Sunday, November 6, 2016

Watching history happen

No, not the US elections.   The Brexit thing.  A Yank's view.

So first, the polls were run the way polls have been run for decades and Britain found out that the theory behind polls is nonsense.  The results are shaped by how the questions are expressed and who is contacted, and if either one is skewed, the outcome of the vote will be the opposite of the answer in the polls. The voters vote on their concept of what the referendum says, not on the pollsters' concept.

Second, the government (Cameron) resigned.  This is not how things usually happen in Britain.  Usually a government resigns when it is defeated on a Parliamentary vote, or the margin of victory is so narrow that the future of the program depending on that vote is bad. 

General elections, not referenda, usually return a majority in a given party and the leader of that party becomes Prime Minister.  Without a majority, it is possible to form a coalition to keep government operating, but that is a creaky way to go about things.  It takes a real disaster to make a British coalition government work well: WWI, the Depression, WWII.  Cameron ran a coalition  government and we all know how that ended.

No general election has been held since the referendum; the  next scheduled one is May 2020.  At the moment only one of the 650 Members of Parliament belongs to UKIP, the party that promoted Brexit.  86% of the  members belong to the Conservative and Labour parties. The Scottish National Party has 54 MPs; the majority in Scotland voted against Brexit, giving more fuel to the Scottish independence movement.  If all the parties with fewer members than SNP formed a coalition with UKIP, UKIP would still have fewer votes than SNP.    If there was a general election and the UKIP member lost his or her seat, there would be nobody in Parliament representing the May government.  That's not just unsatisfying, that's constitutionally questionable in Britain.

A new problem has cropped up.  A Conservative MP who was in favor of Brexit has resigned his seat.  He can no longer vote for Brexit or any other government program.  This doesn't just mean one less potential vote for Brexit in Parliament.  He might have been paired with a Labour or other MP who was against Brexit.  Pairing lets one or both of them be absent when a vote is taken; the one who is present abstains from voting.  Now the party whips have to find another pair for the remaining MP of the pair.  How many pro-Brexit MPs are not already paired off?  How much shuffling has to be done due to this resignation -- and many people will be displeased by the results of the shuffle?  And in any case, there's an even bigger problem.

The UK equivalent of SCOTUS has just said wait a minute.  Governments do not run on popular referenda.  They run on Parliamentary votes.  Parliament has never voted on this.  Until it does, Brexit is not a done deal. 

If the May government stands in the way of a Parliamentary vote or ignores adverse results, it goes against all of British history for the last 400 years.  The reason Charles I was executed was to make it clear that the monarch doesn't control taxes, Parliament does.  George V was forced to make so many peers early in his reign to make it clear that the Lords doesn't control government spending, the Commons does.  It is not possible for any British government to carry out its programs with only a single MP of its own party because there's only one vote guaranteed in favor.  (Vote against your party and you cut your political throat.) 

The High Court also pointed out that the Brexit referendum was never legally binding; it was always only advisory in nature.  This is the same situation as referenda in the US and also legislatural votes.  People get emotional about an issue or it might be politically useful to vote a certain way, but it might be an embarrassment to the country in the sight of the world and it also can be unconstitutional.  That's why SCOTUS was right to overturn DOMA just as it was right  to overturn Jim Crow laws.  For the May government to say that the High Court is wrong, shows that they are not capable of supporting the British constitution any more than they are capable of running British foreign policy or economics.  In fact May has appointed a racist to be Foreign Minister and hate crimes are increasing in Britain, formerly a model of toleration.  And we all know about the drop in value of the pound, as well as the recent tussle between the May government and "the  Old Lady of Threadneedle Street".   

So the May government using the referendum to argue that it has a right to act is useless.   The basis for representative democracy is that there is always somebody somewhere who wakes up only when personally impacted and says "I didn't vote for that."  Democracy is not about catering to every citizen.  Societies are not formed by catering to every member.  Every society defines its own norms and has a way of dealing with people and situations outside the norm.  The norm in British representative democracy is that, as the representatives of the British people, Parliament has to cast the deciding votes on government programs. 

The pro-Brexit organization failed to make that clear to their adherents -- or the  pro-Brexit voters ignored it -- or they forgot it -- or it was useful to bury this detail to get the votes.

Now the people who didn't get the memo are becoming violent against the judiciary.    The British are not yet used to having an independent justice system; it used to part of the Lords and therefore part of Parliament.  It is not a perfect system, but it does reinforce the constitution, even when the constitution was never written down as in Britain.  Under the old system, this violence would have been perpetrated against the Lords -- shades of Guy Fawkes!!!  (Yesterday was Guy Fawkes Day in Britain.)  Regardless of the target, it is terrorism, not democracy.  It is banana republic behavior, not worthy of Britain.

The May government is not entitled to act on the Brexit referendum; everything adds up to that.  They are not entitled to stay in position; there will come a day when the British voters throw them out as they have thrown out previous governments, even that of the famous Winston Churchill.  So any whining about  the High Court decision is just that: whining.  Whining should not be tolerated.

It ain't over until the Mother of Parliaments sings... or votes...

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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