QED

The Royal Pain of Brexit

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):

Constitutional Arbitration

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.

17 comments
  • Alistair

    I believe it is important to draw a distinction between the “yellow vesters” in France and the Brexiters in Britain. The Yellow vesters are essentially after lower taxes and more services – just like the standard French mob. No change there. French business as usual. But Brexiters voted against remaining in Europe even when the Remainers were speaking loud and long about just what the economic cost might be. Brexiters clearly voted to take that economic hit in the name liberty and sovereignty and gave the Government a clear mandate to proceed. It cannot be argued that the public did not understand what they were voting for, – the case against Brexit was clearly put over and over, and therefore there can be no argument about some wrongly skewed result.

  • Peter OBrien

    As I have argued in my article.

  • Peter OBrien

    Since I penned this article, events have moved on. There is now less talk about the second referendum and a general feeling that a No-deal Brexit is more likely than it was a couple of weeks ago. As I understand it, Theresa May now has majority support within the Parliament for her deal as long as the Irish backstop can be removed. However, the EU is still playing hardball and refusing to renegotiate the deal. On the face of it that would suggest that come March 29th, No-deal Brexit will come into force. I believe that under Article 50, Britain will leave with or without a deal on that date. The only way this will not happen is if the UK and EU agree on extending the timeframe of Article 50 to allow for further negotiations. Why would the EU agree to an extension? They have already repeatedly and stridently said there will be no further negotiations. But they might agree to an extension to give Remainer forces the time to engineer a second referendum. Should that come about, HM would have a role to play. What she could do is to refuse assent to any bill that proposed a referendum with a ‘remain’ option. If May is still PM by then and is true to her word, then she would advise HM accordingly so no opprobrium could attach to the Monarch who would have ‘acted on the advice of her Ministers’. But that would not be a circuit breaker. The impasse would continue. In the event there is a new PM, eg Jeremy Corbyn, who recommends assent to a bill proposing a referendum that includes a ‘remain’ option, the Queen would not have the reserve power to act against this advice. She would have to give assent. But there is something she could do. If the Queen does feel strongly that a second referendum, which includes Remain as an option, is a subversion of democracy, she could allow it to go ahead but make it public that she supports the original decision even if it means no-deal. I’ve no doubt that she could also prevail upon Princes Charles, William and Harry to do the same. That would go a long way to ensuring the success, from a Brexiteer’s perspective, of the second referendum. It would be controversial because traditionally HM does not speak publicly on political issues. Arguably, though, this would not be a political matter but a constitutional one.

  • Doubting Thomas

    I cannot see a problem that needs to be resolved by the Queen.
    Thus far at least, Parliament is still working, Theresa May still has the confidence of the House, and life goes on. As I understand it, the Monarch has the right to be informed, and the right to advise. I’ve never heard of any right to overthrow a sitting PM who has the confidence of the House. Wasn’t this precisely the principle on which the Labor Party went to war after Kerr dismissed Whitlam? That is, as went the ALP’s argument, Kerr had exercised a “power” that not even the Queen possessed, even in relation to the UK.
    The Queen, and everyone else, would be well-advised not to be rushed into some sort of panic-stricken reaction. She’ll be damned if she does act far worse than if she doesn’t. The strength of our constitutional monarchy is that the Monarch cannot be forced, or coerced, to act politically.
    The UK’s membership of the EU (as opposed to the Common Market) was always going to end badly. But the Queen had no part in the decision to join, and she ought to have no part in any decision to leave.
    Everyone should just relax.

  • Peter OBrien

    Doubting Thomas, it seems you may not have thoroughly read nor understood either my article or my comments. Nowhere did I suggest the Queen should overthrow the PM. And the Queen does have powers, her reserve powers, over and above her rights to be be informed and to advise. Sir John Kerr had the power to dismiss Whitlam and he used that power correctly because Whitlam was proposing to act unconstitutionally by spending money not appropriated by Parliament. The monarchy has a place in our governance that that is more than ceremonial. The strength of the Westminster system has been that those powers have been exercised sparingly but that does not mean they should never be used – witness Whitlam, whom even is own successors admit overreached himself. To take up your point “the Queen had no part in the decision to join and she ought to have no part in any decision to leave’, I quite agree with you. The decision to leave was taken without any involvement of the Queen. But now that decision could be overturned by the denizens of the Deep State masquerading as MPs. If I were one of the 17.5 million who voted to leave I would not be relaxed.

  • ianl

    > ” … it is the will of the people that must prevail”

    The argument goes, I think, that the elected MP’s are there to “represent” their constituents, as similarly are the Aus MP’s. If said elected representatives vote in the parliament against the clear result of an advisory plebiscite, they will face their constituents at the next election – or as in the case of Oakeshott and Windsor (Aus), quit and refuse to stand again to avoid being voted out. This is unlike an Aus referendum, where if the requirement of a majority in a majority of States is met, the referendum result is empowered into the Constitution with no wriggle room for the Parliament.
    My best guess for Brexit is a second vote, with the possibility of a NO DEAL exit explicitly excluded. No one has yet been clear on why that is considered disastrous for representative democracy, when it is already clear that Parliaments can never be trusted.

  • Peter OBrien

    Brexit was not a plebiscite but a referendum that the then PM, David Cameron, pledged to honour.

  • Peter OBrien

    Ianl, you are right that generally referenda in the UK are not binding. I would argue this one was different because of Cameron’s commitment.

  • Doubting Thomas

    I know Cameron pledged to honour the “referendum”, but he is no longer Prime Minister, and his promise was no more binding on him or his successor than any other politician’s promise. The Parliament’s decision is all that counts, not Cameron’s or May’s.
    Personally, I am emphatically pro-Brexit, and convinced it should go ahead deal or no deal and let the chips fall where they may (no pun intended). I have nothing but contempt for those who voted to remain. They were perfectly content to sacrifice their national sovereignty for their own personal interests. The EU provides the elites with opportunities that ordinary working class citizens cannot take advantage of while allowing foreign workers virtually unrestricted access to British jobs. But, worst of all, it subordinates British Parliament to laws effectively made by an unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels, with mere rubber-stamping by 4th class reject politicians that make up the so-called European Parliament.
    The idea that Britain should have joined any such political relationship with nations like Germany and France – Britain’s natural and cultural enemies for centuries – was always insane.
    However, I still do not believe that the Queen should intervene even if she has the constitutional power (about which I’m still not convinced). Right at the moment, it’s the politicians and the elite remainers bearing the brunt of public odium. The moment the Queen intervenes, that odium will be transferred to her, regardless of the outcome.
    As I’ve argued many times before, an important, if not the main, advantage of a constitutional monarchy is that the Monarch is above politics and, thus, can command the loyalty of all but a tiny minority of radical republicans. As is currently being demonstrated for all to see, the American model of an elected President in a republic, which a majority of Australians prefer of the available options, is showing all the worst of the potential disadvantages of a republic. At least 50% of the population is almost guaranteed to despise any given elected President, and will take all available steps to thwart the political programmes they were elected to pusue, and to bring their administration down by fair means or foul.
    I cannot see the Queen placing the Monarchy at risk by intervening in an essentially political problem best sorted by politicians.
    If politicians are actually seen by the British public to betray their wishes as stated in the referendum, their punishment will be swift and sure at any forthcoming election.

  • Peter OBrien

    Doubting Thomas,
    the American system is inferior to the Westminster model because its ‘checks and balances’ necessary to keep politicians in check are achieved by dividing power between the executive, the legislature and, increasingly, the judiciary – all political players. The Westminster system has another entity, the Crown, which effectively acts a final arbitrator, an umpire. As you say it is above politics but, in order to be effective, it must have powers and, more importantly it must be prepared to use them in extreme circumstances, as , I would argue we now see in Britain. Generally, the standing and reputation of the Monarchy is sufficient to keep politicians on the straight and narrow. But sometimes the monarch, or his/her representative, must be prepared to act. It is the shame of the world that Sir John Kerr has been, and continues to be, the subject of such opprobrium for correctly exercising his powers. The effect of this is to intimidate subsequent GGs. Conservatives should have pushed back in defence of Kerr. Fraser, who benefited from Kerr’s actions, should have been first among his defenders but cravenly refused to do so initially and then turned against Kerr as he, Fraser, tried to curry favour with the Left. Just to be clear, I am not advocating the Queen intervene at this time – only in the eventuality of a second referendum that includes Remain as an option. At that point, I think a line would have been crossed.

  • Peter OBrien

    Doubting Thomas,
    you are, of course, correct that one Parliament is not bound by the decisions of a previous one. That’s where the Monarch comes in.

  • Doubting Thomas

    It’s an interesting situation, isn’t it? Wracking my brain (or the little that’s left of it) I can’t recall a similar situation occurring where the Monarch has had to intervene. I agree with you about the shameful way that Kerr was treated, particularly by Fraser, but guttersnipe politics is the Left’s stock-in-trade. Fraser’s craven metooism was, then at least, not a common feature of conservative DNA. As his later behaviour clearly demonstrated, he was no Conservative.
    Anyone interested in American politics beyond the totally biassed, if not actually corrupt mainstream media will find Victor Davis Hanson’s analysis interesting. Far from the constitutional “checks and balances” envisaged by the Founding Fathers as limiting the powers of the separate arms of government, the system has been completely corrupted in recent years and it’s hard to see how the US can get back to anything like the originally intended system.
    The British seem to be heading in the same direction.

  • Doubting Thomas

    For VDH’s input, go here:

    http://victorhanson.com/

  • Peter OBrien

    I note today that HM government is planning to evacuate the Royals in the event of riots following a no-deal Brexit. Those riots would, of course, be conducted by left wing remainers. Are they also planning for possible riots should Brexit not go ahead on Mar 29 as promised? I’m guessing not.

  • padraic

    In following the above interesting discussion between Peter and Doubting Thomas it occurred to me that one salient point missing in the discussion is that in UK, without a formal written constitution, the roles of the various constitutional players are largely determined by convention. In Australia we have both the formal written justiciable constitution (as in America) plus the UK type conventions. For example it is written that the Queen appoints our Governor General but it is a convention that she is given a name by the Prime Minister. That procedure is not set out in the Constitution. It is a convention. Also there is no mention of a Prime Minister or his/her role in our Constitution. The powers of the Queen and the Governor General are clearly set out in the Australian Constitution. With regard to the Governor General some powers are qualified by “Governor-General in Council” which means he acts on the advice of Parliament whereas other powers are absolute and not so constrained, although the GG usually consults in such matters as a convention. I had not seen the UK “Constitutional Arbitration” document before and in many ways it reflects a lot of what is written in our Constitution (or vice versa). The point I am making is that the Queen must have reserve powers in UK otherwise why have the Monarchy at all and integrated into our systems of government. Our Constitution states (s61.) “The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.” Given that our Constitution was originally an Act of the British Parliament it is unlikely that the UK parliamentarians would have agreed to anything that did not reflect the division of powers between the Parliament and the Crown in UK. As I mentioned in a previous post, eighty years after the Glorious Revolution Blackstone spelt out in detail the King’s prerogative powers which were in effect part of the law, and neither outside it or above it and could be subject to decisions by the courts. Over subsequent centuries the Prerogative has changed so that in practice the vast prerogative powers outlined by Blackstone have long been exercised not by the will of the sovereign , but of responsible ministers of the Crown, who represent the will of the majority in the House of Commons. One of these prerogative powers identified by Blackstone was that the King “had the sole power …. of contracting treaties and alliances…” So while it has become a convention over the years for the Ministers to exercise this power on behalf of the Monarch it is still possible that the Queen could have a serious input to the Brexit discussion. There is more to the implementation of our Constitution than a simple reading of its contents and that goes for the UK as well.

  • Peter OBrien

    Padraic, thank you for your illuminating comment. One of the good things about writing for (and, indeed, reading) Quadrant Online is that it allows you to refine your thinking. Until recently, I assumed that a referendum was binding in the UK as it is here. It was a comment by ianl that reminded me not to assume anything. So I checked and I now know that in the UK a referendum is not legally binding. That somewhat weakens my overall argument about Royal intervention. It now rests on a moral, not legalistic, foundation. Doubting Thomas rightly pointed out that any Parliament is not bound by a decision of a previous Parliament. Which suggests that David Cameron was not only craven in resigning, but also derelict in his duty to remain in Parliament and oversee the delivery of his promise to the British people. But, getting back to Padraic, his point – that one of the prerogative powers identified by Blackstone was that the King “had the sole power …. of contracting treaties and alliances…” So while it has become a convention over the years for the Ministers to exercise this power on behalf of the Monarch it is still possible that the Queen could have a serious input to the Brexit discussion – is intriguing. I must give that more thought.

  • Jacob Jonker

    Well, since it was first mooted, I have followed Brexit with interest. What the Queen and the Royal who is first in the queue think about it one can guess, but as to what one guesses depends on one’s weltanschauung. Given that the Windsors from way back have been heavily involved in pan-European power struggles, albeit mostly from within the confines of the royal and aristocratic families in Europe, it is certain that Her Majesty has a definite view on the matter-She has, wisely, kept it under wraps. My view on Brexit is one which has become fairly solidified and defining in recent months. It is a momentous occasion in the history of the European peoples and European civilisation. Though bear in mind I’m not a scholar or historian academic, I am bold enough to assert that there has been nothing like it in the history of Europe. Brexit is a play, but on a scale and with an audacity that is bigger by several magnitudes than anything like it that has been attempted before.

    Brexit is the Constitutional crisis which the democracies in Western Europe should have had, but didn’t. The UK has a written Constitution and Common Law, different from the continental countries in Europe which are, in fact or nominally so, still parliamentary democracies. The play I’m referring to is the EU project, which, it will become apparent to all, in due course, is an attempt to overturn and bury the democratic tradition of Europe which began with some tribes bordering the eastern shore of the North Sea before the tribes there had any notion of the Greek City states’ way of government. The general franchise has not been around for long. It was too much for the transnational elite which found itself back in charge after WWII. They had a plan. Possibly hatched well before the Second World War.
    I have some experience of family live, as a child, and know first hand about organisations which are run by a committee, Commission or Board of Directors.
    You know, sometimes there is something afoot which can only be allowed out in drips and drabs. If people were to find out all at once, there would be utter chaos. I can see the pattern. Many in-the-know feign ignorance, even innocence, when the issue to be judiciously and at times surreptitiously, seeped into the people’s consciousness is being discussed. In this case, Brexiteers who have woken up are letting it be known. On the other side, the active and passive supporters of the EU federalisation project who realise what’s happening, they stay silent or only obliquely defend the pro-EU position of the moment. This play has been fifty years in the making, as far as the UK is concerned and about seventy years for the six founding members of the EEC.
    In the antipodes, few political observers can be expected to know the extent of the deception visited upon the electorates in Western Europe, except those who ought to, and do, know better. Strangely, John O’Sullivan, who introduced Quadrant readers to the ins and out of Brexit, is now seemingly elsewhere fully engaged.
    Having followed the debate in Britain, I noticed the British Constitution hardly gets a mention. The mainstream media seem to want it not discussed at all. The Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, Common Law, citizens rights even, … nary a word. Maybe, on the quiet, there has been much work done over the years by previous governments in cahoots with the EU Commissars, or rather, the EU has been in cahoots with British governments from way back, as it has with governments of the six EEC founding states. It’s a hijack, of course. Long planned and long in the execution. This Brexit referendum was meant to put the seal on the deal. They, the EU apparatchiks and their friends in the British Parliament, lost that referendum, but no matter, the EU has form, it easily deals with that kind of thing. This time, however, an elaborate piece of theatre had to be performed, and performed, and they are still at it. They dare not go for a second referendum. Not because it would make a mockery of parliamentary democracy. That has already been accomplished. No, they keep daily in touch with public opinion. They cannot chance losing the second Brexit referendum as well. That would be awkward. A general election is also out of the question. That would, as it stands now, necessitate a state of martial law on some, any, pretext. Best to wear the Brexiteers down some more, and any Remainers who still have residual ideas of democracy.

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