Monday night’s second reading of the EU Withdrawal Bill was a masterclass in hyperbole and disingenuousness. Brexiteers, the self-styled defenders of parliamentary sovereignty, acted as if Henry VIII’s powers were consistent with their referendum-winning arguments. Conversely, (former) remainers spoke as if they were seeking to make Brexit work by vetoing the bill. Few MPs or commentators came out of the episode with much dignity. Both sides of the debate need to seriously rethink their strategies, and then perhaps a sane Brexit can result.
Brexiteers and the EU Withdrawal Bill: ends justifying means?
One of the key flaws in Theresa May’s strategy during the 2017 election was her decision to treat Brexit as a procedural matter. Listening to her, it seemed as though Brexit was an end in itself rather than, as voters see it, a means to a rebirth of British society. It is clear many of her MPs view Brexit similarly to the Prime Minister. The Henry VIII clauses within the EU Withdrawal Bill deliver great powers in rewriting the law with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. The bill basically grants the government power to amend EU law (all of which will be transposed into UK law on exit day) via a statutory instrument. This is necessary as many EU laws do not make sense when a country is not a member state. However, the government is allowing little in the way of scrutiny when using these powers. The bill is flawed.
Yet, John Redwood is consistently arguing that there is nothing to worry about. Indeed, almost every Brexiteer is acting like any criticism of this bill is an affront to democracy. The people who have spent up to four decades arguing that democracy is a process, not an event, are now speaking like demagogues. It is right that Brexit should happen. The referendum result conferred a legitimacy to the act of Britain withdrawing from the European Union. However, the referendum did not confer a legitimacy to leaving the EU in whatever way. At the heart of the vote was the idea of taking back control. The vote was not a vote for handing enormous power to ministers. Brexiteers must remember that unconstrained power is just as illegitimate in Downing Street as it is in the Berlaymont.
Brexiteers must therefore remember their supposed principles and seriously consider amending this bill.
Remainers and the EU Withdrawal Bill: disingenuous and potentially dangerous
I will never fully comprehend why Theresa May chose to fight her election campaign as the way to ‘protect’ Brexit’. She called the election at a time when Brexit was clearly on track. Indeed, her catastrophic election result has probably done more than anything else to ‘jeopardise’ Brexit. However, Remain MPs must not kid themselves into believing that June 8th 2017 was in itself a repudiation of June 23rd 2016. The EU Withdrawal Bill is not fit for purpose in its current form, but neither is it completely redundant. Britain cannot leave the EU without any continuation of EU law whatsoever. Purging Britain’s legal framework overnight would be catastrophic, as British law simply does not currently cover some very important aspects of modern life. Thus the bill needs amendment, not binning.
Britain has eighteen months until it will automatically leave the EU. Parliamentarians playing political games over these pieces of legislation would therefore amount to a dereliction of duty on a grand scale. If politicians wish to argue Britain should remain a member of the EU, it is perfectly legitimate. But to use this bill as their mechanism for doing so is unforgivable. Crashing out of the EU without a sound legal framework would be an act of suicide by the British nation. Remainers must remember why they oppose ‘hard’ Brexit in the first place and make the EU Withdrawal Bill work.