During the campaign, proponents of Brexit loudly proclaimed that they sought to uphold Parliamentary sovereignty, but the votes of their supporters may have undermined it. Almost all Parliamentary leaders and a clear majority of MPs supported Remain, in a House of Commons that was elected less than 14 months ago. By calling a referendum with no clear conditions, the Cameron government endorsed an alternative source of sovereignty, namely direct democracy or “national will,” without putting any limits on its constitutional impact. Strangely, this was done with regard to a complicated issue of policy rather than a straightforward question of constitutional change, like Scottish independence. Stranger still, the government had already made up its mind as to what outcome it desired.
A negative result would therefore set up a formidable challenge to Parliamentary sovereignty itself. This is exactly what seems to be happening: in the face of a “national will” with which it largely disagrees, Parliament has lost control of the issue. No elected government can negotiate re-entry into the EU, or work out a deal that allows for continued freedom of movement of workers from the rest of Europe, without violating the “national will” as expressed by a majority of those who voted in the referendum.
The Brexiters within the Conservative party and perhaps UKIP itself can demand to be included in government because “national will” has trumped the last Parliamentary election. Scots Nationalists and Republicans in Northern Ireland can maintain that the Westminster Parliament no longer exercises authority over them at all, because sovereignty has already devolved, with Westminster’s acquiescence, to the collective wills of their own nations, which differed markedly from that of England on the crucial referendum issue. Along with the economic and social consequences of the Brexit vote, which appear to have been even more swift and negative than the much-criticized experts predicted, the referendum may have done for the power of the British Parliament as well.
Hepburn Professor of History, Middlebury College, and Fellow by Special Election, Keble College.