Without this principle of democratic consent, Parliament is empowered to make fundamental changes to how Britain governs itself. Parliament overturned the practice of the past fifty years; it crossed a constitutional Rubicon. Unless this is checked, the real winner of the Referendum was Westminster itself. The surprisingly large vote for the Yes campaign was attributed by many as a rejection of the political establishment. Unwittingly, the referendum affirmed that Parliament now rules and not the people.
These are new powers that Parliament has assumed. It is dangerous for our democracy. Each political party and Parliament itself should revoke the power to make constitutional decisions without a popular mandate. Why? Because the alternative is chaos. There will be an inherent uncertainty in our political system. At any moment a new initiative may strike up within the government, catch a popular mood and become law. None of the tedious requirements of olden times for extensive debate and staring the electorate square in the face with bold and clear pledges for change.
This is not hyperbole. Before the 2015 general election Parliament passed draft legislation transferring extensive new powers to the Scottish Parliament in accordance with The Vow although none of the parties had a mandate to do so. At the same time, wild suggestions abounded to resolve the West Lothian question (why should Scottish MPs be allowed to vote on English-only matters?) that would, in effect, create an English Parliament – again, with no mandate to do so. These are important questions. Proposals should be made, debated and voted on as part of general election manifestos.
Whilst we may disagree with the process, many would agree with the UK Government and Parliament that it was right to enable Scotland to hold an independence referendum. But, thus emboldened, what is to deter Parliament from legislating on matters that may prove less popular? Should the appeal of the monarchy wane, Parliament could now feel it has the power to curb its remaining privileges or abolish the monarchy without seeking electoral consent. The Church of England may not be established for much longer. MPs may feel it is time for a new voting system, despite the earlier rejection of PR.
Will Wales have its own independence referendum? Parliament can now decide, not you.
How long before Scotland holds another independence referendum?
Cornwall has a proud heritage and there is a developing movement for devolution for Cornwall. Should Cornwall have a referendum on devolution?
All these are legitimate questions and issues. Parliament is entitled to legislate as it sees fit but only if it has first gained consent from the people on constitutional matters.
With the lid lifted off Pandora’s box, anything is up for grabs. Should the North West seek independence? What is to stop the author’s town, Warwick, from believing that it would be best served by breaking away from the UK and seeking independence?
We are fortunate indeed that Parliament made a decision that most of the country probably (we don’t know) agreed with. Perhaps Parliament felt it best not to trouble the electorate with so obvious a question. But we are not talking about the price of postage stamps. Barring a national emergency, the existence of the nation is not something that Parliament should assume to take upon itself. The voice of the people was silent. The political and media Bubble assumed consent.
Let us hope and pray they don’t assume again. With a deep breath, the most devastating potential impact is left for last.
A result ignored
Had the result of the referendum been Yes, the implications would have been profound beyond the inevitable complications of negotiating a divorce after 300 years of union.
The UK Government would have been absolutely required to respect the decision of the Scottish people and with a heavy heart embark upon the work of separation. This would have been the duty of the UK Government irrespective of who would have won the subsequent general election in 2015. A successor government, even of a different party, would have been bound to uphold the solemn commitments by the previous government in the Edinburgh Agreement and codified into law by Parliament. A successor government could have negotiated the terms of separation differently but not refuse to honour the result of the referendum without triggering civil war and the loss of the UK’s reputation around the world. But how would the electorates of Wales, Northern Ireland and England have been so bound?
Bypassed by their government and MPs, at no stage had voters in Northern Ireland, Wales and England cast one vote to affirm the prospect of independence for Scotland or reject it. Their government and Parliament acted alone, without the input and guidance of their electors. One should not assume the assent of the voters by their apathy or silence on an issue. They were not asked. They should have been asked. The risk taken by Parliament was this: if Scotland said Yes, what would happen if the voters in the rest of the UK, when eventually asked or when their sleeping patriotism for Great Britain was awakened, said No?
The voters of Scotland would have been beyond enraged. Even those who had voted No would have then joined with their former foes in the Yes camp – united in their conviction that whether Yes or No, they had every reason to expect their democratic voice to be obeyed. With justice, they would have cried that their democratic choice for independence must be respected; with justice, the voters in the rest of the UK would have demanded that their democratic right to provide their consent be restored. Where two irreconcilable ideas clash, conflict, hopefully peaceful, is inevitable. The consequences do not bear contemplation.