The Verse’s Political Editor Marcel Adams discusses who is sovereign over the Brexit process. Is it the people who voted for it, or our elected representatives?
The recent parliamentary votes on the proposed amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill have raised a significant question, which has been highlighted in a report ‘Brexit and our unprotected constitution’, of who is sovereign in regards to the debate over Brexit. Is it the people who voted for it, or the parliamentarians who we elect?
The process in which the vote took place suggests that the people are in fact sovereign. This is because it was a referendum that asked the whole electorate whether they wanted to ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. With the latter option prevailing by a margin of 52%-48%. However in reality, this argument is not as clear cut.
Now that the Brexit process is more firmly in the hands of parliament. It is now the case that parliament is flexing its muscles and becoming sovereign over how we leave. This was seen with a real threat to the government over the ‘Meaningful Vote’ amendment — which later saw government compromise to advert a defeat in the chamber. However, the fact that parliamentarians were able to put pressure suggests that they are in fact sovereign of the Brexit process.
Ironically, many of those who firmly opposed any of the amendments that returned to the Commons this week, were staunch Brexiters, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson, who during the campaign back in 2016, argued that Brexit would allow for parliament to be sovereign over our decisions. Now that parliament has regathered that mantra, they suddenly oppose it, which is ironic but also hypocritical.
The real concern in relation to who is sovereign is that in our political history, we have never been in a scenario like this that tests our constitution. In past uses of direct democracy in the UK, the people have always endorsed the side of the ‘establishment’. The Brexit vote however, saw people choose what a majority of parliamentarians opposed and shows where constitutional difficulties lie.
We can’t say who is truly sovereign over Brexit. As this is an unprecedented event and the sovereignty is entirely conflicted. The people were arguably sovereign over the decision, but parliament are now gaining the sovereignty over the process.
If Parliament is to thwart Brexit or even water it down to a point where it becomes unrecognisable. Then it truly puts the people against parliament, something that is damaging for our constitution and for wider democracy.