On parliamentary sovereignty and post-Brexit Britain

The latest phase in the stages of grieving for Remainers is the idea that parliament can save the UK’s membership of the EU. How would that play in blue-collar England?

As 78% of the men on the Clapham omnibus, in the London Borough of Lambeth, voted Remain, we’ll need someone different to act as our ‘typical’ Leave voter. What about the man on the wonderfully-named Jump Circular bus, which really exists in the Borough of Barnsley (68% Leave)?

The man on the Jump Circular bus doesn’t get misty-eyed and trembly-lipped when he thinks about parliamentary sovereignty. He doesn’t call to mind his reading of Burke, and be thankful that the stuffy rule of gentry and aristocracy gave way to democracy in Britain more quickly than it did in France with its revolutions and terrors. He hears ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and he thinks, ‘bunch of self-serving toerags on the make’. The pause for reconsideration on the matter of politicians that he took after the assassination of the transparently decent Jo Cox has ended, given that both parties are obsessed with squabbles for the leadership during a moment of acute national crisis.

Parliament, and the political class, simply do not have the moral authority to overturn a popular vote at the moment.

The cultural revolution of the 1960s has had both good and bad effects. One of the most damaging has been the erosion of institutions, vital mediators between the triangle of people, money, and political power. The weakness of institutions is common across the West, but is particularly acute in the UK, a country once known for the strength and confidence of its independent institutions.

The two groups most strongly committed to Remain – the liberal haute bourgeoisie and the corporate and financial services sectors – have been those who have done the lion’s share of damage to institutions’ authority: the former sought to erode any restraint on their morality, the latter any restraint on their greed. Both are now looking for parliament to save them. The irony is bittersweet.

The idea of vox populi, vox dei has been gathering strength since the French Revolution, and has been completely dominant in Western culture since the 1960s. Since the turn of the millennium it has been turbo-charged by reality TV and selfie-culture. No political discussion programme is complete without inane tweets from viewers scrolling across the screen. In their own minds, the people are sovereign, not parliament and monarchy: Diana’s death was the first time we saw that in action. I think it would be a really bad idea to tell them otherwise in this case.

At best, a parliamentary vote to overturn a referendum result would turn last week’s plebeian revolt into a full-scale electoral revolution, to the benefit of the Farages of this world. And don’t forget, in the heat of the referendum campaign, Nigel Farage said, “if people feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step”.

Whatever happens, many of those who voted Leave are likely to be disappointed. The trouble with referenda on complex issues is that they reduce them to an over-simplified binary question. Either those who voted Leave to reduce immigration will be disappointed, or those who voted Leave because they want the UK to be a global free-trading economy free of Brussels bureaucrats will be disappointed. Those who voted Leave because they really thought their relations in Pakistan or Nigeria would move ahead of Poles in the immigration queue are definitely going to be disappointed.

Ironically, “taking back control” actually means passing control to the Conservative Parliamentary Party, who will decide the parameters of acceptability on the UK side for any deal. Parliament is still sovereign, it just can’t overrule the people once it has asked their opinion formally. If the UK transitions quickly to EEA status, an assumption which is currently calming the markets, surprisingly little will change. I have no idea if that’s politically possible. If it were, even the economy may not even be much impacted.

But only may not be. The power vacuum in London could not have come at a worse time. Markets aren’t magic predictors – as the betting markets’ cluelessness about the election result proved. Instead, they are packs of hyenas, and bad economic data over the summer could see a proper run on the pound.

If negotiations drag on and there seems to be no deal possible over single-market access and immigration, or if EU countries decide now is the time to steal some of the London financial services market, the economy could tank in a way that dwarfs the predictions of Project Fear.

There is unlikely to be a Commons majority for removing the European Convention any time soon (and in Northern Ireland, it simply can’t be removed).

Scotland may leave the UK or may not. The English working-classes mostly don’t care either way, any more than they care about the fact that the UK is about to lose its last pretensions of great power status. “Britishness”, at least on the eastern side of the Irish Sea, has become a concept for middle-class people and ethnic minorities. The white working-class is English, Welsh or Scottish. In NI, Nationalism has a new argument for Irish unity and a new group of people willing to at least give it a hearing, if it can resist retreating back into ethnic barking and, in the case of Sinn Féin, defending an indefensible IRA campaign.

Across the UK, many among the most highly educated feel an acute emotional pain. Their country is being taken away from them. In purely practical terms, Northern Ireland may be badly affected, and Gibrtaltar even worse. Elsewhere, though, life will go on. Most dispiritingly, the lot of the British poor is unlikely to change much, and high streets from Redruth to Renfrew will continue to be dominated by bookies, pawn shops, and charity shops. The island that sought a new Jerusalem through the purely material must rediscover the spiritual before true renewal can begin.

In terms of the ‘European project’, this fractious family of nations will continue to be part of the wider European family, just as Iceland and Switzerland are. It is possibly even a good thing for the EU that a major member can peacefully and, one hopes, painlessly secede. It gives lie to the idea of it being a new German empire, using money to do what armies couldn’t.

And everything I’ve written could be completely wrong. We could be looking at an economic crash, a snap election and a rescinding of the decision to withdraw. Or a chain reaction that spreads to Holland and France. Nobody has a clue what is going to happen now. Every day’s news brings a new bolt from the blue.

  • grumpy oul man

    And are you aware that a lot of other people inside Europe will be looking to replace us and we will also competing with countries for our trade with Europe.

  • Chingford Man

    Against some competition that must be Idiotic Comment of the Day. Do you really not understand how an economy works? Other people are always trying to “replace us” and we are always “competing” with other countries! That’s how any market place works.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    Gold is going up because the world economy is going down. Economic slow down has been going on last year and will get worse this year. Much bigger than Brexit.

  • Roger

    I was taught that to assume is to make a “ass” of “u” and “me”.
    A French lady with a Scottish twang taught me that one.

  • grumpy oul man

    Yes and History tells us that Unionists should be careful of Tories bearing gifts!

    Besides the man has shown a amazing flexibility principal wise.
    But all this is of no matter unless he gets elected which seems unlikely at the moment.

  • Paddy Reilly

    In the current debate, Catholics are not the unit of currency. The two parties at loggerheads are a cabale of DUP/TUV voting obscurantists, who wish to impose a regime where all right-thinking Protestants are employed as policemen and customs officers; where human rights are just a nasty memory from a Eurocentric past; where no-one can get into the province unless they have the Unionist Establishment’s best interests at heart; versus those who live in the modern world.

  • Skibo

    LOL that is not the story Angela Merkel is telling. The German car makers will not have a seat at the negotiation table but Fraulein Merkel will.
    Please educate yourself on how Brexit will be negotiated before you start repeating nonsense on how companies are going to influence it!

  • Skibo

    Rodger, are you being serious? He offered the six counties for the use of ports and flying rights over ROI international air space.
    Dev refused to do official business but did actually allow a certain amount of rights into Irish airspace. How do you think the lakes in Fermanagh were so useful.

  • Chingford Man

    What an utterly stupid comment!

    The head of Germany’s CBI (highly influential within the CDU) is already warning that protectionism is unacceptable in future dealings between the EU and the UK. Merkel is facing difficult Bundestag elections in just over a year from now. The last thing she wants is damage to German car manufacturing if the UK imposes tariff barriers.

    If you don’t have anything sensible to contribute, you ought not to put your ignorance on such open display.

  • Skibo

    This may be difficult for you to comprehend as it does not suit your raison d’etre, the negotiations on the deal that Britain will get will be at political level and not between business leaders. They can lobby the politicians but in the end negotiations will probably be at Treasury level across the 27.
    Even after they have been agreed, there will be a good possibility that a single country could vote against and stall the whole thing again. This has been threatened with the trade deal with Canada that is still NOT IN PLACE!
    Wolfgang Schauble warned you before the vote that negotiations would be tough.
    Anyway why are you quoting a CBI member in another country when you totally ignored the CBI advice in your own country?
    If you cannot be consistent then be quiet.

  • Chingford Man

    If you really think that Angela Merkel, leader of the most powerful country in Europe, won’t be taking the concerns of German car makers very seriously indeed in the the run-up to a Bundestag election, then you don’t grasp how EU power politics work.

    Oh and why I am quoting one industrialist over another? Because he is correct and the CBI, as it was over the Euro, was wrong.

  • Skibo

    Are you now telling me that the German CBI advised the UK not to enter the Euro?
    I for one, and I know I am in a minority believe that if the UK had joined the Euro, it would have been an even stronger currency. The fact that the UK stayed out was detrimental to the success of the Euro.
    As for the British CBI advising the UK not to leave, can you give me an example of an international Economist who advised you to leave the EU?
    I couldn’t find one!

  • Chingford Man

    Oh dear, so you’re a fan of the Euro? I seem to remember the usual suspects telling us the UK economy would go down the drain if the country didn’t join the Euro. Didn’t happen.

    Economists are almost always wrong about everything: wrong about the ERM, wrong about the Euro and soon to be proved wrong about Brexit.

  • Roger

    I don’t think its accurate that he in fact offered to cede UKNI to IRL.
    A nation once again…Maybe he offered to have talks about it. He probably offered to facilitate whatever UKNI and IRL might mutually agree….which would have been nothing.

  • Skibo

    I will probably have to bow to you on this. Ireland has been hoodwinked on a number of times on promises from British politicians.

  • Roger

    Agreed.