In previous posts, written a week or so after the EU referendum (A Constitutional Moment and Respecting the Result), I suggested that the Brexit vote had brought us to a constitutional crisis which had the potential to catalyse major reform both within this country and in the European Union itself.
Three months on, nobody appears to have a clear idea what happens next but people on all sides seem to be digging in to entrenched positions, much of the establishment seems to regard the vote to leave as a definitive expression of the people’s will and, with the problems the vote has brought to light in this country, popular opinion within other countries of the EU seems to have swung against their domestic anti-EU movements.
So what can we do to ensure that the constitutional moment does not slip past? How can we take advantage of the energy that the Brexit vote has released to bring about constructive reform?
Overall, the whole saga has reinforced my feeling that our membership of the EU should be regarded as part of a need for broader constitutional reform: most obviously the need for proper integration between different levels of government, but also (in light of a co-opted Prime Minister claiming a democratic mandate to exercise the Royal Prerogative and the dispute over whether or not triggering Article 50 falls under) the relationships between different branches of government.
I have, therefore, written to my MP, Stephen Phillips QC, asking him to seek support among his colleagues in Parliament for the review of our relationship with our European neighbours to be treated as part of a more fundamental reform of the constitution.
There will, I’m sure, be a lot of resistance to this, both within Parliament and among committed leave voters, not least because it will undoubtedly extend the current period of deep uncertainty. However, I think many people will recognise that it offers the best chance of a constructive outcome to the present situation.
Not only will it force us to confront the inadequacies of our current system of government, it will also alter the dynamics within the EU itself. If our leave vote is seen to catalyse significant improvements in our internal democracy, the anti-EU movements in other countries will be empowered and that, in turn, will increase the pressure for major reform of the EU.
I don’t know how Mr Phillips will respond to my email or how much support he might get from other MPs. They are in Parliament to represent the people in their constituencies and they will no doubt set their course by the views that their constituents express to them. The shift in focus that I’m advocating here could lead to huge improvements in how we are governed … but it will only happen if others also call for it.
The response from Stephen Phillips wasn’t very promising: in his assistant’s words “Although he does appreciate your points, and the need for their consideration, he does not feel that this is the time to be embarking on massive constitutional reform given the need to focus on making Brexit work for the UK.”
I was tempted, briefly, to write back and point out the difficulty of making Brexit work for the UK, when we can’t even be sure that the UK will survive the process in its current form, when that process itself might be the final straw that convinces the people of Scotland to ‘take back control’, and when the government’s conduct of it has forced the courts to confront a basic question of where sovereignty lies. (The irony of a co-opted Prime Minister claiming a democratic mandate to exercise the Royal Prerogative will certainly not escape the many people who already feel affronted by the very existence of the Monarchy. They will undoubtedly remind us all of it if that nettle has still not been grasped when the question of the succession arises – no doubt the argument then will be that constitutional reform is inappropriate at a time of national mourning.)
But since the High Court hearing had started by that time I thought I’d wait and see what their ruling would be. And then, the day after they issued their ruling that Article 50 must be authorised by Parliament, Mr Phillips resigned as an MP …