British Politician David Lammy: Why Parliament Must Have a Say on Brexit

Parliament
Dawn breaks over the Houses of Parliament, London, July 13. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Four months on from the European Union referendum the United Kingdom is more divided than at any other point in my lifetime, and these divisions are becoming wider, deeper and more entrenched. Even in the past week alone the Home Office published figures showing a 41 percent spike in hate crime following the EU referendum, and a Conservative Councillor launched a petition to make supporting U.K. membership of the European Union a treasonable offense.

The referendum exposed divisions in our society that had long been simmering below the surface. As well as the North-South divide and the generation gap, the country was split in any number of other ways, not least between the different nationalities that comprise the United Kingdom; between the affluent and the less well-off; between city-dwellers and those living in smaller towns or the countryside, and also between those who see themselves as traditional Anglo-Saxons and ethnic minorities.

Economic inequality has certainly played a part in creating these divisions, and many who are losing out under the current status quo — living on the margins of society and struggling to get by on low incomes — voted for “Leave” (58 percent of people with household incomes below £20,000 ($24,463) voted “Leave”). Economic concerns usually trump all else when it comes to informing voting behavior, and since I have been involved in politics “it’s the economy, stupid” has certainly been a truism.

Until now, that is, and the referendum result is proof that on this occasion cultural concerns, arguments for the repatriation of sovereignty and ill-defined feelings about national identity outweighed economic concerns. The result has been interpreted as highlighting a schism between a working-class in revolt against a metropolitan liberal elite they view out of touch with their concerns, but the truth is more complicated and middle-class Tories in the shires were just as likely to put notions of sovereignty and national identity above economic interests — 58 percent of those who backed the Conservative Party in 2015 voted to Leave in 2016.

Not only did Brexit lay bare our divisions, if we look around us we see it has also caused new divisions to spring up — constitutional and political divisions that threaten to completely predominate Whitehall and Westminster to the detriment of all the other issues that require urgent attention.

It is no surprise that new dividing lines are opening up on a daily basis given that each passing day brings a new definition of what the British people voted for on June 23, nobody in Whitehall seems to have any idea what to do next and most public statements from the three Brexiteers in charge of extricating us from the European Union are shortly followed by a slap down from Number 10.

Take the constitutional arguments around Brexit as just one example. Alongside the court case currently before the High Court arguing that the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers do not include the power to invoke Article 50 without the approval of Parliament, Parliament is itself split over the question of parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s Brexit strategy.

According to a poll conducted for Open Britain this week almost three quarters (73 percent) of the public want Parliament to have a say on Brexit, yet the right-wing press and Eurosceptic Conservative Members of Parliament accuse anyone who argues that Parliament must play its constitutionally proper role in holding the Government to account on its Brexit strategy of being an unpatriotic and undemocratic.

The Cabinet and the governing Conservative Party are tearing each other apart, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and the more liberal wing of backbenchers keen to ensure that the United Kingdom remains a member of the Single Market, in line with the manifesto commitment all Conservative candidates stood on at the 2015 General Election, while Eurosceptic ministers and backbenchers are set on a “hard” Brexit and have been briefing against Hammond for having the temerity to raise awkward questions about the economic cost of exiting the Single Market.

The problem with a divided Cabinet, a divided governing Party and a divided country is that as the size of this task reveals itself the business of Government will become entirely dominated by Brexit, not to mention question marks over the future of Scotland and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. As time goes on the disagreements that have surfaced in recent months will become embedded as the two warring factions in the Cabinet and the Conservative Party in Parliament react to every announcement through a lense of mutual distrust.

There will be no capacity or political will to tackle the housing crisis, address the looming crisis in our NHS or give proper attention to the infrastructure projects that could help to rebalance our economy and give a much-needed boost to the towns that feel left behind and ignored by central Government and registered their disgust by voting to Leave in June.

The Prime Minister has committed herself to healing the divisions in our society and uniting the country. Without a personal mandate this is an unenviable task, but the way forward is certainly not to give the hard-Brexiteers carte blanche to turn Brexit into whatever they want it to mean and to decide the manner of our exit from the European Union, the terms and conditions of this departure and our future relationship with our European neighbors without parliamentary scrutiny, oversight or approval. Doing so would only ensure that the bitter divisions we see today become permanent.

It is not unpatriotic to want to hold the Government to account, nor is it defeatist to stand up for our economic interests. I cannot see any way out of this bind other than for the Government to present its plan for Brexit to Parliament so that MPs, representing the best interests of their constituents and the nation at large, can scrutinize it, shape it and then approve or reject it.

David Lammy Labour MP for Tottenham is speaking on the After the referendum: Britain Divided panel at the Battle of Ideas on October 22-23.