I’m a Remainer for two reasons. The first is that I believe a Brexit in any form will cause a long-term negative economic impact to the United Kingdom. I don’t see any economic advantage now or in the future by leaving the world’s largest free trading bloc. The second is that I am a citizen of the European Union. I am able to live and work in any of the 28 countries. Post-Brexit, I will be stripped of my EU Citizenship and the rights that citizenship afforded me. I don’t like that.
The Conservative government attempted and failed to pass the exact same EU withdrawal bill three times, and has now lost control of the legislative agenda. The agenda is now controlled by a majority of MPs (from all parties) who are desperately trying to come to a consensus outside of the government. They are doing this with a series of non-legally binding indicative votes. They’re brainstorming, finding the most popular solutions within Parliament, and trying, somehow, to marry these proposals together to get to a majority. If these MPs do come to a consensus that commands a majority, they theoretically have the power to elevate that proposal into binding law and force the government to act on it. I don’t think this usurping of executive function has happened since the 1600s. For all intents and purposes, the UK is in a constitutional crisis.
The results of this coming Monday’s indicative voting are uncertain. The first round of voting was Wednesday. Eight proposals were voted upon. Even though two came close, none commanded a majority. The proposal with the most votes was a second referendum vote, followed by a proposal for Britain to enter a Customs Union with the European Union. It is expected that MPs will vote a second time on the Customs Union if attached to the current proposed government bill with maybe some tweaks. The proposal, in the first reading, only failed by a few votes. MPs weren’t given complete free reign on all the voting; some MPs were whipped to vote for particular outcomes. However, the Scottish Nationalist Party abstained on the Customs Union vote (I think they have about 20 MPs) because they favor a second referendum. They are, in principle, amenable to a Customs Union with the EU. If the Scottish National Party would be allowed a free vote on Monday, this could be enough to push it over the line. However, I think they will insist on the second referendum rider be added to the proposal.
The second referendum proposal isn’t as straightforward as running the referendum again. It is arguably not a second referendum but a public ratification of any proposed agreement with the EU. It’s gaining popularity because the mood in Parliament is (or at least becoming) that they are deadlocked, and the only way out might be to throw it back to the country.
Even as a Remainer I have a problem with a second vote. It means that Parliament was unable to fulfill the wishes of the people. The people voted to leave. The fundamental problem with the referendum was that “leave the EU” was never defined. It wasn’t even a bit defined. The only thing the voting public knew was that the government would negotiate a deal with the EU before the UK left — and that was it. There was no indication at all about what that deal would look like, because, until the negotiations ended, no-one could possibly know.
But that still means that 17.4 million people voted leave, more than a million more that voted to stay. Do we ignore the majority’s wishes just because Parliament constructed a referendum with one clear choice and one ambiguous one? I wouldn’t like to be the one to explain why their vote should be nullified.
Don’t get me wrong — there are good reasons to run a ratification vote, very good reasons, but explaining the complexity and nuance would be tricky to people who feel that their democratic right had been taken from them.
So, you might ask the question, “if the people voted to leave, and if Theresa May’s government drew up an exit strategy, why wouldn’t parliament approve it?
It’s a fair question. There are a number of reasons. The first is that when the strategy (the “Withdrawal Agreement”, and I’ll refer to it as WA from now on) was being negotiated, it wasn’t expected that the government would have to ratify it through parliament. The assumption was that the government had free reign to negotiate the future relationship as they would any complex trade deal. And so, with cross-party support, a legal challenge was filed with the Supreme Court who ruled that the WA must be ratified by Parliament. This became known as the Meaningful Vote.
Again, the WAs failure to command a majority, or anywhere near one, comes down to the ambiguity of leave. And to understand what leave means, you have to understand why we had this stupid referendum in the first place, how Parliament works, and how we choose a Prime Minister.
Britain doesn’t have an executive branch, per se. The thing closest would be the Crown. That is, the Queen (or King) signs things into law (the official term is “grants Royal Assent”) under the advice of Her (or His) Majesty’s Government. In US parlance, that would be the equivalent of the President Trump automatically signing anything that comes out of Congress (imagine, eh?). If the Queen were to refuse, it would be off with her head. So far so good, right?
Therefore, the British government, led by the Prime Minister, performs the executive functions, but the Prime Minister is not directly elected by the people. The Prime Minister is the leader of their party in the House of Commons. (The House of Commons is the lower chamber in a two-chamber parliament, much like Congress).
So, if the American system worked like the British system, it would look like this.
No more than every five years, the US would have an election to elect US Representatives. There are no Presidents or Senators. Weirdly, elections are not on a fixed schedule and can be called at any time within five years of the last one (It’s a bit more complicated than this, but this is close enough). Each US Representative is affiliated with a party and that party has a leader. Each party has its own rules on how to elect its own leader. The party with the most seats in the House of Representatives after an election gets to form the Government. And I mean like straightaway. There’s no transition period. The morning after the election, when the candidate has sobered up, he or she goes to see the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The Queen will ask something like “Are you able form a Government?” and if the candidate answers in the affirmative, she’ll swear them in and then we’re off to the races. No sleep, nothing. Just lots of coffee.
So, in the US, the Prime Minister would be Nancy Pelosi and the leader of the opposition would be Kevin McCarthy. To continue the analogy — the Senate (the UK equivalent is the House of Lords) can’t really block any legislation — all the Senate can do is delay and propose amendments. Therefore, if a piece of legislation is voted upon in the House with a majority but is rejected by the Senate, it would come back to the House for a second reading where it would be voted upon again. If the vote is successful the second time, it’s presented to the President to be signed into law. And remember, he can’t refuse. Well, he could, but let’s not go there. So, Parliament has a lot more power to create legislation than Congress because there are less checks and balances. Obviously, this is both good and bad.
So, that’s a high level of how elections happen and how Parliament works, let’s talk about why we had this stupid referendum in the first place.
Prior to 2014, with the exception of those on the far right (UK Independence Party and far right-wing members of Conservative party), there was no talk of a referendum to leave the EU.
So, what the hell happened? Well, David Cameron (he was the Prime Minister during the referendum), while running for Conservative Party Leadership, made promises to his peers to gain the support of that Eurosceptic wing. In order to keep his party together, he agreed to their demands of an EU referendum. Cameron was elected PM in 2010 (it was a hung parliament) and promised, that if he was elected to a second term, would hold a referendum on the EU by the end of 2017. The Conservatives had to ally with the Liberal Democrats, a pro-European party. It would have been impossible to get a referendum bill through parliament unless the Conservatives had an overall majority. But, in 2015, the Conservatives won with an overall majority and the referendum bill was passed. We had the referendum because the Conservative Party was splintering, and Cameron was trying to hold it together.
Cameron was a Remainer and campaigned to remain. However, the day after the referendum, he resigned as Prime Minister. And because the Prime Minister is not the executive, a general election need not be called if the Prime Minister resigns. And so, the Conservative Party elected a new leader, another Remainer, Theresa May.
After about a year in office, Theresa May enacted Article 50 of the European Union. A50 is the process in which a member state leaves. It sets the countdown. A member state has two years to finalize the divorce agreement before the member state leaves. Now, remember the part when I said that the Supreme Court ruled that the WA had to be ratified in Parliament? Well, in a strategic move to bolster her majority in the House of Commons, Theresa May called a snap election in 2017, just a couple of weeks after enacting Article 50. Knowing that the right-wing would have a problem with the WA (it was too close to the EU for their liking), her plan was to increase the number of moderate conservatives in Parliament to back the WA. But it backfired. Terribly. The Conservatives were expected to gain more seats but ultimately ended losing 13 seats while Labour gained 30. The Conservatives technically lost their overall majority. They formed an alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (just 8 seats) to keep the government in the majority. The DUP is a right-wing, pro-UK party.
And so, the splintering of the Conservative party, the splintering that Cameron attempted to resolve with the referendum, was made indelibly worse. In any other country, that far right of the Conservative Party, the Eurosceptics, would be a different party. But because British politics is a first past the post system, dominated by two parties, there would be nowhere else for them to go. The WA, as currently negotiated, could not satisfy that right-wing and so they couldn’t get behind it. The Labour Party was never going to vote fully for the WA because they felt the UK should stay closer with the EU, and ultimately the DUP, the right-wing Northern Ireland party, could never get behind the WA because of a concept known as the Northern Ireland Backstop. The irony.
Northern Ireland shares a 200-mile border with the Republic of Ireland. The Republic exists very happily in the EU. If the UK were to leave the EU, then the border would become an issue. Goods traveling across the border would be subject to customs checks, and for the first time since the Troubles, border points would be constructed. The Good Friday Agreement, which brought a “close” to the Troubles, is clear in that travel and commerce between the North and the South must remain unhindered.
The compromise was this — Northern Ireland would remain in the EU Customs Union until a solution was found. This would guarantee a frictionless border, however, there would now exist a “border” of sorts in the Irish Sea which would separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. This was untenable to the Ultra-Pro UK DUP. And so Theresa May went back to the EU with a new plan which was to keep all of the UK in the Customs Union backstop until a solution was found. The wording in the WA is such that both the UK and EU must agree that a solution exists before the UK can be released from the Customs Union. The Eurosceptics didn’t like that because it restricted the UKs ability to make trade agreements, and the DUP couldn’t get behind it in case Northern Ireland were to be legally separated from the UK.
And so, we are here. Neither Eurosceptics nor the DUP can get behind the WA, and therefore, even though with every WA vote gets closer, the Government can’t get a majority. The government was 58 short on Friday.
It’s not like Parliament has only been voting on the WA. They have been voting on many options. The problem is that Parliament can’t agree on what Brexit is. There’s no secret cabal of Remainers trying to keep the UK in the EU, it’s just that all the options are really bad. There might be an option better than another — for sure the WA is better than a no-deal, but the WA is still really bad. And Parliament knows that. I don’t know what the best option would be that satisfies the result of the referendum.
So, back to Monday. MPs used a never-tried-before method to wrestle the legislative agenda from the Government. As I wrote in the beginning, they can force the results on the Government but only if they get to a majority. It looks like that the winning proposal would involve a permanent customs union with the EU and maybe a ratification rider. This would satisfy the DUP because it would negate the need for the backstop. The Eurosceptics won’t like but there’s probably enough to get it through with the help of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish Nationals.
So, as it is right now, I think Brexit will happen, with a customs union, and may be a second vote. It’s worse than being in the EU, but not as bad as it could have been.
Of course this will all change on Monday evening.
I might be persuaded to write more then.