When the UK Parliament voted overwhelmingly to hold the 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership, it expected Remain to win. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron hoped it would deal with the Eurosceptics in his party once and for all. Labour and the Liberal Democrats hoped the Conservatives would tear themselves apart trying.
But something went wrong. The economic argument that was supposed to be decisive for Remain, turned out not to be so. By the time of the vote, polls showed only a margin of 10% to those believing Britain would be economically worse off with Brexit. Remain concerns over loss of trade and jobs were being offset by Leave concerns about Britain’s payments to the EU and the impact of immigration on jobs and wages.
Other concerns predominated. Immediately after the shock result, the search was on for what these might be. Commentators proposed concerns over immigration, and suggested racism may have even played a role, while more empathetic observers saw it a cry for help from those left behind by the economic recovery, especially working-class voters in the north of England who voted heavily for Leave.
Curiously, one reason less discussed was the reason Leave voters most often gave—a wish for Britain to take back control and decide its own laws. Even immigration concerns could not be separated from this issue of sovereignty since as far as EU migration was concerned, the question was whether government should have any say at all. The coyness to explain the Leave win by concerns over sovereignty was especially odd as it was precisely the sentiment supposed to be captured by the Leave campaign’s slogan ‘Take back control’.
The UK Parliament’s failed gamble with the referendum left it with an historic dilemma. Probably for the first time since Parliament wrestled control from the Crown, it was being forced to implement something it did not want to do. Three quarters of MPs had voted Remain. All the Westminster parties except for the small Democratic Unionist Party had campaigned for Remain. It had not helped that despite the referendum being technically advisory, the major party leaders had gone out of their way to declare that the referendum would be implemented and would be final—presumably to stop Leave turning into a protest vote, so confident were they on the rationality of the Remain case.
However, it was not just that Parliament was being forced to enact what it did not want, the issue itself that has proved profoundly destabilising. It stems from the central paradox of the Brexit vote—’Take back control’ meant handing power back to a Parliament that wanted no such thing. Parliament’s reluctance to implement Brexit and take back control has undermined it and the very point of what the British political system and democracy is supposed to be about. The call for sovereignty in the Brexit vote went to the heart of not only the weakness of the Remain case but, as it turned out, of the Leave case as well.
Why have UK MPs been so keen to pass over sovereignty to Brussels? The usual reason given is economic. Pooling sovereignty, it is argued, is a trade-off for the economic benefits of free trade with the UK’s largest trading partner. Britain, so the argument goes, would suffer severe economic damage if it was to try and survive outside the EU bloc.
Yet such an argument would seem bizarre to countries outside the bloc like Australia. Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world. What are Australia’s chances of survival in this big bad world being only the fourteenth? What Australian politician would dare argue for pooling sovereignty with its largest trading partners, say China, Japan and the US, as a reasonable trade-off for lower tariffs?
In reality, behind such prosaic economic justifications lie more shame-faced political ones for Britain’s membership of the EU. One argument often heard from Eurosceptic Conservatives is that when in 1973 Britain joined the Common Market, as it was then, it was just about trade, only later did it become ‘political’. This take is presumably to deal with the awkwardness for Conservatives of it being a Conservative Prime Minister, Ted Heath, who took Britain in, and his successor, Margaret Thatcher, who led the campaign to remain in when it came up for a vote in the first EU referendum in 1975.
But European union has always been political. The enthusiasm of Conservative leaders for it at the time came from viewing the European union open market as a way of by-passing the post-war political settlement with the unions—attempts by Conservatives to tackle it head on having resulted in the Heath government being brought down by the miners in 1974. It was also an approach adopted later in France by Mitterrand and Delors to bypass their own post-war political settlement. This was also why much of the Labour party at the time was deeply suspicious of European union, especially amongst its left wing, from which Jeremy Corbyn’s Euroscepticism stands today as a fossilised relic.
When Thatcher finally could take the unions on directly and marginalise them in the 1980s, the parties’ respective positions on Europe reversed. Labour began looking to the European union as a way of pursuing an agenda it could no longer pursue at home. For the Conservatives, having lost the enemy at home, defeating the unions, and abroad, with the decline of the Soviet Union, the erosion of sovereignty under the EU became a sensitive issue for a party that no longer knew what it was about. Looking to European union to cover domestic political weakness was a pattern elsewhere in Europe for political classes compromised by the Second World War, or the military and Communist dictatorships that followed.
All of this puts paid to another beloved myth by Conservative Eurosceptics, namely of Brussels imposing its will over national governments. The dynamic is really the other way. Rather than a group of bureaucrats in Brussels somehow managing to control some of the world’s most powerful nations, it has been national European governments, their political classes and civil services, taking shelter behind the EU bureaucracy. In southern Europe, where local politicians are often regarded as corrupt and/or incompetent, voters are only too happy they should do so.
It is obvious that such a debasing rationale for European union will cause problems. It is why despite being a minority in the parliamentary Conservative party, hard-line Eurosceptics can cause such headache for a leadership that can never answer the basic question, what is the point of a political party getting into power if it just wants to cede that power?
Labour on the surface is more reconciled to handing over power, but it is no less debasing for them. In the referendum it argued that the EU would be needed to protect workers’ rights, something a generation ago Labour voters might have expected the party itself to do. Tensions this creates are less obvious than with the Conservatives, but they are still there. Corbyn’s ambivalence to the EU, seeing it as a barrier to implementing policies such as nationalisation, is inexplicable to many of his pro EU supporters—suggesting they may see his policies more as an attitude to be struck than a platform to be implemented.
Yet if having to argue for handing over its authority is undermining enough, what is really corroding the political system is the other side of the Brexit paradox, over-turning the vote of 17.4 million people in 2016, the largest democratic mandate in British history. Having promised to enact that decision, it initially looked as though the major parties would. Parliament overwhelmingly and immediately triggered Article 50, which set the clock ticking for departure on March 29 this year. At the subsequent general election in 2017, both major parties campaigned to respect the result and deliver Brexit. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats promised a second referendum to overturn it and went nowhere.
However, as the deadline approaches, Parliament is now wriggling to free itself of something it does not want—and is having to destroy the political system in order to do so. The first stage is MPs increasingly acting independent of their parties, necessary given most were elected on a party manifesto promising to respect the result. For months now, cross-party groupings have been forming, looking at various options to delay Brexit or stop it all together. They are also having to often ignore the wishes of their own constituencies—again necessary given that the majority of constituencies held by the Conservatives and Labour voted to leave. A total of 400 MPs who voted Remain represent Leave constituencies (just 34 Leave MPs represent Remain constituencies) and the last few months have seen MPs increasingly brazen about their right to determine what is good for their constituents irrespective of how they voted.
This is the significance of the breakaway in February of 11 Labour and Conservative MPs to form The Independent Group. When the seven Labour MPs in the group first announced their departure, parallels were drawn with the formation of the Social Democratic Party that split from Labour in the early 1980s. But the SDP was a political party with a program, such as it was. The Independent Group have so far studiously avoided coming out with a program and promise to eventually develop one from the grassroots. Naturally they have also refused to resubmit to a by-election. But to be fair, they are really just formalising the increasingly independent behaviour of MPs across the House irrespective of party label.
In the Westminster system, the erosion of the parties is inevitably accompanied by the erosion of the Executive, and in the last few months, Parliament ‘taking back control’ has meant the government increasingly losing control of Parliament. The trigger for this has been the government’s deal for Brexit negotiated with the EU. It is a terrible deal that satisfies barely anyone either inside or Parliament or without. It has already suffered two historic defeats in Parliament and at time of writing may yet suffer two more. If it does eventually pass it will only because the alternatives are just too unpalatable.
Here we come to probably the strangest revelation that has emerged from the Brexit paradox: Parliament’s curious relationship to the public. One of the amusing things to watch over the last three years is the uncomfortable reaction of those who should be happiest of all, the minority of Leave politicians for whom the 2016 referendum was supposed to be a victory—from the stunned reaction of Leave campaign leaders Boris Johnson and Michael Gove the morning after the result with a leadership challenge that soon collapsed into farce, to the attempt by the High Tories in the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party, whose opposition was often based on the most esoteric issues to do with sovereignty and the Conservative party’s standing, trying to relate to a largely working class Leave voting public that had nothing to do with them. At the time of writing there are signs that no matter how much they may hate the government’s deal, these Eurosceptic MPs are slowly edging towards it as the only alternative is even worse—going back to the voters.
There has been some sign of movement in the public back to Remain, but not quite as convincing as some Remainers claim. The UK public has become highly polarised on Brexit and there does not appear to have been much movement between the camps, rather the shift in the polls has more come from those who didn’t vote last time, and lean heavily towards Remain, but may not do so again. All in all, the lead for Remain is not that far off reported by the polls that got it so wrong in 2016.
However, on the Remain side there can hardly been a worse run up to a re-run. Those who have been calling for a second referendum are often the very ones who have spent the last two and a half years trashing the first—usually at the expense of the Leave voters. They were either racist, gullible, too thick for the complexity of the issue, or swayed by dark money and Russian bots on Facebook. If that’s the case back then, why not now? The same politicians who failed to convince the public in 2016, would need to go and try to convince the public again with what polls suggest is an even more damaged reputation. Last time they lost control of the debate and lost the referendum, there is surely even more chance of them losing control next time. Yet like moths to the flame they might not be able to resist. Just as Cameron turned to the public to solve a problem that arose from his failure to control his party in 2016, there is now a chance that Parliament could return to the public to solve even a bigger problem created by the fiasco of the last thirty-three months. There is a dynamic here. It might not stop.
The author is an analyst who writes the Piping Shrike blog, a perspective on Australian politics.