principles but disagree about the means, and for people of good faith to disagree about what political policies would best meet good principles. However, I believe that there are several principles connected with the above that would be best served by leaving the European Union.

 

Why leave the European Union

 

Accountability

I believe the ability to hold governments and their officials accountable is an essential part of their being able to serve their purposes as outlined above. I see, however, little evidence of any such accountability where the European Union is concerned.

Accountability is not precisely the same as democracy: it’s possible for a system to be democratic, and yet not accountable. It’s the downside of at least some proportional representation systems, such as the closed-list system we use for MEPs in this country (though that’s our fault, not the EU’s). MEPs are allotted according to the party vote, and then individuals become MEPs according to their position on a list by their respective parties. Of course, that makes it nearly impossible for the public to remove any particular individual from their position so long as they’re in good standing with their party. Similar difficulties can be seen on the continent, where the coincidence of PR and a tendency towards grand coalitions in some countries mean that the same governing coalition can be perpetuated for decades, no matter the election results.

On to the EU. The primary role in proposing, initiating and executing EU legislation resides with the European Commission, an unelected body who combine the role of the Executive (think the Prime Minister, or the US President) and the civil service. The idea that they somehow count as elected because they are selected by national governments should be immediately fallacious to anyone considering similar such nominated posts (such as in Quangos) in this country. Our commissioners in particular often end up being politicians who have been rejected by the electorate at home: a near perfect demonstration of unaccountability, where their accountability to the electorate at home has been rewarded with new powers abroad. The Commission is theoretically accountable to the EU Parliament, but the Commission enjoys broad powers in shaping how legislation is implemented, while the Parliament itself is also a subject of concerning between the party groupings and turn out figures for its elections.

Another example of how this lack of accountability manifests itself can be seen in responses to other referendums. The Republic of Ireland voted no via referendum for both the treaty of Nice and Lisbon; in both cases a second referendum was held shortly thereafter that provided a yes result. The French and Dutch referendums on the EU constitution were effectively rendered null and void when said constitution was largely incorporated via the treaty of Lisbon. And of course both the Brown government and Cameron reneged on pledges regarding referendums on the EU constitution and Lisbon treaty respectively. Such unaccountability makes it more likely that government can serve its own interests, not those of the people it is supposedly serving, and more likely that it can become corrupt.

As I shall elaborate on below, however, I do not think this unaccountability can be corrected. It’s an inevitable part of such a system.

 

Self-government

A second major reason I believe it is important to leave the European Union is the principle of self-government. In order to preserve freedom, to help ensure local government and to encourage people to make the fullest use of their potential, government decisions should be made as close to the people affecting them, and ideally by them, as possible. It’s good for people to govern themselves, rather than have solutions imposed upon individuals, families or communities. This is also a matter of efficiency: it is impossible to micromanage everything from the centre, since such efforts cannot respond to local situations, or even obtain good enough information to properly be aware of them. Attempts to fix problems inevitably become bureaucratic exercises in reporting, which consume time and energy and make things even worse. We see that happen in the UK  as it is.

Theoretically, the EU subscribes to the principle of “subsidiarity”, which embraces this idea that decisions should be made closest to the people affected by them. However, in practice the EU sees no problem in legally imposing uniform regulations, often involving the smallest matters, across the EU. In practice, then, regulations and rules are often made at an even higher layer of administration than they otherwise would be. The logic of “ever closer union” (as coined in the 1957 treaty of Rome, establishing the EEC) leaves no stopping point for efforts to try and enforce uniformity. Decisions that should be the remit of the national government, or lower still, are deemed to require uniform rules across an entire continent.

This lack of self-government can be seen in other areas. Remain campaigners sometimes mention EU spending projects. Yet – since the UK is net contributor – what these represent is the UK providing funds to the EU, of which the EU provides a portion back to spend in a fashion authorised by EU officials. Any such projects could have easily been paid for without sending the money to Brussels, and without the conditions and strings that get attached. Do those mentioning these projects feel that EU officials are the people best placed to determine the priorities for the people of the UK? Likewise there is mention from the political left of labour laws and so on. But not a single one of those laws could not be made at home. The implicit concession in such statements is that they feel they are unable to persuade the British electorate of the advantages of these laws, and so they must be imposed from abroad. I’m not sure that’s a political argument to boast of: “we can’t get British citizens to agree with us, so we must stay in the EU so our political preferences can be enforced by foreign officials.” It’s rank hypocrisy when it comes from the SNP, who campaign for Scottish self-government, but feel the English must not have it as they’re not left-wing enough (and yes, if the Scottish people wanted to exercise self-government outside of association with the UK, I think that would be perfectly proper, provided it’s their own choice).

And it’s really the principle of self-government that I see affecting things like immigration. I’m in favour of restricting immigration, but I could see circumstances where it’d be better to open it up. But such a decision, which can significantly affect the social and cultural make up of a nation, should be made by those affected by it. Whether we want to increase or decrease immigration isn’t really the key point; the key point is that whatever we want to do, that decision should be made by the British people

 

Identity

There’s a third reason I personally am favour of leaving the EU, which comes down to a simple matter of identity.

Identities can overlap, of course. The Scottish referendum two years back hinged on how people weighed their identities as British and Scottish, and whether they saw them as compatible. I myself, after personally seeing myself as “me”, have identities as a follower of Christ, as a Latter-day Saint, as English, as a Westerner and as British. Some of those take priority over others – I see myself as English more than I see myself as British – but those don’t cancel each other out.

What I don’t see myself as is “European”.

I’m sure some people do, and I won’t speak for them. But I don’t feel “European” in any more than a geographical and ethnic sense, which isn’t much in my book. I find myself largely agreeing with Bismark, that Europe is a “geographical expression”. Culturally I find more in common with my coreligionists, or my fellow English speakers, than people who simply share the same continent as myself. And whenever attempts are made to codify “European values”, I can’t help but find I don’t fit in (though that might be because said values tend to be less “European” values, than “Guardian readers” values). I can’t think of anything other than geographical location that I share with other Europeans, but not with an inhabitant of North America or Australia or wherever. And that’s not going to change: we’re voting to leave the European Union, not to tow the UK further into the Atlantic.

As said, I’m sure others feel differently. But I don’t believe there’s a huge majority of such people. And that’s a problem that ties into the above concerns with accountability and self-government. The EU is structured as a (rather deficient) democracy. But there is no European demos (people). Rather there are lots of different peoples with very different interests. Thus there is no single “public” to hold EU leaders to account, no single public to debate issues (just think of how media is divided, even just by linguistic issues). In practice, the EU can’t function as a democracy; the bureaucracy is simply an inevitable consequence. Likewise any decision made at the EU level will smack of undermining self-government, and any decision will be one national interest prevailing over another. No EU leader is in a position to try and persuade the European people, because there is no unified European people to persuade. And as I am not a European, I reject the notion of any “European” government presuming to rule over me.

 

Other matters

There’s a couple of things that I haven’t addressed above, mainly because I don’t see them as the most important issues, but I’ll briefly mention them here.

Firstly, there’s concerns that voting to leave is an expression of xenophobia. It’s aggravating when those accusations come from people less acquainted with foreign affairs than oneself, and from people on the internet who seem to lack the ability to spell in English, let alone other languages (Boris Johnson seems to express similar frustration here, pointing out amongst other things that his family “are the genetic equivelent of a UN peacekeeping force”). Are there likely to be xenophobes supporting the Leave campaign? Yes. Then again, there’s unreconstructed Stalinists supporting the Remain campaign, but I’m not accusing Cameron of wanting to finish off the Kulaks.

There’s also suggestions, spread by our Prime Minister alas, that the European Union has kept the peace since World War 2, and that leaving the EU presents security risks and could even lead to a world war. Which is nonsense. Setting aside the 3rd World War for the moment (which alas is likely to happen at some point in the future, though will probably not be affected one way or the other by Brexit), the peace in Europe was secured by the military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, and particularly the threat of escalation to nuclear warfare. It was MAD (mutually assured destruction), not the EEC, which stopped a shooting war from happening in Europe. Notice that when the Cold War ended shooting wars did start up again in Europe (Yugoslavia, anyone?), and it was US military intervention, not European treaties, that ended them. The United States and Russia (though the latter is much diminished) are still the major military players on the European scene, and the EU has benefited from relying on the former’s security umbrella. That security umbrella is now looking rather leaky, but due to political developments in the United States rather than anywhere else, and in or out, the UK will likely need new security policies.

Thirdly, some speak of us losing influence, by losing our vote on European forums. This seems postulated on two doubtful assertions: 1) That seeking to exert influence over our neighbours at the price of our own self-government is beneficial to the British people. 2) That we get our way in these arguments. One look at our track record in attempting to secure reform of the Common Agricultural Policy – or for that matter one look at Cameron’s attempts to secure a deal to keep Britain in the EU – should show we rarely secure such influence. There is no great influence to be found in joining a club to be consistently outvoted. And some of those making this argument – such as the US government – don’t really have our interests at heart. They simply want us to be the American trade delegate in the EU, a position they feel we should be honoured with. I disagree.

Finally I have not commented on economic issues. That’s partly because things here are more balanced. Leaving the EU will not lead to economic utopia, and will probably require hard work. On the other hand, staying in the EU won’t lead to economic utopia either. The EU is a major destination for our exports, and potential new trade barriers could cause problems with that. On the other hand, the EU exports more to us than we send to them, so punitive restrictions would punish them more than us (and if our fellow EU members are petty and nasty enough to punish us even if it hurts them, that’s another reason to leave). On the Remain side of the ledger, however, is the risks posed by the Euro and economic troubles in Southern Europe dragging the whole thing down. It should be remembered that many of the so-called “experts” (some of whom were not experts at all: there are few job qualifications for a politician) who are claiming leaving the EU will lead to ruin are the same people who argued back in the 1990s and early 2000s that staying out of the Euro would also be disastrous. Their judgement is self-evidently faulty, and a number of nations have paid the price.

There are economic risks either side, and those who are hoping to have an option without economic risk will be forever disappointed. Moreover, “man shall not live by bread alone”: even if only leaving posed economic risks, they would be worth taking because the principles of self-government and accountable government are worth far more. We have a unique opportunity to exercise that self-government for ourselves, and hopefully use it to secure a freer and more accountable government for the future.