The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Brexit might not happen

Ignoring the will of the people is a British tradition.

Protesters demonstrate opposite Parliament in London against Britain's Brexit split from Europe on Dec. 6. (Frank Augstein/AP)
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More than two years ago, the British public voted 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of leaving the European Union. In accordance with this outcome, Prime Minister Theresa May invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union, formally initiating Britain’s exit, which is scheduled to happen March 29.

But just under four months out, it remains an open question whether Britain will actually leave the E.U. In fact, on Tuesday, Britain’s political betting markets placed odds against Brexit actually taking place in the spring.

To appreciate why the referendum mandate might not actually translate into Britain’s leaving Europe as planned, one needs to take into account the British political system’s historically fraught relationship with direct democracy.

Britain and the United States have democratic forms of government. But while the U.S. political system accords significant weight to the direct voice of its citizens in decision-making processes, the British system does not. British members of Parliament view their role as representing the interests of their constituents in Parliament, not acting on voters’ expressed opinions. This is one reason referendums and ballot initiatives, while common in parts of the United States, are extremely rare in Britain.

The distrust of direct democracy runs deep in British history. As the Whig statesman Edmund Burke famously declared during the 1774 election campaign, an MP’s will “ought not to be subservient to” that of his (or her) constituents. He saw “mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for,” as dangerous and “a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.”

These sentiments continued to reverberate over the next two centuries. The referendum has been used only rarely, and then as a political tool, not a celebration of direct democracy. In 1973, Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community without recourse to a referendum, and few questioned the government’s right to take that decision on behalf of the country.

And yet debates between pro- and anti-European forces persisted within both main political parties. During the 1974 election campaign, pro-European Labour leader Harold Wilson managed to unite his party by promising that, if elected, Labour would seek to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership and then subject the revised terms to a referendum. While Wilson promised to abide by the result of the referendum, he was not genuinely interested in taking cues on foreign policy from the man in the street. Rather, he made a calculated gamble that the pro-European forces in both political parties would be able to convince the public of the wisdom of their view, and that the public “mandate” would silence anti-European politicians on both sides.

Wilson’s maneuver was a success. The 1975 referendum resulted in a 2-to-1 vote in favor of remaining in the EEC, and those Labour left-wingers who had opposed membership were effectively silenced.

From 1975 to 2016, only one national referendum took place in Britain. But in 2016, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron made the fateful mistake of trying to repeat Wilson’s trick by calling a referendum that he believed would again show majority support for remaining in the E.U. and silence anti-Europeans on his own backbenches.

This time, it backfired.

While a majority of MPs in Cameron’s party and across Parliament supported remaining in the E.U., the public voted to leave. The result led to Cameron’s resignation and his replacement by May, who had previously served as home secretary. After nearly two years of negotiations, May’s government has agreed to terms of “divorce” with Europe. The government is now faced with getting the proposed agreement through Parliament. It is not proving an easy task.

The essential issue is whether the House of Commons will be guided by the views of its members or the views of their constituents, as expressed by the result of the 2016 referendum. The government claims that the referendum “mandate” must be adhered to. But an increasing number of MPs are reasserting parliamentary sovereignty to decide Britain’s future. As Burke argued in 1774, an MP should never “blindly and implicitly … obey” the will of constituents at the expense of “the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience.”

Last week, the government suffered a significant defeat with the passage of a motion to allow the House to offer substantive amendments to any new proposals on Brexit put forth by the government in the event that the current Brexit plan fails to win support in Parliament. The motion, which passed 321 to 299, effectively incentivizes pro-remainers to vote against May’s current proposal in hopes that they will then be able to intervene in the next round of debate and put forth amendments that would substantially soften, or even potentially halt, Brexit.

These victories for pro-remainers expose the tensions between direct democracy and representative government that have shaped MPs’ responses to the Brexit referendum. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox openly warned: “I think there is a real danger that the House of Commons, which is a natural remain majority, may attempt to steal Brexit from the British people, which I think would be a democratic affront.”

“Stealing” Brexit could take two forms. MPs could push for an amendment to future Brexit legislation that mandates a second referendum on the proposed Brexit terms, including an option to remain, which proponents have referred to as a “People’s Vote.” Alternatively, MPs could simply amend any future proposals to say that, in fact, Britain would remain in the E.U.

Whichever tactic pro-remain MPs decide to pursue has serious implications for the debate over who holds sovereignty in Britain, the House of Commons or the British people.

Parliamentary action to reverse Brexit without a second referendum would be politically risky, as May’s government has been insisting for the past two years that the referendum result is a clear mandate on which the government is duty-bound to deliver. Voters, even some remain voters, might well see a reversal as a betrayal. But constitutionally, the referendum result is not binding, and there are historical arguments for reasserting parliamentary sovereignty to decide Britain’s future relationship with Europe.

If the first referendum was a mistake, a People’s Vote would only be doubling down on that initial error. It is hard to see how a vote for remain in a second referendum could be perceived by the Brexiteers to hold any more finite legitimacy than the leave vote did in 2016. Rather than looking to a second referendum to undo the errors of the first, pro-remain MPs should reassert the sovereignty of their judgment and conscience, and vote to reverse Brexit directly. To do so would not be a democratic affront, but a representative triumph.