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.

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