Robert Cox is a Friends of Europe Trustee and former European Commission Representative to Turkey
As the storm clouds of the 1974 Brexit referendum darkened, I was a guest in Scotland at a Burns Night supper. To earn my hospitality, I was asked to tell a story. I brazenly, as an Englishman, embarked on a Scottish tale – that of a Highland congregation mercilessly berated for its sins one Sunday from the pulpit. “Laird, Laird,” uttered the congregation, “we didna ken! (we didn't know)” To which the godly man replied, “Well, ye ken the noo! (now you know)”
I recalled the event as I listened to reported laments from Brexit voters that perhaps they had done the wrong thing. Equally reported were apparently flummoxed, even dumbfounded, Brexit leaders as the result was announced. They had no plan – worse still, they were now landed with the job of clearing up the mess. Britain, and indeed all of the European Union, has now embarked on a runaway train.
37% of eligible British voters chose Brexit, while around 36% didn’t. Over a quarter sat on their hands. In countries where referenda are a normal form of public expression, there are conditions – usually enshrined in written constitutions which Britain doesn’t have – such as turnout, qualified majority and so on. The British referendum did, however, bear the condition of ‘non-binding’, voted by Parliament.
During the referendum campaign, Brexiteers argued for the “restoration” of the British Parliament’s sovereignty, rights and powers. But now they fail to argue consistently that the referendum result, and the procedure of triggering Article 50 procedure for withdrawal, should logically be an Act of Parliament. It is not obvious that the current petition – reportedly signed by four million citizens – will actually force such a result. Moreover on 21st July, Parliament goes into recess until 5th September. Hardly much time is left to debate and squeeze in subsequent legislation on a matter of such historic importance, comparable to the execution of Charles I or the abolition of the Corn Laws.
“Of course”, the British (or rather, the English) political establishment seems to be saying, “the people’s will must be respected,” implying that Parliament’s hands are now bound. This is presumptuous, to say the least. A properly deliberated and consummated statement by Britain’s “sovereign” Parliament is the least courtesy the Westminster establishment could offer its 27 European partners, whose future livelihood and security is now so seriously jeopardised by the whim of a minority of one – perhaps now gnawed by contrition.
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