Following the decision of the High court that article 50 cannot be triggered without an act of parliament, the media was predictably filled with vitriolic headlines and hyperbolic commentary.
The right-wing press fell over themselves to denounce the court as “enemies of the people”, subverting the will of people.
This reaction is wrong and incendiary for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the high court was tasked with making a legal decision. A ruling on a point of law – nothing more, nothing less. Politics is not permitted to be factor.
Contrary to tabloid opinion a free and independent judiciary is one of the pillars of a functioning democracy. And unlike the USA the UK’s judiciary is free from the partisan processes of political appointments.
Since 2006 all posts have been selected by an independent commission. In a time of increased political, social and economic uncertainty the role of the judiciary must be beyond reproach. It is in everyone’s interests. Once you lament a judicial decision which goes against you you cannot, in all good faith, praise one that goes in your favour.
One assumes if the Supreme Court overrules the High Court decision it will be hailed as the people’s saviour. This media-led hypocrisy only serves to weaken the legal system itself. And there is little doubt we will need it as robust as possible in the years to come. This is only the beginning.
Secondly, the court is simply empowering parliament under the inviolable constitutional principle of parliamentary sovereignty, the very principle on which many of the leave arguments were predicated. This is a decision by an English court, addressing the power of the UK parliament over matters which affect UK citizens. It is exactly what those who wanted to “take power back” argued for. As much as Remainers must come to terms with their loss, leave voters must come to terms with the impact of their victory.
Finally one must separate the possibilities of what could happen from the probability of such scenarios. The ruling allows parliament, in theory, to block article 50. However, despite most MPs being in favour of remaining in the EU it would be near fatalistic to their careers to vote against the article if their constituents voted to leave. Obviously the biggest block will be the SNP (although Corbyn, despite his belief in the voice of the people, has threatened Labour may also vote against triggering article 50.) But the Tories have a majority, if only slim.
Unless of course May calls a snap election but at the moment that doesn’t bear thinking about and to do it before 2020 she needs two thirds of the House of Commons to agree with her. What it could do is give a meaningful debate on what the UK wants from the referendum and where we want to go as a country.
It doesn’t mean we will get it of course. It seems unlikely Merkel will be swayed by the leanings of Twickenham, but if it results in a coherent debate that cannot be a bad thing. In fact that’s democracy.