My MP, Hilary Benn, posted a copy of his January 31st speech on why he would vote to trigger Article 50 on his blog on February 1, as a reply to those constituents who have been contacting him about this week’s vote (which includes myself).
Benn’s remarks are revealing with respect to the question of what Brexit really means. His wavering between sense and nonsense in his remarks is also deeply frustrating— even the government’s “White Paper” on leaving the EU was less so, and the White Paper was light on verbs, never mind substantive content.
Let’s look at Benn’s main claims in the first two paragraphs of his published speech:
Benn’s claim 1: “… we are leaving the European Union … ”
Reply 1: At the time of posting, the question of the UK leaving the EU hadn’t been decided (and technically it still hasn’t, as the Article 50 Bill has not yet been fully approved). As I doubt that whatever else it might mean, Brexit means the sudden development of powers of divination amongst members of the House of Commons, claim 1 lacks support.
Benn’s claim 2: “… and our task now is to try to bring people together.”
Reply 2: Advanced on the basis of claim 1, this assertion is baseless and vague.
Benn’s claim 3: “This means that, whether we voted leave or remain, we have a responsibility to hold in our minds the views, concerns and hopes of everyone in our country, whether they voted leave or remain.”
Reply 3: Aside from the first three words which refer back to unsubstantiated claim 1, I agree. MPs, and the public, do in fact have this responsibility — even now.
Benn’s claim 4: “The Supreme Court decided, rightly in my view, that a decision of this magnitude should be made by Parliament and not by the Executive … ”
Reply 4: Agreed. It is a fact that the Supreme Court decided that Parliament must decide on whether or not the UK leaves the EU. Benn doesn’t mention it, but the EU Referendum Act 2015 was silent on what would follow the referendum result. This means not only that the referendum was not binding, but also that the referendum decided nothing.
Let me repeat that, for the sake of disrupting appeal to ‘the will of the people’: the referendum decided nothing.
Benn’s claim 5: “… but with that power comes a responsibility to respect the outcome of the referendum, however much some of us might disagree with it.”
Reply 5: Benn cannot advance his case from claim 4 to claim 5. First, as I’ve argued elsewhere, ‘respecting’ the result does not equate to following the result and implementing it no matter what. It’s perfectly plausible and perfectly democratic to respect the fact of the result, while also accepting and acting on the view that leaving the EU is not in the national interest. Second, the power and responsibility of members of Parliament, to which Benn is referring in this claim, explicitly includes the power to make a decision that, as I pointed out in reply 4, was not (and could never have been) made by the referendum. As if this wasn’t enough, third, Benn’s claim involves the notion that there could be only one decision made by Parliament on the issue — even if every member disagrees with it. The notion that only one decision is possible on this issue simply isn’t commensurate with the the official description of the duties of members of Parliament, which clearly states that they “have a duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole.” If MPs disagree with a proposal to the extent that they do not think it is in the national interest — which many publicly remarked was true for them — then they should not vote for the proposal. Claim 5, then, is seriously flawed and doesn’t hold.
Benn’s claim 6: “This is about democracy. This is about faith in our politics, not just in the United Kingdom but across the western world, where — if we are honest — it is not in very good shape. If this Parliament were to say to the people, ‘You did not know what you were doing, only 37% voted leave, the referendum was only advisory and there were lots of lies’ — whether or not we agree with some of those assertions — we really would have a crisis of confidence in our politics, for the reasons so eloquently set out by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). That is why the democratic thing to do is to vote for this Bill, and I shall do so tomorrow.”
Reply 6: As claim 6 is dependent on claim 5, claim 6 doesn’t hold. Added to that, I disagree with Benn that voting no on Article 50 would have involved a crisis of confidence in British politics that voting yes to Article 50 avoids. The democratic thing, in a representative democracy like that of the U.K., is to vote in the interest of the nation as a whole. Now, an argument could be made that triggering Article 50 — unamended — is in the national interest. However, I saw no evidence of a compelling argument for this position in any of the debates this past week, or in any of the information or argument put forward prior to this. Nor, indeed, did Benn see sufficient evidence, as he ultimately goes on to acknowledge in his speech when he says to the Secretary of State that, “…it is extraordinary that we meet here today, and are being asked to vote on this Bill tomorrow, when not a single Government document setting out the consequences has been published.” If nothing of substance concerning the consequences of approving Article 50 Bill or indeed of the proposal to leave the EU was published by the government, MPs cannot defensibly have taken themselves to have had a sufficient evidence-based standpoint from which to decide in favour of passing the Article 50 Bill.
If 498 MPs did not vote in the national interest, either by design or through lack of understanding, then we have to explore the possibility that something undemocratic has happened. Whatever their reasons in fact were, a crisis of confidence in British politics is still before us.
One thing that Brexit means, then, is a crisis of confidence in British democracy. Railroading legislation through Parliament won’t diminish this crisis, and neither will pretending that there is no crisis. A better way forward is to begin to respond to a question that is raised by Benn’s claim 3: how could we attend to the views, hopes, and concerns of everyone affected by Brexit?
One thing is clear: in the short term, nothing meaningful can be done to address these views, hopes, and concerns, unless the Lords amend Article 50 to incorporate effective voting options for MPs into the Bill. To restore at least some confidence in our democracy, these options must include (i) remaining in the EU, and (ii) returning to the EU for further negotiation, alongside the anticipated options to either accept the government-negotiated deal or leave the EU with no deal. Amendments incorporating immediate protections for EU citizens currently resident in the U.K., and for people in Northern Ireland facing the return of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, are also warranted.