So Theresa May and the EU have reached an agreement on the terms of Britain’s ‘departure’ from the EU, which involves Britain not departing from the EU at all, but becoming a vassal state, tied to the EU for the long term, unable to leave without the EU’s permission, a rule-taker but unable to have a say on the EU’s rules.
I say that any such agreement between the UK and the EU has no legitimacy or moral standing whatsoever. It should be considered null and void. What’s more, this applies even if Parliament votes for it.
The referendum result was that we should leave the EU, not become more tied to it. That was the instruction from the people. So Parliament has no authority to make any such agreement in the name of the British people. They do not sign it in our name, and we shall not recognise it.
If you think this is empty bluster, devoid of applicability in the real world, consider the following. Suppose Parliament voted, without consulting the people, and without any indication of a popular mandate, to sell the British people into slavery to Saudi Arabia. Do you think that anyone would seriously think this is a legal, binding agreement? Perhaps the Saudi Arabians would, but the British people certainly would not, and neither would the international community. None of us would obediently trot off with the Saudi gang-masters when they turned up to our house with chains for us.
Or suppose the UK government signed an agreement that forced us to trade exclusively with Nigeria, and Parliament signed it off. No British person or company would be allowed to buy from, or sell to, any other country in the world. Would the government and Parliament be within their rights to do that? Or suppose they signed up all British men aged between eighteen and twenty-five to three years’ service in the Chinese Red Army. Would that be acceptable just because these MPs were elected to Parliament?
Clearly, none of these things would be something the government or Parliament had the right to do. Just because you won a seat in Parliament a few years ago doesn’t give you total power over the people. For example, Parliament couldn’t vote to imprison all the Jews in the country and take all their money. It doesn’t matter that Parliament is made up of our elected representatives. That’s not something they have the right to do.
Parliament, of course, has the right to do a lot of things that affect our lives; it can apply high taxes, it can buy our house to make way for train lines, and it can prevent us from claiming that our natural remedies can cure cancer. Like it or not, democracy requires us to devolve a lot of power to our elected representatives. But there are limits.
This is a proposition that progressives have always strongly agreed with. The anti-war left, for instance, has always denied that the state has the power to declare war on other countries except in the case of direct self-defence. It has always denied that the state has the power to conscript citizens into the army. Progressives have for decades denied that the state has the right to use dangerous methods of power generation, or the right to destroy nature in the name of progress.
Most people would agree that there are limits, at least moral limits, on state power. The difficulty is getting agreement on where it is that the power of the state stops, and how we can decide when the state has abused its power and gone beyond what it has a mandate from the people to do. Conservatives and leftists will have some very different ideas about this.
Sometimes, though, we have a perfectly good guide to what the state has a mandate for, and that is when a referendum has been held on the issue which tells the government what to do. The EU referendum of 2016 was such a case: the government, and Parliament, was given the instruction by the British people to leave the EU. That means that they are compelled to get us out of the EU. Contrariwise, they definitely do not have any mandate from the British people to sign an agreement with the EU locking us into indefinite further rule from the EU. That is the last thing they have a mandate for. Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, in that case, cannot be said to have been signed in the name of the British people (in the event that it is signed). It cannot be signed on our behalf. Parliament cannot ratify it on our behalf. It is not an agreement that we are party to, or responsible for.
In this case there also exists a further reason why government and Parliament cannot make any such agreement with the EU, and that is because in the last general election both the Conservative and Labour parties stood on explicit platforms of implementing the referendum result, and those parties won the great majority of seats at the election, whereas the parties that wished to overturn the referendum result, such as Liberal Democrats, performed dismally. As Brexit was a major part of the campaigns of all the parties it cannot be said that these results were due to other issues that were more prominent in voter’s minds. So again it follows that it is definitely the case that government and Parliament have no authority to make any such agreement in the name of the British people.
So Theresa May can sign the piece of paper, but she does not sign it in our name, and we shall not recognise it as applying to us. Neither she nor any set of MPs can bind the British people against their will to the EU.
(Note: this is a longer version of a short article I wrote about a week ago.)