On 16 March, less than nine months after the public voted to leave the European Union (EU) in a hotly contested referendum, Britain enacted a law authorizing the government to begin the process of negotiating “Brexit,”— Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
Despite the near unanimous conclusion of economists that Brexit would lead to a less prosperous Britain, concerns about stifling EU regulations, payments to Brussels, and the requirement of EU members to allow unfettered in-migration from the EU led voters to support Brexit by a margin of 52 to 48%.
And, in the words of Prime Minister Theresa May after the June vote, “Brexit means Brexit.”
Although there was much talk of “Bregret” following the referendum, recent polling suggests that British attitudes have not changed much since June. According to a December CNN/ComRes survey of 2048 voters, if asked to vote again, Brexit would still come out ahead, 47 to 45%. Further, by a margin of 53 to 35%, those polled felt that it is unnecessary to hold a second referendum to confirm the Brexit terms negotiated by the government. These results are particularly striking, since the same poll found, by a 44 to 24% margin, that respondents felt Brexit would make them personally worse off financially.
After Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that Parliament must ratify the Prime Minister’s request to invoke Article 50, the clause in the Treaty of Lisbon that will trigger the two-year period during which Britain will negotiate the terms of its exit from the European Union, Prime Minister May sought—and received—Parliamentary approval. I remain puzzled that, when faced with this decision, British voters deliberately voted for the option that will make them poorer. No, it won’t bankrupt the country and Britain will soldier on, but still, it will be poorer. And it will not be freed from EU regulations, fees, or migration. If Britain wants to continue to sell goods to the EU—the destination for the majority of its exports–it will be forced to abide by EU rules and pay EU-mandated fees for the privilege. And the negotiations between the UK and EU will probably not result in Britain maintaining full access to the EU’s market for goods and services without reciprocal concessions on immigration.
If you, as a Member of Parliament, represented to your constituents that you opposed Brexit, don’t you have a moral responsibility to give your constituents what you promised them?
I am similarly puzzled by Parliament’s vote to trigger Article 50. According to a head-count by the BBC prior to the June referendum, Remain was backed by 479 MPs, including 185 Conservatives, 218 Labourites, 54 Scottish Nationalists, and 8 Liberal Democrats. Brexit was supported by only 158, mostly Conservative MPs.
The Parliamentary vote to trigger Article 50 passed by a vote of 498-114, a distinct reversal of most members’ pre-referendum stances. Both the Labour and Conservative leaders urged their MPs to support the Brexit bill. Only 47 Labour MPs (several of whom resigned from Labour’s front bench) and one Conservative MP defied their leadership and voted against the bill. And, of course, all 20 members of May’s Cabinet—including the 15 that had opposed Brexit prior to the referendum (including May herself)—supported the bill. Further, as many as 117 MPs who represented constituencies where Remain was in the majority voted in favor of triggering Article 50.
This does not make sense to me. If you, as a Member of Parliament, represented to your constituents that you opposed Brexit, don’t you have a moral responsibility to give your constituents what you promised them? The counterargument—and it is not weak—is that Brexit was the will of the people and the will of the people is what democratic government is all about.
Still, MPs who opposed Brexit prior to the referendum had another option. They could have resigned from Parliament rather than support a law that they had promised to oppose. And they could have run for the seat that they had just vacated with the explicit commitment that they would oppose all legislative measures that would further Brexit.
Resigning, rather than voting to support a law with which they disagree, would have had the advantage of taking the debate to individual Parliamentary constituencies, where it likely would have had a full airing, rather than rely on the national Remain and Brexit campaigns, the latter of which became notorious for making fraudulent claims.
And, by putting principle above politics, it would have been the right thing to do.
Featured image credit: Houses of Parliament- Big Ben by Wilson Hui. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.