Parliament’s authority over Brexit is trumped by the democratic decision of the people
26 March, 2019
by David Davis MP
On Monday, the Prime Minister said “no government could give a blank cheque to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is, so I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by the House, but I do commit to engaging constructively with the process.”
She went on to say that “no-one would want to support an option that contradicted the manifesto on which they stood for election to this House.”
There were a barrage of complaints, chiefly from Opposition MPs. But many others have said that Parliament has no right to overturn the decision of 17.4 million people voting in a referendum commissioned by Parliament itself. Are they right?
In my time as an MP, I have fought many battles to defend Parliament’s rights over the executive. I did this for one reason. Parliament’s legitimacy, its power and authority, is based on the fact that it represents the people of the United Kingdom. In this case, however, Parliament’s authority is trumped by the democratic decision of 17.4 million people. This is the first time in our history that this has happened, and it raises a serious constitutional question. When Parliament and people clash, to whom does the government owe its first duty?
Today, Parliament’s authority comes from its democratic mandate. MPs have a duty to do what they believe is best, but they also have a duty to represent the interests of their constituents. They are representatives, not delegates. However, in 2015 Parliament chose by a majority of 263 to outsource the decision on our membership of the EU to the people. They made their decision. It is incumbent on Parliament to deliver on that decision.
The 2016 referendum was the biggest democratic exercise in British history. Turnout was high, with 72% of the entire electorate – 33 million people – having their say. Well over a million more people voted to Leave than did to Remain. The turnout was higher than in any general election since 1992, and more people voted for Leave than any other issue – or party – in our long and distinguished democratic history. Had it been a general election, it would have been a landslide that dwarfed Tony Blair’s victories.
Political parties from across the spectrum recognised the power of this referendum in the 2017 General Election. Both the Conservative and Labour parties swore in their manifestos to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. In total, over 85 per cent of people voted for parties committed to this course of action.
Despite this, those opposed to Brexit are still trying to argue, disingenuously, that the people did not know what they were voting for. They claim that the people did not understand the risks or the implications; that they did not have the full facts.
Well it is true that the Government of the day did not give them the full facts.
The gloomy predictions of the Government’s Project Fear simply have not come to pass. We were told that if the people voted to Leave, there would be an immediate economic shock of a 6 per cent drop in GDP. There were dark mutterings of over 800,000 jobs being lost.
What has really happened? The UK economy is now growing faster than Germany and the Eurozone average. We have more jobs than ever before. We attracted more foreign investment in 2018 than anywhere else in Europe. In the face of the bogus official projections, gainsaid by all of the facts and all of their own experience, who could blame a plumber from Peterborough or a bricklayer from Birmingham if they choose to trust their own judgement over the supposedly better-educated elite?
The Establishment likes to believe it knows better, but this is certainly not always true. It did not foresee the 2008 economic crash, they wanted us to join the ERM and many argued for us to join the euro. This is hardly a record of competence anybody should rely on.
It is often said “people did not vote to be poorer”. This is no more than a patronising dismissal of the electorate’s justified realism. The people understood that forecasts can be wrong and that Treasury forecasts almost always are.
The British people knew exactly what they were voting for – and they rightly expect Parliament to deliver it.
And the more that the people hear that they did not know what they voted for, the more their opinion crystallises. We need only look at yesterday’s ComRes poll, which shows the largest yet recorded support for a no-deal Brexit. Over 40% of people believe we should leave on WTO rules, a number that grows every week. The idea that Leave voters did not vote to leave the Customs Union or the Single Market has no grounding in fact. It is patronising, and dismissive of their views.
So the Prime Minister is right to listen to Parliament, but she is also right to rule out any options that do not meet the democratic decision of the British people. Yesterday’s ComRes poll showed that a clear majority of people believe that attempts by Remain-supporting MPs and other Establishment figures to block Brexit were undermining the UK’s negotiating position. More than half believe that if MPs go against the 2016 decision it will irreversibly damage democracy. So the Prime Minister’s first democratic duty is to the electorate directly, to deliver a proper Brexit as soon as practically possible.
In the final analysis, the Prime Minister is the servant, not of Party, nor of Parliament, but of the people, and that should be her guiding principle throughout the Brexit process. Otherwise the British people will lose faith in their democracy, and the United Kingdom will face its Trump moment.
David Davis was Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union between 2016 and July 2018. He has been a Conservative MP since 1987.