Bill Shorten has promised a plebiscite on the “Australian Republic” in his first term, a pledge that fills this lapsed republican with anxious dismay — lapsed because the debate about the Australian Head of State has been so corrupted that, were a republic to come about, it would be a divisive moment, not a uniting one. With the current head of the Australian Republican Movement a grandstanding social justice warrior and all-round goose on constitutional matters, the only way to avoid the upwelling of poisonous social-media vituperation and the brandishing of identity politics is to spurn the debate altogether.
What prompts this thought about our own situation is the current impasse in Britain with regard to implementing the will of the people as expressed in the Brexiteers’ victory at the ballot box. I wonder, does the Monarch have a role to play? Parliament exists to give effect to the will of the people, whose interests the Queen was crowned with the responsibility to defend. If the Commons acts against the express and unequivocally stated desire of her subjects then it undermines one of Britain’s and, indeed, all the Western democracies’ fundamental tenets: representative government.
Hal G P Colebatch: How a Republic would abolish the states
Let’s first examine if the British Parliament is acting against the will of the people. In 2016, after the largest voter turnout in UK history, the decision was made to leave the EU. There were no if or buts, no caveats. The referendum question was simplicity itself:
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
Implicit in this wording was the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, which even Remainers acknowledged as they peddled the first editions of the horror scenarios now being bandied with a renewed and desperate vigour — starvation, penury, Britain reduced to a cultural and economic leprosarium. Theirs was a vehement scare campaign in which many prominent people, among them the Governor of the Bank of England, declared that Brexit would be nother less than a catastrophe. These same Brexit foes, many of them MPs, then worked assiduously to make it so. It is now distinct possibility that a second referendum, branded with breathtaking chutzpah a ‘People’s Vote’, might eventuate. When the people vote the wrong way their masters will keep on making them vote until a correct and palatable result emerges.
There is no question the Brexit vote was a valid and legal decision of the British people. It came about because of an Act of Parliament, and the Parliament is bound to honour it. Even if a parliamentarian believes Brexit is the wrong decision and not in the best interests of Britain, it is the will of the people that must prevail. A Commons that operates to frustrate this will, including blocking a no-deal exit, is acting unconstitutionally.
The no-deal option is and has always been the default option. Those clamouring for a fresh referendum claim citizenry was not properly informed about the problems and consequences of leaving the EU. But that is simply false, as voters were well aware of the potential problems. David Cameron clearly demonstrated the intransigence of the EU when he was unable to secure a better deal for Britain to remain in. Why would anyone have thought prior to the referendum that the EU would soften its hardline position to accommodate a country doing that which Brussells adamantly opposed? There might be a case for a second referendum on the basis that Parliament cannot decide between Theresa May’s deal or no deal. If so, there is no place for a Remain option on that ballot paper.
That’s where the Queen comes in. It’s worth looking at her powers and responsibilities. The following is an extract from the website of the British Monarchist Foundation (emphasis added):
In times of Crisis, as with a hung Parliament, the lack of an automatic choice of Prime Minister or an unjustifiable and unnecessary request for a dissolution of Parliament, the Monarchy provides an impartial and non-political arbitrator, like an umpire called in when the players cannot agree. It would also be able to intervene if the government acted un-constitutionally by, say putting the opposition in jail, abolishing elections, or instructing the police not to prosecute members of the government for criminal offences. The Monarch can also dissolve Parliament, and appoint a Prime Minister to their liking, which has been done throughout Her Majesty’s reign. This duty falls upon the Monarch not only in England, but in the Commonwealth countries that retain the British Sovereign as their Monarch and Head of State.
The obligation to act should the result of a properly constituted referendum be ignored might well fall under the duties in the highlighted sentence above.
But what could the Queen do? At the moment there is little she can do — but were a second referendum to eventauate with Remain once again an option, well that could change. Such a development would be an express act of the Parliament intended to overturn the will of the people. Keep in mind that the referendum was initiated by a prime minister who very much wanted Britain to remain in the EU. If the wording of the referendum’s simple and only question does not now suit Remainers, they should place the blame at the feet of David Cameron, one of their own. A second referendum would only be justified if some impermeable obstacle blocks the implementation of the original decision. Prime Minister May has said no deal is better than a bad deal. Now she describes her own deal as merely ‘not perfect’. That sounds to me very much like pollie speak for ‘bad’.
It is also worth noting that Her Majesty put her imprimatur on the 2016 referendum when she gave Royal Assent to the Bill authorising it. So, in one sense, she owns the original decision. One thing she could do is delay giving assent to the bill for a second referendum, thereby effectively vetoing it. This, one of the Monarch’s reserve powers, has been customarily constrained for use only in near-revolutionary situations — a power that, so far as I am aware, has never been invoked.
Is this then a near-revolutionary situation? Not yet, but who can tell what might develop? Certainly there is a revolution against globalism of which the Brexit result is a part, but whether Britons would don yellow vests in the event of the popular will being thwarted is moot. Probably the Queen would feel an intervention so robust is a step too bold to contemplate. What is certain is that the 17.5 million-odd Britons who backed Brexit would be both disenfranchised and justifiably angry should a second referendum result in a Remain verdict, as it might well do.
None of us can know how the Queen feels about all this, let alone if she has the resolve to intervene. She may think her intervention will weaken the Monarchy. If that is so then one can only come to the conclusion that the role of the Monarch in protecting our cherished institutions is somewhat overstated. That protection isn’t needed when things are proceeding normally, albeit chaotically. We need it when, constitutionally, things go off the rails, as they are now doing in the UK.
As I understand it, the main reason most Leave voters backed Brexit was to restore Britain’s sovereignty unto itself. One would think that sentiment might strike a chord at the Palace.