“What’s up Doc?” – The UK’s Allergic Reaction to Brexit

I thought, at first, that in endorsing the UK parliament’s right to vote for the triggering of Article 50, the High Court ruling was a good thing. Having heard Theresa May’s views that it wouldn’t change her timetable or attitude, and other politicians saying that they were going to vote for Brexit anyway, has made me doubt over the usefulness of this decision. It seems to me that the UK’s entire democratic system has been twisted and turned to suit the result of the EU referendum.

Gina Miller was only doing what others should have done

The referendum result must be respected, notwithstanding the fact that it was entirely flawed and that a large proportion of the electorate answered the wrong question, i.e. “what do you think of the British establishment?”. I was under the impression, maybe naively, that in a parliamentary democracy, the election candidates proposed policies to the electorate, and not the other way around. In the present situation, it seems that the electorate has decided that the government should lead the UK out of Europe and the government has responded by saying “OK we’ll do it, but we don’t exactly know how, nor do we really agree with you. And, furthermore, let’s not use parliament to discuss it.”

One referendum never took place, and for the other I was disenfranchised

In asking the High Court to decide whether Article 50 could be triggered without the consent of parliament, Gina Miller was only doing what others should have done. She has, baring a reversal of the ruling by the Supreme Court, defended the true values of a parliamentary democracy. People vote for policies, members of parliament represent the voters and, policies are discussed and carried through by the national parliament. This democratic process should not, under any circumstances, be tampered with. That an advisory referendum was held for such an important decision as membership of the EU does not alter the fact that the UK is a parliamentary democracy. Being no ordinary election, all British citizens and EU citizens living in the UK should have been allowed to take part. I felt bad about not being able to vote in a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in 2005 that never took place, as well as the 2016 UK referendum where I was disenfranchised by an archaic 15 year rule.

Brexit Hangover: Mixing Politics with Ethics

If a patient asked me to place a gold crown on his healthy front tooth, I would refuse

Enough has been written on the meaning and consequences of the High Court’s decision. Theresa May has launched an appeal that will be examined by the Supreme Court in December. What interests me here is the philosophical and ethical dilemmas some of the more “seriously minded” MP’s will be facing. None of the MPs (apart from UKip) were elected on the basis of their desire to leave the EU. And, what is more important, no-one actually proposed policies based on leaving the EU during the 2015 election campaign. The then conservative leader, David Cameron, only pledged to hold a referendum and respect the result. This puts present day MP’s who support the UK remaining in the EU in, what seems to me, an impossible situation. As a health professional, I’m confronted almost every day with ethical decision making. I have to decide whether to comply with the wishes of my patients. I regularly see young people who would rather let me extract a tooth than treat it. In these cases, who decides what is in the best interest of the patient? And as his practitioner must I abide by all his wishes? Of course, most of the time, after discussing the various treatment options, we come to a common approach, which, 9 times out of 10 saves the tooth. But what about the young girl who, for aesthetic motives, wishes to have a gold crown placed on a front tooth that has absolutely nothing wrong with it? What do I do then? I’ve made a point of refusing to carry out such treatment that, for me at least, is unethical.

MP’s who are serious about their mandate should seriously think about resigning

So, where does the result of the EU referendum leave the MP’s? And in what state of mind will they be in?  We can broadly classify the MP’s into 3 distinct groups.

MPs who want a “hard” Brexit

These MP’s (if we can call them that) were perfectly happy with the government bypassing parliament. Annoyed and disappointed by the decision of the High Court, they now have to face the prospect of battling it out with others who want a soft approach to Brexit. They still do have hope that the Supreme Court will reverse the decision, but are getting ready for the worst. The real hard liners, of course, are in or close to government circles, kept under scrutiny and control by Theresa May. How many of them will last the full Brexit remains to be seen. Cracks are appearing already.

The “softies”

This group of MP’s, as I see it, is what I would call the “softies”. These are the MP’s who, whilst not really enthusiastic about the EU, would have liked the UK to stay in. In various ways, these MPs will try and soften Brexit, whilst at the same time respecting the will of the majority. But what about the MP’s whose constituents voted to remain in the EU? They are, in theory, in trouble with their constituents whom they would not represent by allowing Brexit to happen. How would you feel if you voted to stay in and your MP did nothing about it? This is the whole problem associated with having a referendum in a parliamentary democracy. MP’s take much pride in saying that they “represent their constituents”. In a referendum, however, the constituencies that have voted against the national majority will be abandoned by their MP’s. It’s difficult to estimate the number of MP’s who are in this position because the referendum results were announced by local authority area and not constituencies. It is estimated that around 150 MP’s could be in this situation.

The “hard” remainers

Some MP’s will have felt deeply disappointed by the referendum outcome. These are the hard line europhiles, who love the EU no matter what. They also have the determination and courage to stick by their opinions. They will fight until the end and have no fear to vote against the will of the people, even if it means losing their parliamentary seat. It remains to be seen how many there are and if they will remain silent.

Referendum Allergy

Allergy result from the body reacting against a substance that normally doesn’t cause a immune response. Peanuts, for example, innocuous to most people, can cause severe reactions in someone who is allergic to them. The danger is that you won’t know that you’re allergic to a substance until it actually happens, and the consequences can be devastating.

Does a referendum fit in with a parliamentary democracy?

For the Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the best form of democracy was one in which every citizen would regularly participate in the elaboration of laws. A nice thought, but not very applicable to large societies. I cannot imagine 40 million people having to attend assemblies to decide how to run the country. First of all, we would not have the time to do so, and, secondly, I very much doubt that we have the competencies to decide important issues on a part-time basis. Delegating  political and constitutional responsibilities on others, as in a parliamentary democracy, whilst not being perfect, allows our views to be represented by governing bodies.

The EU referendum was nothing more than a glorified opinion poll

All you and I can do is offer opinions, and what we base our opinions on, is entirely up to us. The result of the EU referendum, which was advisory and not mandatory, is nothing more than a “glorified” opinion poll. For the former socialist French prime minister Michel Rocard, a referendum is “a national excitement where we put everything into one pot. A question is asked, people ask themselves others, and come to vote based on reasons that have nothing to do with the original question.”  Furthermore, for such an important decision as leaving the EU, it was necessary to fix the required majority to a minimum of 60% in order for the referendum decision to have any chance of being valid.

“The more grave and important the questions discussed, the nearer should the opinion that is to prevail approach unanimity.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau – On the Social Contract

The Remedy?

The present parliament was not elected to implement Brexit

The present confusion boils down to the fact that the referendum is advisory and not mandatory. The fact that triggering Article 50 has to be carried out by parliament poses an interesting philosophical and ethical problem for all MP’s, except those who were firmly in the leave camp, and made it known that they were for Brexit.  In the same way that a health provider must, from an ethical point of view, not always do what is asked of him, so too must the MP’s who believe that the UK is better off in the EU, and are on record as having said so. Even if it means bringing down the government and acting against the will of the electorate. In accepting Brexit a priori, parliament would resemble a mobile phone that has been switched from plane mode to mute, present but not fully functional. The present parliament was not elected on policies and desire to take the UK out of the EU. A general election is necessary to clear things up and put in place an elected government that is given the mandate to leave the EU. Referendums and parliamentary democracy is a “ménage à deux” that is destined to cause trouble.