Parliament is moving towards preventing Britain from exiting the European Union. It is not there yet but in its lumbering, convoluted, step-by-step manner, that’s where it is heading.

Parliament carries the charge and responsibility of protecting the British people’s interests and well-being. It is not going to sit by and allow the country to cut its legs off. Critics of Parliament, such as myself, are often in despair of its ineffectiveness, but the historical experience is nevertheless that in the big questions, in the end, Parliament comes through.

Since the referendum, there have been huge shifts in Parliament in how to deal with the outcome. We started with the government’s determination to implement hard Brexit with minimal involvement by Parliament. Hard Brexit is now off the agenda and Parliament has asserted itself and continues to do so. It is denying the government any unambiguous mandate for how to negotiate in Brussels.

Parliament has enforced the acceptance that there must be a transition after the completion of negotiations in which Britain remains a member of the Union for some as yet not determined period. The view is strengthening that Britain must remain in the single market, which is code language for continued membership. The Norwegian solution of being part of the single market without membership of the Union – accepting the rules with no say in the making of rules – is impossible for a big country. The Labour Party has moved to the single market position, for (as they say so far) an indefinite period.

After the failed general election, there is a confusion of ambivalence in Parliament which perfectly reflects the confusion of ambivalence in the population. There are criss-crossing views in Parliament on Britain and Europe, with constellations in constant movement. In neither of the big parties are the leaderships representative of their respective parliamentary parties. Everything is in flux. Nothing is settled. Members of Parliament collude in corners and corridors day in and day out. The huge shifts we have seen so far are in continues motion.

More is known about the consequences. The argument that Brexit would be simple has been disproved. The argument that is would save money has been disproved. The argument that it would be economically costly has been proved: the British economy is now worth 10% less to the world.

The risks have been clarified. Trade and investments will suffer. The union will break up: Brexit will give the Scottish nationalists the arguments they need to carry the day. These risks may or may not sway public opinion but in Parliament they matter.

Can Parliament overrule the majority in the referendum? It is no simple matter for it to so do and it will, to put it carefully, be problematic. But, referendum or not, Parliament carries the final responsibility.

Parliament has the formal right to overrule the referendum. Constitutionally speaking, the referendum was advisory. In the British constitutional tradition, Parliament is sovereign and that sovereignty was maintained in Parliament’s remit for the referendum.

It also has the moral right. It has obeyed the referendum and started the process. That has moved us on. The facts have changed. Matters have been clarified. We know more. Parliament has a duty to deal with the world as it is and is not bound to dealing with it as it was.

The emotive language following the referendum is “the will of the people.” But there is no single “will of the people.” The population is divided, even in the referendum pretty equally. It is for Parliament to work itself through divisions in the population towards a reasoned position in which it pays heed not only to the (small) majority and the (large) minority in the referendum but also to the interests that were not reflected in the referendum, notably of the young who (regrettably) did not vote in the numbers they should have.


  1. Unfortunately Brexit may still happen in some form if we rely on Parliament – and not just because of the unpredictable nature of parliamentary opinion on this most cross-cutting of issues, which Prof Ringen acknowledges. There may well be a failure of nerve when it comes to finally denying the verdict of the referendum, whatever the logic of the matter, because it is all too obvious that such a move would itself throw Parliament into even greater popular disrepute than at present. It might not be the case that there would be an uprising, but there would certainly be much anger, deeper social divisions, and political turmoil. Those of us who think that leaving the EU is madness might comfortably assume that people would be secretly relieved not to have to face the consequences of their flawed 2016 decision, but this cannot be taken for granted.

    It is for this reason that I believe only a second referendum can negate the legitimacy of the first. It would be difficult to deny that there are very good reasons for another vote given that the ‘facts have changed’, as Keynes put it, and that time will have done its work, eg in awakening the anger of the young at what lies before them if we exit the EU. Of course Farage and the tabloids will still create an awful din, but here Parliament can play its role by deciding that a second referendum, is necessary ‘in the national interest’ – which it surely is. Labour under Corbyn has shown more tactical nous than I gave them credit for, in slowly and barely perceptibly inching their way towards acceptance of the need for another popular vote, while still holding their baseline vote together. For all the talk of a soft Brexit, and a transition period, they and other conflicted groups certainly will have to recognise that the basic bind remains: if you want to be in the Single Market then you have to accept the four freedoms, meaning that a soft Brexit would simply absent the UK from any decision-making on how the four develop and are to be interpreted in the future.

    The only piece of the jigsaw which would then still need to be put in place, and it is indeed an imponderable one, is a little movement on the part of the other 27 on migration and benefits, so as to provide an argument in the second referendum campaign to the effect that continued membership would not be as worrying to Leave voters as the deal obtained by David Cameron. Let us hope that the 27 are shrewd enough, and still well-disposed enough, to provide the UK Remain lobby with this bone.


    1. Yes, it is possible that a second referendum will be the mechanism for Parliament to get itself out of its bind. But it is not necessarily the only way, and is high risk. Parliament could itself override the referendum. That would create some turmoil, to put it mildly, but not necessarily disrepute for Parliament.
      We live in interesting times.


  2. It’s no longer up to Parliament alone, nor to the British people alone to ‘reverse Brexit’. On 29 March 2017 Theresa May handed in a notice to the EU under Article 50 (after being forced to obtain parliamentary authorisation for the step, which was given). That act began the ticking of a 2-year clock. When the two years are up we will be out of the EU. The EU treaties make no provision for withdrawing any notice under Article 50. Perhaps in principle a unanimous decision among all EU members could in theory change that –, but such a development seems most unlikely, the parties to the negotiations can hardly agree anything now anyway.

    There is a most baffling aspect of this whole process. The UK government and senior civil-service people (not to mention some parts of the UK press) seem to be unable or unwilling to become aware that some things are no longer within the powers of anybody in the UK to decide alone: that is, without the agreement of the other side in the negotiations, in this case the other EU members and/or the central EU institutions.

    Also, it’s all very well for some lawyer or civil servant who helped with drafting Article 50 to say what he thinks it means, and that an Article 50 notice is not irrevocable. No matter what his preparatory role was, once the wording is part of a treaty as this now is, it’s up to the legal mechanism and courts defined in the treaty to interpret the meaning and to say if an Article 50 notice can be withdrawn or not, it’s not up to any individual who may have helped put some of the wording together.

    It can’t be a real surprise that after formal notice the UK is longer in sole control. When anybody gives formal notice to end any kind of serious relationship (examples employment, marriage, whatever) and even starts legal proceedings about it, it is generally not up to them alone just to say ‘Oh well I take that back’. The other people involved have a voice too: for example, they have been given notice to start preparing rearrangements, maybe at some cost, they have a right to expect not to be mucked around. Any change in the status of the notice to quit needs agreement. Why don’t we collectively ‘get’ that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But yes, the Article 50 notice can be withdrawn and that is what must happen if there is going to be no Brexit. That’s up to Parliament. It is true that there are no provisions written into treaty for withdrawing an Article 50 notice, but nor that it cannot be withdrawn. The British drafter of the treaty is not in doubt that a notice can be withdrawn. There is no doubt that EU countries would accept it if Britain withdrew the notice. So it’s in Parliamwnt’s hands.


  3. I sincerely believe that a large part of the unhappiness felt by many more-or-less-ordinary working people in Britain, which led to their vote to leave the EU, is due to the gradual impoverishment of the said group, relative to those on higher salaries and working in the finance industry or in trading. The working people are now relatively poorer than in the early 1970s, (when I began full time work) as a quick look at average wages versus average house prices will demonstrate. The proponents of the ‘market economy’, on both sides of the political spectrum, have had a field day and the workers have lost out. To people feeling such unhappiness, those who promise a solution have very seductive voices, even if what they are saying is not true. The real solution is to be found much closer to home, with a revolution in the attitude of the governing ‘class’, from ruling for the benefit of themselves and their friend to ruling for the benefit, as much as possible, of all.


  4. If you are so sure Brexit will not happen, why not make some money out of it by placing a bet on it not happening? Just one problem, the bookmakers are not giving odds on it in much same way they will not give odds on the sun not coming up tomorrow!!!!
    Do you think they know something the rest of us don’t know?


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