Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Moving the goalposts


Reactions to the high court’s ruling that Brexit requires approval of parliament can only be understood in the context of the fundamental unseriousness of British politics. It’s all sport, and they won, so you can’t take away their victory.
But “their victory” involves taking away people’s rights, so there’s a parliamentary procedure. That’s how politics differs from sport. If you win the championship, as the cliché goes, they can never take that away from you. In politics every victory is immediately followed by a struggle over what the victory means.

The Daily Mail calls the judges “Enemies of the People” who “defied 17.4 million Brexit voters.” The Sun’s headline attacked the lead plaintiff for being foreign-born. The Daily Express said that three judges have “blocked Brexit”.

How odd, as many have pointed out, that the Brexit supporters suddenly object to parliamentary sovereignty.

There are countries where referenda settle matters, but the UK is not one of them. Or, at least, this particular referendum law was not one of them. As I have pointed out before, a real binding referendum includes legal provisions for enactment, which commonly involve some kind of supermajority, or regional diversity in the majority. This referendum law had quite a lot of text about allowing peers to vote, but nothing about what was supposed to happen in the event of one or the other outcome. So the reasonable inference is that the legal effect is nothing. The law said a referendum should be held. A referendum was held. That’s the end of it.

But but but. The voters were promised that brexit means brexit. A Leave vote means leaving the EU. Well, the voters were promised a lot of shit: Brexit would save the NHS (with £350 million a week); the EU weenies wouldn’t dare to give the UK anything less than full access to the common market, in return for nothing; and that the referendum would settle the matter. None of it was true. Unfortunately, the only one of these promises that the Tories actually want to fulfill involves statutory interpretation, where, the judges have pointed out, they do not have a free hand. Parliament is free to make a law they like better, but if they had had a majority for Leave they would never have held a referendum in the first place.

It’s not unheard of for politicians to try to leverage an ambiguous law into influence for their favoured policy. Now they are talking about new elections, as though the public that voted by a slim majority to leave the EU will now rise up as one to elect a Parliament that will give force to that opinion. How many people voted Remain, I wonder, but now feel strongly that it is democratically imperative that the Leave majority be fulfilled?

Better not to find out, say the brexit proponents. That’s why they want to move the goalposts.

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