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Why our parliament, in taking orders from outside, is no longer sovereign but, rather, has betrayed its people

By Dennis Kennedy

Published 02/07/2016

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

Obviously, Parliament is sovereign. It is up to Parliament to decide if we repeal the European Communities Act of 1972." Thus, Theresa Villiers on our TV screens last Sunday on the next step in leaving the EU.

Just now, the sovereignty of Parliament is anything but obvious. David Cameron, announcing his intention to resign, declared that "the British people have voted to leave the European Union and their will must be respected... the will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered".

A Parliament that takes instruction from outside is no longer sovereign.

The referendum vote will have no legal effect until Parliament endorses the result and acts upon it.

Mr Cameron, who bears prime responsibility for the chaos now prevailing, may have already surrendered Parliament's sovereignty, but will the considerable majority in the Commons who opposed - and, presumably, still oppose - Brexit tamely follow suit?

The Remain MPs resolutely argued against Brexit on the grounds that it would be massively against the national interests of the UK - economic, social, political, security and more. Events since the shock vote will have done nothing to change those convictions.

Will they now troop through the lobbies to endorse a move they still believe to be harmful in the extreme to the national interests they were elected to protect?

Some will; some closet Eurosceptic members are already echoing the mantra that "the people have spoken" and that's that. But is it?

There was, indeed, a surprisingly large turnout and a small, but clear, majority for Brexit. But, in the end, only 38% of "the people" (the total electorate) voted to leave - hardly a mandate for the biggest constitutional change in 43 years.

Historically, in many countries, for a referendum to pass minimum thresholds in terms of percentage of total turnout, or majority, have been set.

For instance, last week's referendum would have fallen if the rule for the 1979 devolution referendum in Scotland, requiring a minimum of 40% of registered voters to carry the proposal, had been followed.

The increased prospect of a Scottish referendum and fears of destabilisation in Northern Ireland are additional factors MPs must now take into consideration regarding the national interest of the UK.

If they abandon their personal convictions that exit from Europe is a bad thing for the UK and endorse the referendum verdict, they will bring both themselves and the Westminster Parliament into disrepute.

The idea that a referendum is some higher form of democracy is false.

It often asks for a simple answer to a complex question, a question the majority of voters cannot have detailed knowledge of. This latest one was particularly unfortunate in that it invited a negative; it offered the option of rejecting the fundamental policy of successive governments, without any option as to what would replace it.

The strength of parliamentary democracy lies in the ability of parliaments to explore, research, debate and, in the end, determine where the public good lies.

That is why, in the modern world, we have professional, full-time politicians; why public money goes to fund parties, to employ researchers, to engage the electorate.

This is not, as is glibly asserted, elitism. It does not always work. But it makes for a degree of informed debate and constant dialogue between opposing political principles. (Not much of any of this was evident in the referendum campaign). If Parliament gets something wrong, "the people" can always elect a new one.

MPs should reflect on Edmund Burke's speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

A refusal by Parliament to confirm the referendum decision would cause uproar, confusion and uncertainty. But we have that already.

And, even if it led to another election, the dust would have settled in a time considerably shorter than that likely to be consumed in negotiating an exit from the EU.

The increased prospect of a Scottish referendum and fears of destabilisation in Northern Ireland are additional factors MPs must now take into consideration regarding the national interest of the UK.

  • Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of The Irish Times. He served as European Commission representative in Northern Ireland from 1985 to 1991

Belfast Telegraph

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