Apparently, the Prime Minister is planning to compare Parliament blocking or changing the nature of Brexit with the referendum on devolution in Wales in her speech later today, asking people to “Imagine if an anti-devolution House of Commons had said to the people of Scotland or Wales that despite voting in favour of a devolved legislature, Parliament knew better and would overrule them. Or else force them to vote again”.
But the scenario she presents is not one where a country’s parliament over-rules the result of a consultative referendum held in that country, but rather one where parliamentarians from one country over-rule the people of another, which is quite a different thing. Parliamentarians from England over-ruling the expressed wish of the Scottish electorate for devolution would, as she says, be unacceptable – although she seems to have no qualms whatsoever about the idea that parliamentarians from England should over-rule Scottish wishes on Brexit. Neither, as we saw in relation to the Brexit legislation clawing back powers from Wales and Scotland, does she see anything wrong with over-ruling the wishes of the Welsh and Scottish electorates on the details of devolution when it suits her.
One obvious flaw in her argument, of course, is that an “anti-devolution House of Commons” would never have legislated for a referendum on devolution in the first place – indeed, anti-devolution members of parliament did their utmost to prevent the question being put at all. And we all know that the nature of “devolution” under the supremacist idea of sovereignty which underpins Westminster is that the UK Parliament has the absolute right to change the powers of the National Assembly any time it so wishes, as it has already done in relation to Brexit.
The second obvious flaw is that after the first referendum on devolution to Scotland and Wales, parliament legislated for a second when it became clear that opinion had changed; exactly what she is so strongly opposing in relation to Brexit. Admittedly, there was a gap of 18 years rather than 3 between the 1979 vote and the one in 1997, but the principle and precedent for holding another vote if opinion appears to have changed is clear enough. Setting an arbitrary time limit somewhere between 3 years and 18 is just that, arbitrary. The principle to be considered can only be whether there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a decision taken today in different circumstances might lead to a different result, especially when an overwhelming majority of parliamentarians believe that implementing the original decision would be an unprecedented act of self-harm.
As a result of the utter folly of the Prime Minister herself in calling an unnecessary election in 2017, the parliament which we have today is not the parliament which legislated for the original Brexit referendum in 2016; and it is a key tenet of the UK constitution that no parliament can hind its successors. There is nothing unconstitutional or undemocratic about a new parliament taking a different view on an issue – indeed, if there were, there would be little point in holding an election.
A more relevant argument is that both the largest parties in the House of Commons fought the election on a manifesto committing them to implement Brexit, and that failing to do so is a breach of faith with the electorate. That is a valid argument, and a good reason why it would be wrong for parliament to simply cancel Brexit and ignore the result of the referendum; but it surely can’t compel legislators to simply plough ahead when, in the light of additional facts, they come to see that what they promised is undeliverable in the form in which they promised it.