On Friday 2 December, the Liberal Democrats effectively launched their campaign to reverse Brexit. People in the Richmond Park constituency voted for Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democratic candidate, in the by-election triggered by Zac Goldsmith’s decision to resign as Conservative MP and stand on a point of principle as an independent, in opposition to the Heathrow Airport expansion proposals. Olney won 49.6% of the vote compared with Goldsmith’s 45.1%.

Sarah Onley enters Parliament. Source: BBC

Sarah Onley enters Parliament. Source: BBC

The LibDem candidate won the majority of the voters’ support, but there is very little else that’s democratic about Olney’s victory. They’ve honoured the democratic process in participating the by-election but the content of their ideas about the national Referendum vote is anti-democratic.

Sarah Olney’s manifesto states,  “She’ll vote against the government invoking article 50 if she is elected.” On the eve of their win, party leader Tim Farron declared the LibDem intention to overturn the majority national vote and to campaign for a second referendum. Farron claims to want to protect British people from hard Brexit: Brexit “must not now end up with a stitch-up, with a deal being imposed on the British people that absolutely nobody voted for”.

The LibDems disrespect for democracy is such that they decided to use a local by-election to express their rejection of the national majority vote to Leave the EU in the June 2016 Referendum. The LibDems and local groups representing the privileged remainers of Richmond Park, campaigned for Olney in an attempt to use a local vote as the springboard for overturning a national vote.

Let’s remember that along with the majority of other MPs in 2015, the LibDems voted to give the people sovereignty, the final say, over whether we should pull out of the EU or not.  But, not liking the majority decision, the not-Lib-not-Dems are desperately trying to find ways of overturning it.

They say Olney’s win was a vote against hard Brexit and will use it to encourage MPs to demand a Second Referendum on the details of Brexit. The Lib-Dems want to stitch up democracy by trying to tie the act of officially leaving the EU (triggering Article 50) to a set of “red line” conditions that effectively partially retain the UK’s ties to it.

Although their Constitution says: “We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people”, they are playing a dangerous anti-democratic game by refusing to honour the referendum result – which expressed the British public’s desire for sovereignty. The claim that people didn’t know what they were voting for is belied by the fact that people voted to Leave the EU despite the doom-laden threats of disaster perpetrated by the Remain campaign.

The LibDems perfidy as standard-bearers for the campaign to rescind (one way or another) the referendum results exposes them as the ant-democratic political party that they really are. Their delaying tactics, their attempts to throw doubt on what people voted for, creates confusion in place of the clarity of the people’s vote.

Fallon accuses Prime Minister Theresa May of “perverting” the vote by rejecting EU policies and working towards a complete withdrawal from the EU, but this is what the majority of the electorate voted for. This is not a perversion of the vote. This WAS the vote!

Farron and the LibDems are entitled to, and should, campaign for particular policies they want on the UK’s relationship with the EU, as well as its wider foreign and economic policies. But their attack on all attempts to push forward with Brexit reflects a total disrespect for the people’s will and an arrogant assumption that MPs know better than the people.

We can support democracy and recognise that people sometimes vote or support anti-democratic ideas. In Richmond, people voted for a candidate taking an anti-democratic stand on the June referendum results. So be it – the residents of Richmond Park have expressed their view. But these residents are still on the side of the minority, and though we should listen to their concerns, these concerns should not overturn the essential demand of the June Referendum, which was to take back control from the EU on a wide range of policies from control of borders to management of international trade relations.

INVOKE DEMOCRACY NOW! is here to point out the anti-democratic drift of our political times. If democracy is to mean anything in Britain, we must fight for it, not just assume it will remain without a struggle. Even actions and policies called democratic these days are not necessarily so.

Defending the result = defending democracy?

The Referendum was held because an elected government proposed the Referendum Act 2015 which was voted unanimously by MPs to give the people the deciding voice as to whether or not the UK should remain a member of the EU. Some legal advisors and academics now claim that the Act gave the referendum an advisory status only – that it is not binding. It seems that the Act itself is inconclusive. 

However, the result of the referendum is not inconclusive. The majority, 52%, of the UK electorate voted to leave the EU. As Mr Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, warned in a recent debate in the House of Commons, allowing MPs to block the start of negotiations ‘could put Parliament in opposition to the people.’ He said, ‘The Government in its manifesto said it would respect the result of this referendum.’ He added: ‘It is for Parliament by all means to debate the conditions of departure, but it is not for Parliament to gainsay the view of the British people. Full stop.’

This is an important point. Putting Parliament in opposition to the people will severely undermine its legitimacy. MPs have a duty to listen to and respect the wishes of the people who voted for them. Many MPs who voted Remain are from constituencies which voted Leave. If those MPs vote to block the triggering of Article 50 they will effectively be using their elected status against those who elected them.

 In a representative democracy, parliamentary sovereignty is rooted in an electoral base. Parliament turning against the people implicitly undermines the foundations of its sovereignty and will lead to a constitutional crisis.  

 Whatever the legal niceties, a democracy depends on the people’s trust that their elected representatives will genuinely represent them. A parliamentary democracy means majority rule and, while they may be sympathetic to the views of the minority, MPs are responsible for respecting the wishes of the majority.

 Of 632 English, Scottish and Welsh constituencies, 401 voted to leave the EU.  In agreeing to hold the referendum, MPs gave the public a commitment to act on the majority decision. If they don’t want to accept this responsibility, they must step down. Anything else will just reinforce the public’s cynicism about Parliamentary democracy.

Still think Parliament hasn’t been involved in Brexit?

In the wake of the High Court ruling (BBC, 3rd November) that the government does not have the power to trigger Article 50 – to start formal exit negotiations with the EU – without the approval of Parliament, here are the ways Parliament has already been involved in the processes of a Brexit fitting the wishes of the people. 

Here is some political context for the legal challenge:

  1. Parliament gave their sovereign mandate on whether to leave the EU to the people by approving the 2015 Referendum Act – in effect judges are ignoring the democratic will of millions of people who voted because MPs gave them the final say on whether we leave the EU.
  2. When judges focused on the 1972 law (that binds us to the EU), their conclusions imply it trumps the 2015 parliamentary act where MPs gave the people the deciding voice, regardless of legal issues binding us to the EU. 

Theresa May is not restricting peoples rights by using the Royal Prerogative (as implied by our  High Court Judges focused on the 13th century agreement where merchants demanded the monarch did not restrict their rights using the Royal Prerogative). She is simply using this executive power to honour the people’s vote – a rare use indeed of the RP, but nevertheless that’s what she’s doing: The People’s Prerogative!

For all her faults, it is also unfair to say that Theresa May has ignored Parliament since coming to office because:

  • It is widely acknowledged that MPs are to be given a vote to undo the 1972 Act that binds us to the EU. 
  • There have already been debates in parliament over what kinds of negotiations/policies the government should be pushing for with the EU

She could do better of course in raising debates (her team keep saying they’re not going to give a “running commentary” on negotiations) but that’s all part of politics and how it works in parliament – contestation over policies, leadership, debates, laws, motions, votes etc….

The Electoral Reform Society in willful disregard of us

A recent report published by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) titled ‘It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote’, describes itself as a contribution to a ‘national conversation on the role of referendums in British politics’. But in actual fact it’s just another criticism of how the referendum campaigns were run. Despite the ERS presenting itself as neutral for the purposes of the report, its palpable disquiet over the referendum result is clear.

The report details concerns about misleading statements made by campaigners, the lack of time for deliberation and the lack of authoritative independent information during the campaign. It even manages to have a sly dig at the over-65s’ supposed reliance on official Vote Leave sources of information.

The ERS is seemingly so upset by the result that it would like to see a ‘root and branch inquiry’ established to scrutinise the use of referendums in the UK. The inquiry would also be required to consider the ERS’s list of proposals, which range from being undemocratic to being outright Orwellian.

Among other suggestions, the ERS proposes: an official ‘rulebook for campaigners’; citizenship education to be extended in primary and secondary schools; voting rights from the age of 16, alongside a ‘key role for schools in voter registration’. It also proposes the creation of an official website with a ‘minimum data set containing the basic data relevant to the vote in one convenient place’. Furthermore, an ‘official body…should be empowered to intervene when overtly misleading information is disseminated by the official campaigns’.

To advocate the regulation of speech and political discourse in this way, backed by sanctions or otherwise, is a misguided and dangerous step. Punishing politicians for misrepresentation prevents the public from freely debating ideas and deciding for ourselves what is true and what is false.

The ERS wants to create a tyranny of official fact-checkers, deliberately aiming to dampen down public debate. If these proposals go through, the UK would be left with officially approved anodyne facts from the ‘minimum data set’ of some bureaucrat’s imagination, rather than having a robust political culture that allows for the clash of competing visions for the future.

The ERS is not in favour of democracy. Far from it – it has no faith in our ability as an electorate to determine the truth for ourselves. It believes that the public can only make the right decision when we have official guidance. Yes, the ERS champions the laudable aim of encouraging debate. But its bureaucratic suggestions seek to substitute the judgement of officials for that of the people.

The real democratic lessons of the referendum are lost on the ERS. It wilfully disregards the courage of the 17.4million people who ignored the bullying tactics of government, employers and even world leaders pressurising them to vote Remain. It also ignores the democratic spirit of those who voted Remain but who have since stood against multiple and ongoing attempts to overturn the result or frustrate it in practice. Real democracy is allowing the public free and open debate, not calling for a rerun if your side doesn’t win.

This article was originally published on spiked and was written by IDN steering committee member, David Axe. 

Michael Russell, Scotland’s Brexit Minister

Michael Russell, former Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and past Scottish Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution, was appointed ‘Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe’ on 25th August [Source: BBC].

As well as being a bit of mouthful, the post was deliberately set up to thwart the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Despite there being less appetite for an Independent Scotland now than at the time of the IndyRef, this hasn’t stopped Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, jumping the gun on starting independent negotiations on he devolved government’s behalf. Nor has it stopped the SNP offering itself a veto on Brexit.

For his part in it, Mr Russell has said: “Following the overwhelming vote in Scotland to remain in the EU, it is essential that Scotland comes together to defend our national interest.” After the Brexit victory in June, he told the Scottish Parliament that the nation must stay in the EU “no matter how, and no matter what it takes.” [Source: Daily Express].

The MPs against honouring the nation’s decision

25 June 2016: David Lammy MP (Lab) called on MPs to disregard the vote and “stop this madness.”

26 June 2016: Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) says she would ask MSPs to refuse to give their “legislative consent” to Brexit.

27 June 2016:  Ken Clarke (Con) asked the Prime Minister in Parliament if MPs could decide if the vote was in the national interest and if the UK could join the European economic area to restore order.

27 June 2016: Angus Robertson (SNP) said “we have no intention whatsoever of seeing Scotland taken out of Europe.”

29 June 2016: A group of MPs including Catherine West (Lab), Daniel Zeichner (Lab) say they will “vote against Brexit” if they can in parliament. Geraint Davies (Welsh Lab) and Jonathan Edwards (Plaid Cymru) demand a Second Referendum.