This is the just the start of the Brexit attack on democracy

"We are seeing a Brexit assault on democracy"
"We are seeing a Brexit assault on democracy"
Ian Dunt By

One of the ironies of Brexit is that a movement which defines itself by its commitment to democracy is really a unique danger to it. Last night's passing of the withdrawal bill, with no Conservative rebellions at all, was just the start. We are on a process which aggressively strengthens the powerful while claiming to represent the will of the people.

In the end, yesterday's vote was not a surprise. Tory rebels, if they are eventually to be found, will emerge only if they fail to get their amendments accepted at committee stage. To their mind, yesterday was too early a point to rebel. First you try to change the legislation and if you fail - maybe then you rebel.

You could see that assumption very early on, when Anna Soubry called for Labour to hold off its opposition. Ken Clarke abstained. Dominic Grieve held off from rebelling, but then quickly came forward with amendments. They are all expecting the Lords to do its work. The Lords are very good at issues of process. It's one of the few areas where they show real confidence. They will go to work on this bill with long, sharp legislative daggers.

In all likelihood, the government prepared for this eventuality. The bill reads like an opening offering - the used car salesman starting at seven grand and expecting to end up at five. Those writing it will have been far more concerned about the Lords, who actually understand how statutory instruments work, than they will have been about MPs, who do not. This was a dialogue, a bargaining process, between them and the peers, over the head of the Commons.


But this bill is far too dangerous, too arrogant and too scrappy to be dealt with by horse trading. The opening offer was too severe. It was like a guy starting at ten grand for a run-down old banger. As legal experts David Allen Green and Schona Jolly have shown, it is unprecedented in its scope and goes far beyond anything which could be considered reasonable, even given the magnitude of the task it is designed to resolve.

Of particular concern are clauses seven, eight, nine and 17, which effectively turn ministers into mini-parliaments, able to change law at will or, as the bill puts it, enact regulations which "may make any provision that could be made by an Act of parliament". Clause nine includes the ability to amend the withdrawal bill itself in this manner, meaning that any of its safeguards against improper use can themselves be magicked out of existence by ministerial fiat.

As the House of Lords constitution committee warned last March, in a report which Theresa May later falsely claimed had supported her, "the bill weaves a tapestry of delegated powers that are breath-taking in..scope and potency".

That was last night. This morning a new assault on parliament is on the way. Andrea Leadsom - leader of the Commons and proud mother - is tabling a motion to give the government a locked-in majority on public bill committees. These out-of-the-way bodies, which can be attacked with relative impunity because no-one outside Westminster knows what they are, are tasked with going through legislation line-by-line. Previously they reflected the make-up of the Commons. Now they will be seemingly unaffected by the public vote. It is an extraordinary constitutional power grab intended to wipe out the election result. As long as Tory committee members stay loyal, they can dismiss any opposition amendment.

Taken as a pincer movement, you can see the process quite clearly. This is an assault on parliamentary scrutiny the likes of which we have not seen in a very long time.

The idea that Brexit was in some way a mechanism to enhance and protect British parliamentary sovereignty must now be considered as laughable as the notion that May is strong and stable. Quite the opposite is true. It is an affront to parliamentary democracy.

Its supporters claim that critics have only just discovered their hatred of shadowy legislative mechanisms. After all, EU laws were regularly put straight on the statute book, either by being mainlined as an EU regulation or stitched-in as a directive.

This is the type of argument they use in school debating societies - one with superficial appeal but no substance. The reason those laws employed statutory instruments is because these were policy areas where the UK had agreed to pool sovereignty with Europe. The debates and the scrutiny had therefore taken place in Brussels. The legislation had been proposed by the Commission and then scrutinised by the European parliament, which is made up of MEPs directly elected by British and other European citizens, and the Council, which is made up of ministers and leaders from the elected parties of Britain and the rest of Europe.

To compare that with the grotty power-grab of a minority government in Westminster, staying in power via a shadowy deal with the DUP - which itself has not received parliamentary assent - and empowering ministers to make them into little Cadbury Mini Egg dictators, is laughable, dimwitted and profoundly cynical.

We are seeing a Brexit assault on democracy. But it does not end here. It is entrenched in the entirety of the project, down to the societal level. 

During the debate on the withdrawal bill, Tory MP after Tory MP stood to condemn Labour for opposing it. The word "betrayal" kept being used. The Sun attacked the opposition using the same language. Even Labour MP Frank Field joined in, claiming he was voting for the bill because he was "on the side" of the 52%.

Even now, over a year since the vote and after an election which muddied it, we are seeing a demand for total submission to the supposed 'will of the people'.

This was clear from the start, when the votes of the 52% majority meant that we could trample on the economic interests of the 48% minority. But it quickly became part of the rhetoric as well. No matter what criticism you made, no matter how minor, you were accused of trying to thwart the will of the people. From Gina Miller, to Supreme Court judges, to Gary Lineker, to the average guy raising questions on Facebook - anyone who did not toe the line was a foreign element, a fifth columnist.

Quite what this will was was never defined. The reality of the people's will is never really uniform. Plenty of the 48% would have been critical of immigration and plenty of the 52% will have been relaxed or positive about it. People vote for all sorts of reasons, rational and irrational. Was it really a vote against free movement, or the European Court of Justice - a body which was hardly ever discussed in the campaign? Did Labour voters really care that much about signing our own trade deals with America, as Liam Fox claimed? Did those concerned about parliamentary sovereignty vote for Acts of parliament which handed ministers huge new powers? Did they vote to leave the single market and customs union?

The polls suggest not and so did the election result, where May called for a mandate for her plan and was denied it. But now she carries on regardless, as if it did not happen. She pushes forward legislation to allow her minority government to ignore the public vote. She puts forward motions to change the constitutional structure of the UK so that the election result cannot get in the way of her legislative programme.

This is the truth about the 'will of the people' and those who claim to represent it. It does not exist and they do not really care about it. It is political body armour, intended to silence their critics and enhance their own strength. It is the language of tyrants the world over and now it is embedding in British political debate. And it works. Even yesterday.

They use the language of democracy to dismantle democracy. That is the stark reality of Brexit.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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