One of the remarkable features of British political history is that no point in the 20th Century did it succumb to dictatorship, despite a constitutional settlement that, since 1911, has had the difficulty mode set all the way down to “Casual” as far as any wannabe autocrat is concerned.
Not just because there no limits to what the executive, provided it has a majority in parliament, can do. But also because of the wide range of powers reserved to the sovereign – that is, thereotically the Queen but in practice whoever the sitting Prime Minister is – across a wide swathe of policy areas.
But both parliament and the executive faced severe blocks on what it could do while Britain remained in the European Union. Now a great amount of power is set to come back to Britain – but not to our MPs, but to our indirectly elected executive.
That matters particularly in trade policy. The Westminster Parliament is unique in the democratic world in having no direct say over the content of treaties; they are entirely within the control of ministers. Parliament has an indirect say if a treaty requires a legal change – for example, in changes to food safety standards – or has a financial cost. But where existing law allows the new freedoms of a trade deal to come into being without legislative change, there is no need for Parliament to weigh in.
For instance, as far as a US-UK trade deal is concerned, none of the provisions in TTIP that led to protestors to believe that it threatened the NHS would have required legislative assent if Britain signed that deal outside of the European Union.
Similarly, a new treaty on extradition rights – that is, the ability of one government to arrest one of their citizens abroad and summon them back to face trial – wouldn’t require the consent of Parliament as it would be covered by the Extradition Act of 2003.
Now that the referendum is over, these are the issues which should form the bulk of our Brexit discussion. If you have been listening to MPs debating the bill that would grant the government the power to formally trigger our exit from the European Union, you don’t need me to tell you that.
And if you haven’t, congratulations on avoiding a colossal waste of time. With a few exceptions, most of the speeches have focused largely on refighting the referendum battle, with references to either the economic disaster that a Brexit vote means or deriding the Remain campaign and/or the European Union.
The questions which so far have been absent include: how much is Parliament willing to continue paying into the European Union after Brexit? What size of divorce bill are MPs willing to accept? What’s the fate of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom once we are no longer both members of the European Union? And before granting the government the right to leave the customs union and strike its own trade deals, how will the executive ensure that Britain’s treaties aren’t sewn up behind closed doors?
There are MPs who are asking these questions. Among them are Melanie Onn, who has been banging the drum on workers’ rights, and Conor McGinn, who is putting forward amendments on the Irish issue.
The most embarrassing silence of all comes from the Outers, who talk a good game about reclaiming power from Parliament from Brussels, but seem perfectly happy to see those constraints on the legislature re-imposed at a British level by Downing Street.
What all MPs need to realise is this: until Article 50 is triggered they have immense leverage over Theresa May. Once this bill has passed, power will pass from Parliament to two places: the first is Downing Street and the second will be the negotiating rooms where May and the EU27 negotiate our exit. They need to stop refighting the referendum battle and do more spadework as far as the Brexit deal is concerned.