Bornfire night in the UK. The annual festival of fireworks commemorating the foiling of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. You can find out more about the original Gunpowder Plot here : http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/gunpowder_robinson_01.shtml but the significance of Bonfire Night in 2016 has been brought into even sharper relief by the events in the High Court of Justice this week.
In June 2016, the UK electorate voted by 52 : 48 in a non-binding referendum to leave the European Union. These are facts. The referendum said nothing about the speed with which the exit was to be achieved, nor the terms and conditions that were to be negotiated in leaving the political and economic union. How could it? A referendum is – by its very nature – a black and white, binary process. “Leave” or “Remain” were the only options available to the electorate in June.
Since June, the debate has raged in the media and across the country about the precise form that ‘Brexit’ should take. Every pub, café, workplace has seen variations of the same sorts of conversations about hard and soft Brexit, and the triggering of Article 50. Bizarrely, the one place that has not staged that debate is the House of Commons – the centre of our parliamentary democracy. Other than repeating the utterly meaningless phrase that “Brexit means Brexit”, and stating consistently that the government will not discuss the terms of its negotiating strategy with the EU because that would somehow make the negotiation more difficult, Ministers have treated parliament with utter contempt on the issue.
Thankfully, the rules governing the withdrawal of a country from the EU (the now-fabled Article 50) require that country to follow its normal constitutional conventions in formally triggering the exit process. The UK – famously – does not have a written constitution per se. Ironically, it has been a Conservative Party manifesto commitment for at least the last three general elections to introduce a formal Bill of Rights that would go quite a long way towards codifying UK constitutional convention, but it has so far proved to be beyond the wit of Ministers and Civil Servants to come up with something that adequately replaces several hundred years’ worth of legal and parliamentary convention.
Thus it was that this week, the High Court was asked to uphold the constitutional convention that Acts of Parliament cannot be repealed other than by a subsequent Act passed in the usual way by both Houses and subsequently endorsed by the Crown. This was something of a blow to the Prime Minister, her three wise monkeys overseeing the Brexit process, and the baying, Neanderthal, ultra-right ideologues that now populate most of the print media in the UK. They seem to have forgotten that in the UK, British Laws for British People can only happen through the explicit Acts of the Houses of Parliament.
The High Court acted to reinforce the constitutional convention that Parliament is sovereign in the UK’s democracy, preventing a unilateral and un-scrutinised exercise of Article 50 that would have been as damaging to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, as Guy Fawkes gunpowder would have been to the bricks and mortar of the Houses of Parliament in 1605.
That Article 50 will be exercised in due course is beyond doubt. That it will be exercised with the will of Parliament following appropriate scrutiny and debate of the government’s strategy for Brexit, is thanks to the Rule of (British) Law and the independence of the judiciary within the (British) constitution. And if that’s not worth sending up a firework for, I don’t know what is.