Friday, 15 March 2019

Democracy dies when the losers refuse to accept the result

It was Harold Wilson who famously stated that a week is a long time in politics. This week must have seemed like an eternity to Theresa May. On Tuesday, parliament again voted down her Withdrawal Agreement. On Wednesday, parliament voted against leaving the European Union without a deal. And on Thursday, parliament instructed the government to seek an extension to Article 50. Three resounding defeats on the government's flagship policy.

At anytime in previous parliamentary history such defeats would have brought down the government. However, the Fixed Term Parliament Act allows Theresa May to cling to the trappings of power. Yet it is obvious to all that she is no longer in control of events. Indeed, on Thursday members of her own Cabinet defied a three line whip and did not resign, repudiating the doctrine of collective responsibility. Worse still, she is now having to work against her constantly reiterated (more than one hundred times from the despatch box) assertion that the country will leave the European Union on the 29th of March and having to ask the European Union for more time.

Even worse, this new policy position that parliament has forced on the executive is utterly incoherent, as it does not specify the purpose nor the duration and the European Union has repeatedly made it clear that they would only consider a request for an extension if there is a clear purpose. This lack of clarity can only cause further uncertainty and confusion. If the request is for a short extension, it would only be granted if the European Union were assured that the current Withdrawal Agreement would be accepted by parliament - something parliament has repeatedly declined by massive majorities to do. Any other reason for an extension would require a much longer delay, which would mean that the United Kingdom would have to participate in the European parliamentary elections - something wanted by neither the European Union nor the United Kingdom.

These three days of government defeats in the House of Commons have shown that parliament is strong enough to prevent the executive from governing but too divided to wrest control and direction of the executive from the government. This outcome is a direct result of the clash between direct democracy and representative democracy which was set in train by David Cameron's decision to hold a referendum on the issue of membership of the European Union. When he made that decision, he was sure that the result would be Remain. If he had been right, there would have been no problem. But the people ignored all the warnings and exhortations and voted for democracy: a result that is unacceptable to the elite. But the political class cannot just simply and plainly tell the people their votes count for nothing: it would strip away the image of consent and reveal the stark truth that parliamentary democracy is merely an illusion.

The actions of parliament this week have partially stripped away the mask. The events of the next two weeks will determine whether or not the mask will be discarded completely. The only way to prevent that disillusion would be for the country to leave on the 29th of March, the current legal default. Theresa May could still bring about that outcome, but only if she is prepared to defy both parliament and her own Cabinet. Will she? I doubt it.

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