It's not Parliament
Our correspondent, who writes under the name George Stevenson, worries about the Government's tendency to take decisions without proper debate in Parliament. Are we heading to government by decree?
In my last blog, I summarised the hopefully more positive situation we find ourselves at the moment. In this blog, however, I would like to sound a more cautionary note on a perhaps overlooked reason why our fight is so important.
Two recent things prompted this. Firstly, although it didn’t succeed in its legal case against the Government for triggering Article 50 without showing that a decision to leave the EU had been taken, the Article 50 challenge revealed that the ‘decision’ to leave the EU had been taken by Theresa May alone (although most likely with Cabinet approval). Their report of the hearing stated ‘ the decision was identified as occurring as her hand hovered over the letter.’
Secondly, Radio 4 recently broadcast a drama over 5 days as part of their ‘Dangerous Visions’ season describing the descent into a Civil War in England some time in the near future. In the drama, a deteriorating situation with a crisis in the banks and unspecified terrorist acts is brought to a head by the Scottish Government declaring independence, and the assassination of a senior cabinet minister. In response, the (unnamed) Prime Minister declares a State of Emergency, suspending Parliament and posting armed police outside the Houses of Parliament to prevent MPs from entering to debate the situation. In a re-run of the original Civil War, different factions in different parts of the country back Parliament or the Government, leading to an armed conflict.
Of course, this is a drama, written to entertain and perhaps provoke some thought. It’s not real life, or a prediction of the future. However, it may be uncomfortably relevant when we consider the nature of that ‘decision’ to leave the EU.
Whilst it is inconceivable that she would have done it without Cabinet approval, the Prime Minister seems to have made that decision largely on her own, and certainly without any discussions in Parliament, let alone the wider country. She continues to make decisions on the nature of the Brexit being sought without further discussion beyond the cabinet.
The UK notoriously has an unwritten constitution, so the precise limits of what the Prime Minister and the Cabinet can do are always unclear. Taking a decision of this magnitude without approval from Parliament, or a mandate from the public through an election, however, seems almost unprecedented. The Prime Minister may need to commit to military action, or declare war, without wider discussion if there is no time, but generally serious decisions are debated in Parliament before a decision is taken, even if the debate itself may be quite heavily managed. Whilst we may not like the decision that was taken, and however flawed the process, at least Tony Blair allowed a debate in Parliament before the decision to invade Iraq was taken.
Alternatively, Governments can implement policy on taking office if it is in their manifesto, and thus can be claimed as having support from the public, although anything requiring legislation will be debated in Parliament. John Major required the Railways Act to be passed before he was able to privatise British Rail, for example. Once again, this process is far from perfect, particularly with the ‘whipping’ system, but does theoretically some debate.
Looking at alternative systems, President Trump is allowed by the American constitution to make ‘Executive Orders’, albeit there is a system of some checks and balances in place to prevent effective rule by decree. Less admirably, President Putin can, and does rule by decree, with ruthless suppression of alternative views.
So on the face of it, Theresa May seems to have acted as if she had presidential powers, but not within a system which would normally permit this. The only decisions more serious that this one would appear to be to declare war, implement military action, or to declare a state of emergency. Therefore, it seems almost incredible (in the true sense of the word) that there was no wider debate over this decision. Just as worryingly, no analysis of different options or the consequences of the decision has been carried out. Even for manifesto commitments, the Civil Service would normally carry out an analysis of the proposed policy, although Ministers would still take the final decision.
So is this mere political geekery, fascinating to those interested in it, but of limited relevance? I believe not. The Radio 4 drama shows an extreme result of Prime Ministers acting to and beyond the limits of their powers. Whilst we’re not facing arbitrary rule, or civil war, this decision sets a precedent for the Prime Minister, or Ministers, to take decisions without the safety net of any wider scrutiny or discussion. It is not impossible that they could declare that a policy decision, such as to reduce workers’ rights, is just responding to ‘the will of the people’, and that further debate is unnecessary. Outside of the EU, we would have no right of appeal to a higher power.
We should beware of this type of decision making, and the precedent it sets. This is almost more important an issue than remaining in the EU (the importance of which it is also difficult to overstate). This fundamentally alters the process of how we are governed, and the safeguards included. We need to fight this with all our strength.
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