The United Kingdom’s exit last week from the European Union is a victory for legitimacy, democracy, decentralisation, and accountability. These principles, and the regain of British sovereignty, are what have really been at stake all along in the often acrimonious relationship between the UK and other members of the EU. They outweigh such issues as fishing quotas and trading rules.
Dating back to Magna Carta in 1215, asserting the powers of people and parliament over those of monarchs and aristocrats has been the leitmotif of British constitutional history. With the gradual extension of the franchise dating back to 1832, parliament has itself been democratised. There the elected representatives of the people can turn out the prime minister, head of the executive branch of government, at a moment’s notice. This is the basis of accountability and political legitimacy, the bedrock of the constitution.
The growth of parliamentary democracy has, however, gone hand-in-hand with the growth of an executive which appropriates more and more national resources, partly to fund a growing bureaucracy. The people’s elected representatives in Westminster have thus over time surrendered many of their powers back to the executive in the form of ministers and civil servants in Whitehall.
These include law-making powers. Kings and queens once ruled by decree. Parliament then assumed the power to make laws. Now more and more laws are again issued by decree by ministers. Laws made by ministers and their officials in offices in Whitehall are not subject to the intense scrutiny of laws made in the public spotlight in the House of Commons. Ministers can nevertheless still be called to account. King George V once said he expected his prime minister to face his opposition every day in the House of Commons (which was why the prime minister had to be a commoner, not a lord).
This brings us to the first of the two key objections to the UK’s membership of the EU.
Over and above the one in Whitehall, Britons have been subordinated to a large and remote bureaucracy in Brussels which has been steadily assuming powers over widening areas of British life, powers that have proved very difficult to get back. David Cameron once promised to get some of them back, but his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, thwarted that. Moreover, of course, the additional bureaucracy spawns more people with powers of patronage and more regulatory institutions susceptible to capture by special interests.
Secondly, many areas over which Westminster could previously legislate have been surrendered to EU institutions whose laws in those areas have “primacy” over British laws. Powers previously exercised by a legislature accountable to the British electorate have been surrendered to European institutions which are in practice accountable to no electorate anywhere.
This has been an extraordinary – if not daft - development: the parliament of a sovereign country has acquiesced in its own bit-by-bit downgrading into a subordinate institution. Even more extraordinary is that the British, whose constitutional system has evolved with experience over centuries, and survived numerous stress tests, have surrendered power to new-fangled institutions dominated by France and Germany and with little by way of democratic mandate.
In a referendum in 1975 the British endorsed membership of what was then a common market (which they had joined in 1973). What they have got down the years, however, is not just that but a set of centralising political institutions in Europe bent on increasing their own powers at the expense of national parliaments and even judiciaries. British parties and cabinets, always deeply divided and sometimes incoherent over Europe, have been no match for the single-minded determination of the EU to augment its powers – least of all when the great bulk of the British establishment and communications media have usually taken the side of the EU.
Like the overriding commitment of the African National Congress to a National Democratic Revolution, the zealots of the EU have a clear agenda. It is the establishment of a centralised state ruled offshore from Brussels, as the British Empire was once ruled from London – with the vital difference that there is no prospect of decolonisation.
Until now. Unless they were prepared to see the powers of their own institutions further eroded, the British had no choice but to call a halt to the process, as they did in the referendum in June 2016. In effect, the voters told their government to stop abdicating its responsibilities. The question now is what the British make of their liberation from the regulators in Brussels. We can only wait and see, for, unlike Donald Trump, Boris Johnson is no great deregulator.
And the EU itself? Ironically, the EU’s default option of “more Europe” as the answer to any and all problems has yielded the result of “less Europe”, as the UK quits. With Brexit, Mr Johnson has not only put an end to his country’s decades of debilitating domestic fights over Europe, he has also strengthened the legitimacy of the British constitution by implementing the decision of the electorate to get out of the EU despite the fury of the establishment. Call it “populism” if you like, but this is bottom-up legitimacy.
The EU, on the other hand, is a top-down affair. This was most clearly demonstrated when its constitution, decisively rejected in referendums by the French and Dutch in 2005, had to be imposed by diplomatic fiat in the form of the Lisbon Treaty two years later – not exactly government by “consent of the governed”.
Which goes to show that the gap in constitutional and political culture between Westminster and Brussels is much wider than the English Channel.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.