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.