Thursday, 1 September 2016

A Lesson in Parliamentary Sovereignty for Ian McEwan


Ian McEwan has a new book out at the moment and so he is obliged to give various interviews to various publications and broadcasters in order to publicise it. This always tends to be a somewhat incestuous affair at the best of times. Lots of people who, you suspect, would be at each other's houses eating kitchen suppers even if they were not interviewing one another and scratching each other's backs.

And at the moment they are also talking about how awful Brexit is. McEwan and Evan Davies were doing the same on Newsnight last night after talking about what dreadful hicks Americans are for thinking of abortion when the protagonist of his book is an unborn baby. Quelle his surprise. I know darling. Can you imagine? It's an unborn baby. It's a just a device, a literary conceit.

Now before I go on I should immediately acknowledge that I rather like McEwan's books and have no reason to suspect that I shall not equally enjoy his latest. But if he is planning on this being a triumph along the lines of previous masterworks, it might be as well for him to avoid talking about Brexit and thus irritating at least half (probably considerably more actually) of the population by dismissing those of us who voted for Brexit as British hicks.

It was interesting that Davies asked him about Brexit and that McEwan, in keeping with many, expressed the hope that we may still avoid leaving the EU. This seems to be a kind of forlorn hope of many of the bien pensant soft lefties who are still bemoaning the greatest exercise of democracy that this country has ever seen. Fascinating too that Davies did not ask this undoubtedly well read and highly intelligent man what on Earth he thinks will happen to the country upon our leaving. What terrible fate is going to befall us? Is it simply that we will somehow and mysteriously be culturally impoverished or does he still imagine that the terrible economic fate predicted by all of the experts and which still seems stubbornly to be refusing to occur will eventually hit us all and make us demand the much desired second referendum?

Oh and McEwan, who is, so far as I am aware, an educated and intelligent man, also spoke of the advisory nature of the referendum. Yes that one again. That tired old redoubt of the serial bad losers of the vanquished Remainers. Had they won, even by a tiny margin, that, we can be in no doubt, would have settled the question forever. It would no longer have been purely advisory.

Here's the thing, Ian. All referendums in this country are advisory. Even the ones you win. They are not a feature of British democracy. This is because we live in a parliamentary democracy and parliament has been sovereign since the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. By the same token a prime minister does not, strictly speaking, have to resign the morning after losing a general election. He or she would be within their rights to hang on and not resign until such time as they lost a vote in the House of Commons. Having done so they would then have to resign. But not until. Yet over time this formal arrangement, which dates back to the time before universal suffrage, has been replaced by the modern expedient of the prime minister quitting once the popular will of the people has been delivered, unless of course that popular will has not left a party with an overall majority. We saw this in 2010. And so, strictly speaking, there is no formal requirement for a prime minister and his or her government to take the advice of the British people at a referendum. Nevertheless they see it as more than advisory. It is an instruction, however much the likes of Ian McEwan and their dinner table interlocutors might wish it were otherwise.

But we repeat the question, a question that is seldom actually asked. What do the McEwans of this world imagine is going to happen? What terrible fate awaits? Britain remains a European country. But we now have a parliament that is sovereign once again, freed of the shackles of the European Union. Indeed, after the decision of the Commission this week and with the very petty concerns of the French in Calais now intruding into the discussion, are we really sure that we didn't make a very courageous, principled and prescient decision on June 23rd? The EU is falling apart thanks to the very principles it claims to hold so dear. It is doing so despite the lofty disdain of the Ian McEwans of this world. I confidently predict however that in a few years time there will be many who are a little more quiet about their European enthusiasms than they are today. Much as they went quiet about what a good idea it was for us to join the euro.

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