Theresa May has made some intriguing moves over the past few months regarding a potential Brexit. Her strategies, which she is increasingly shrouding in secrecy, remove as many as possible from the decision making process, with the supposed intent of honouring the assertion by the public that Britain wishes to leave the EU. This is concerning, no matter how one voted, as it removes the possibility of being able to hold negotiators to account, as well as disallowing the public any opinion on exactly what an exit deal might entail. It also ignores the fact that the referendum result was technically advisory, and thus MPs should have the right to overturn it if they believe it to be in their constituents’ best interests. However, increasing apathy around the subject is allowing May to get away with an authoritarian stance that bypasses usual democratic procedure. It is for this reason that it is important that the public renews its interest in EU-UK relations – as it is the only way they have a chance of affecting the decisions that May is making.
On a quick glance across one’s social media channels, it does seem like the country is trying to forget the Brexit decision in the hopes that it might disappear. Where once there were impassioned flare-ups in every comments section, now there is a return to peace: congratulations, compliments, and an avoidance, largely, of politics. However, the issue has not gone away: and the movements made by Prime Minister Theresa May around the matter should concern Remainers and Leavers alike. Firstly, she has indicated that she intends – and is legally allowed – to invoke Article 50 and begin Brexit negotiations without putting the decision to a Parliamentary vote. Despite a legal dispute being mounted, May expects to win. A Downing Street source claims that such an action would be justified because the Prime Minister is “committed to delivering on the verdict the public gave”. In other words: she wishes to bypass Parliament in the name of ‘democracy’ – one must assume because she feels its views are unrepresentative of the public, and/or will cause harm to the public if they are heard. On top of this, May has recently declared that she will not provide a “running commentary” on negotiations, as it would be inappropriate to prematurely reveal Britain’s hand. This alone is concerning, but it has further emerged that Parliament may not even be privy to such negotiations, in case they seek to “micro-manage”. Brexit minister David Davis has stated that: “I can entirely see accountability after the event, that’s very clear“. In essence, this move suggests that May and the Brexit committee have no interest in the opinions of MPs regarding the deal (and by extension, those who they represent), although they intend to begrudgingly punish those responsible if, post-negotiation and Brexit, the public are unhappy with the outcome. These are the key issues, and there are few ways to analyse the intent behind them, and what that intent means for the country.
The first possibility to consider is that May is doing as she says: attempting to uphold democracy by not allowing politicians to overturn a public mandate. After all, turnout was exceptionally high – 72.2% – and although the result was not emphatic, there was never any official requirement regarding what should constitute victory. Perhaps May is aware of this, and concerned that Parliament, who campaigned for Remain in an overwhelming majority, might defect to their own views over the views of their constituents. From this viewpoint, perhaps her decision to exclude Parliament from the decision to trigger Brexit is right: she is listening to what the public want, and doing everything in her power to deliver. However, even on this point, an argument can be made against: MPs are elected by the public to act in their best interests, and if they believe that the referendum result is against those interests, they should be given the opportunity to voice that opinion. The referendum was advisory, not legally binding. Of course, such an argument relies on trusting MPs to act in the public interest and not their own, and it is a matter of discretion as to whether one holds that trust. Perhaps May does not. The other recent revelation, however, her conviction that so many must be kept is the dark, is more clear cut in its incompatibility with democracy, and is the real issue that should concern Leavers and Remainers alike. If even Parliament are going to be prevented from having access to information surrounding negotiations, then how are the public going to be represented in those talks? The referendum was extremely broad: although the Leave camp presented some ideas surrounding the prospect of a Brexit, people voted for the change for vastly different reasons. By excluding Parliament, by prohibiting any form of “micro management” by them, one takes away the best method the public has of voicing their opinions, which surely is the very cornerstone of democracy. If Theresa May truly wishes to honour the public’s decision, then this move is nonsensical. Indeed, it is as nonsensical as David Davis’ talk of “accountability after the event” – accountability, surely, is most useful as a source of pressure on those currently making decisions. It is useless if only used as a punishment after decisions have been made: decisions that may be irrevocable.
The alternative motivation to an honourable, if misguided, drive for democracy, is that May is surging ahead with Brexit negotiations in order to win popularity, for both herself and her party. As well as being unnecessary – recent opinion polls suggest that both the Conservatives and Theresa May herself are far more popular than Labour or Jeremy Corbyn respectively – surely this is the wrong attitude? Decisions should be made on the basis of being right, not popular. But then, perhaps, May believes what she is doing is the right thing for the country, and her actions are based in her own conviction, not the referendum result. It is doubtful, given that she campaigned for Remain, but a possibility nonetheless. However, it still does not justify her actions. In a democracy, she has little moral right to restrict the numbers of people who should ultimately give or deny permission for such a momentous change.
This is why the public needs to rekindle their passion around the subject. People have turned away, and in the absence of interest, the Prime Minister has adopted a virtually authoritarian stance in their name. Of course, perhaps the things she are doing truly are what the public wants and needs, but no one is being given the chance to dispute that fact. If her intentions are so honourable, surely they will stand up in Parliament. If her actions will truly benefit the country, then why would the country’s representatives fight her? Her party has a majority, and it is suspicious that she sees her position as too fragile to risk contention. Whatever one’s opinion, it needs to be voiced again, repeatedly and loudly. There seems to be no other way that May will have the courage to open a real dialogue: where she, Parliament and the public all have ways to make themselves heard, and where points can be disputed with honesty and openness. This current compromise of tight control and secrecy is unacceptable, and incompatible with the democracy May claims to value.