Why the judges were right and the Daily Mail wrong about Parliament and Article 50
Brexit has changed the face of Britain before it even takes effect. An ugly face of our country has been unmasked and dark forces unleashed. The 16 million who voted to Remain in the European Union have been branded traitors by the more hot headed Brexiteers. Foreigners have been abused on public transport and businesses owned by east Europeans have been vandalised. The Home Secretary, who voted remain, announced an outrageous plan to force businesses to draw up lists of non-British employees. Anyone with just the slightest grasp of European history should have alarm bells ringing in their head.
Now the right wing press, cheerleaders for Brexit, has turned its fire on British judges for upholding the right of Parliament to vote on government plans that affect the rights of every British citizen. “Enemies of the People” screams the front page of the Daily Mail, with pictures of the three High Court Justices who ruled that Parliament must vote on the triggering of Article 50, against the wishes of Theresa May’s Brexit-Tory government. The Sun says that a “loaded foreign elite” led by a “foreign born multi-millionaire” are attempting to dictate to the British people. No, the editor has not gone on a suicide mission to attack his Australian born, USA citizen, billionaire media mogul boss Rupert Murdoch. He’s actually attacking Gina Miller, the Guyana born but British citizen and London based fund management entrepreneur who led the legal challenge against the government’s intention to deny MPs a vote on Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The Express, not to be outdone, says we are in a crisis “as grave as anything since the dark days when Churchill vowed we would fight them on the beaches.”
All three tabloids have a long record of stirring up hatred of foreigners and immigrants. They now must be deliberately trying to deepen the division in society after the vote to leave the EU. Of course judges or anyone else in authority should not be above criticism. Questioning the decisions of our rulers is essential in a liberal democracy. But branding whole groups of people “traitors” or “enemies of the people” comes from the language of totalitarian dictators, not a free press. During the French Revolution, before sending enemies to the guillotine, Robespierre said that the “revolutionary government owes nothing to the enemies of the people but death.” Lenin used much the same language during the Russian Revolution. Our high court judges are, I assume, pretty well protected but others who want to defend the rights of British citizens in the European Union will have no protection from verbal and physical abuse.
A sense of irony is presumably lobotomised out of all tabloid editors, such is their need to pander to all sorts of competing prejudices and conflicting viewpoints. But these are the same papers that took up Boris Johnson’s cry that the referendum was all about “taking back control” from European law makers and European judges, so that the British Parliament became sovereign and only British judges adjudicated on our freedoms. I’m fed up with Theresa May’s parroting of the vacuous “Brexit means Brexit” but surely if Brexit means anything it means Parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of British law?
The three judges were doing their job, upholding British law. The rights and freedoms of British citizens cannot be taken away by the executive, or the “crown” to use its original name. This has been the British constitutional settlement since the 17th century, with Charles I and his second son James II both being despatched in order to establish the sovereignty of Parliament. Our MPs (plus the anachronism of unelected Peers) stand between us and an over-mighty government. The triggering of Article 50 in order to begin the negotiations to leave the European Union is a fundamental act that will affect the rights of every British citizen. Article 50 is a clause of the Treaty of Lisbon. As an MP I voted to ratify that treaty in January 2008. Triggering the clause must surely be done by the government only after it has obtained the authority of Parliament.
Yet we do not know what terms the government is seeking from our current European partners. I for one do not want to be stripped of my European Union passport. It gives me the right to travel freely, without the costs and restrictions of visas, around most of Europe. I don’t want to lose the right to work in Paris or Berlin. I don’t want the children of my friends and family to be stripped of the right to study in Europe. I don’t want the entrepreneurs who make our economy hum to be stripped of access to the world’s largest single market. If Theresa May intends to surrender all of these rights that belong to me and my friends then of course our Parliament must be able to vote on whether those terms are acceptable. I do not understand how anyone can rationally defend a position where a government (which did not have these threats to my freedom in its election manifesto) can contemplate throwing away our rights without authority from Parliament.
Even worse would be keeping us all in the dark about the government’s intentions. Ministers say that this is to protect their negotiating hand. But Brussels is not Las Vegas and my rights are not a game of poker. In a free society we have the right to know what the government is doing in our name and our Parliament has the obligation to defend those rights or at the very least not surrender them without question.
Of course when it comes to it, Mrs May will get her Article 50 trigger through Parliament. Tory MPs will mostly vote for it. Labour MPs, looking over their shoulders at Brexit voting constituents in a majority of their seats, will hold their nose and vote it through. If I were still an MP I would firstly want to bind the government to a negotiation objective that secures the best of the European Union. But if the government were intent on a hard Brexit then I would vote against Article 50 as I believe it would harm the interests of all citizens, including those who voted to leave. As a Liberal Democrat I believe there must be another referendum in 2018 or 2019 on the final deal negotiated by the government.
We are living in dangerous times and it is the duty of all of us who believe in freedom and the rule of law to make our voices heard. I may be branded a “remoaner” or even a traitor but now is not a time for liberals to be bullied into silence.