The Glorious Referendum


Matthew Newcombe

In 1688 Parliament invited William, Prince of Orange, and his wife Mary to ascend the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In this Glorious Revolution a near century of conflict between crown and country had culminated in the overwhelming victory of Parliament over King, of democracy over despotism, and of liberty over arbitrary rule. Parliament, in banishing the Stuart Kings and inviting William III to ascend the throne, asserted its absolute sovereignty.

Democracy is the channel through which citizens voice their concerns. Governments must, at least in the long-run, satisfy public opinion – lest they be castoff through the ballot box. Revolution only arises when this democratic channel is blocked. If the populace feels unable to instigate government action through votes, they seek other means of change. Every revolution has followed a period with two key themes: the actions of lawmakers have been at odds with the desires of the populace, and there exists no democratic means of translating popular will into government action. The Stuarts believed strongly in their divine right to rule; it was not the place of Parliament to dictate to a King how to govern the country. The democratic channel was blocked, and for the People, revolution seemed to be the only recourse.

Unlike the revolutions of France and Russia, or the outcome of the English Civil War, the ensuing revolution pushed the scales of power in favour of Parliament and People. The Glorious Revolution was the seminal event in establishing, in law, a democratic channel to be exercised by British subjects. This channel has lasted unimpeded for nearly three-hundred years.

Recently, however, the channel through which the People influence Parliament and the Parliament controls domestic law has become obscured. Before 1973, the public would vote for Members of Parliament who would support or oppose the introduction, repeal, or amendment of law, keeping in mind the interests of the nation and their respective constituencies. MPs who neglected their constituents would, in the long run, be unsuccessful in maintaining their seat in Parliament. Law making was invested in Parliament, but, ultimately directed by the People. The democratic channel flowed as freely as the Zambezi.

However, since 1973 Parliament’s oversight of domestic law has been slowly diminished by the European Union. In passing the European Communities Act (1972), the British Parliament outsourced a significant (and increasing) portion of its law making power. From hence more, EU law would take precedent and EU Courts would have final jurisdiction over British subjects. For the UK, a country without judicial review (unlike all other European countries), this would fundamentally and disproportionately alter domestic law. In Germany if an EU law was found to be unconstitutional, the highest national court could strike it from the statute books, whereas, in the UK the full mass of EU regulation would have to be swallowed.

The scale and effect of European law clearly undermines Parliament’s ability to pursue its domestic legislative agenda. If an area of law is under European competency, then EU law trumps Parliament’s will and, by implication, the People’s will. Britain’s ancient democratic channel, secured during the Glorious Revolution, has been obstructed. So, what influence do the People have over European law making?

There are seven institutions outlined in the EU treaties that form the European Union, three of which are bodies involved in legislating, these are: the European Parliament, The Council of the European Union (not to be confused with the European Council or Council of Europe), and the European Commission. These can loosely be compared with the lower house, upper house, and executive respectively. Of these institutions, which do you think has legislative initiative? The democrat would assume that Parliament, as the directly elected chamber, should have the power to introduce bills that can amend, repeal, or introduce law. This is an incorrect assumption. The Commission, the executive branch, has sole authority over legislative initiative. As an EU citizen, the person you elect has no tangible way to change the law, they either accept or decline changes proposed by the Commission.

The Commission is appointed by the Council of the European Union, who is appointed by the European Council (made up by the heads of state of each European country). Not only is the Commission far removed from democratic oversight, but its ranks are almost exclusively made up of either lifetime civil servants or politicians that have been expressly rejected in their own countries. The EU Commission is the most powerful law making body in Britain, and the electorate has no direct means of holding them to account. When Nigel Farage famously shouted “Who are you?” at Herman Van Rompuy, the newly appointed President of the European Council, he highlighted the central issue with Europe – the EU is an opaque institution. Its processes are convoluted and its leaders unaccountable. In a sense the EU is even worse than the tyrannical rule of the Bourbon Kings. At least the French knew who to behead.

Membership of the European Union has been extremely detrimental to the functioning of democracy in Europe, and more specifically the United Kingdom. In areas covered by EU law, the British public has little power, by way of democratic means, to control laws which govern their daily lives. Furthermore, the will of the European Commission holds little in common with the will of the British People. This sounds eerily familiar – time for a revolution?

In 2016 the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland voted to govern themselves. Much has been made of the substance of the referendum campaign and why people voted for Brexit. Commentators have focused on sub-issues such as immigration, public finance and trade, but ultimately they fail to recognise the single thread connecting all of these issues – control. It comes down to the fundamental ability of a voter to express his or her democratic will, and for that expression to influence the direction of the government. Like the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Glorious Referendum of 2016 was a modern revolution that will restore this essential democratic channel to British politics.

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