In a move that shouldn’t have surprised anyone, the British Supreme Court has ruled that the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will begin Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, must be approve by Parliament. Theresa May and other senior Tories had tried to argue that the result of the referendum was such that Cabinet ministers could act without parliamentary approval, however the Supreme Court disagreed. Legislation will now be put forward by the government to trigger Article 50 and the House of Commons will vote on the bill.
The decision by the Supreme Court today was a victory for democracy. Britain’s democratic processes are far from perfect, but one of the things that is important is the ability of Parliament to check the power of the Executive. Indeed, figures in the Leave campaign constantly spoke about the EU’s “democratic deficit”, the need to “take back control”, and the “sovereignty of Parliament”. I then found it peculiar that these very same people were now lobbying for the Prime Minister to act without the approval of Parliament, especially as the referendum was, in a legal sense, non-binding.
According the law, which is quite important for things like this, the referendum result didn’t really decide anything. The referendum was in effect an expression of the public will, and it was up to politicians to make up their own minds. Obviously if politicians ignored the people’s choice it would be political suicide, and advocates for a parliamentary vote like myself are not suggesting undermining the referendum result.
It’s also worth pointing out that this slight delay wouldn’t have changed the result. Theresa May has said over and over again that “Brexit means Brexit”. Even if we ignore this statement’s lack of any meaning whatsoever, presumably May would have eventually triggered Article 50. A parliamentary vote does change the fact that Article 50 will be triggered. The overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs will vote in favour of triggering Article 50, and most Labour MPs will do the same. This Supreme Court decision, therefore, just means that the PM cannot unilaterally act. It’s a technical point about the constitution and parliamentary procedure, not about democratic legitimacy.
However, the most unsettling thing about this whole court case has been the press response. I wrote a piece covering the court case and the media’s response, but I think it’s worth repeating. The Daily Mail ran a front-page with three judges pictured, with the headline “Enemies of the People”. Not only is this statement factually false, because as I said it wasn’t an attempt to overturn the referendum vote, but it is dangerous.
One of the justifications of democratic nation-states is that an independent judiciary must exist to arbitrate disputes in a way that put it beyond the realms of majoritarian democracy. An example of this is in the case of civil rights. If Group A has 90 people and Group B has 10 people, without an independent judiciary Group A could democratically decide to abolish all civil rights from Group B. This is obviously an extreme example, but the point is that judiciaries are in place to solve disputes and protect people from this situation. No supporter of democracy would support the majority taking the rights away from a minority group.
The “Enemies of the People” headline , and others like it, delegitimise the role of the judiciary in democratic nation-states, which is curious considering that the very same right-wing newspaper editors and columnists will decry the deterioration of the rule of law. Press outlets have have demonised the Supreme Court, or individual judges, have undermined the very system that they claimed to support in the EU referendum debate.
The Supreme Court decision is a good one because if prevents May from acting unilaterally and forces the government to outline what their negotiating plan is. The opposition to the government, both officially and those Conservatives that aren’t exactly enamored with how the PM is acting, now have the ability to change the government’s approach to the EU negotiations. Labour will be focusing on workers’ rights and the environment, and this voice is needed because otherwise the leaders of the Leave campaign, many of whom were Thatcherites, would have been steering the conversation.
The right-wing press needs to stop adopting such reactionary and dangerous rhetoric, and start thinking about what views they are promoting. If a news outlet wants to have an ideological bent on issues, I’m fine with that but opposing the very system of government that they vociferously defended from ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ is indicative of a lack of logic.