I am sure – for reasons set out below – that you will not mind my writing to you again about the following:
(1) The EU referendum of 23 June 2016 was advisory, non-binding, non-mandating, and explicitly so: Briefing Note 07212 issued to you on 3 June 2016, and which you very carefully read in preparation for debating the Referendum Bill, made this crystal clear (§5). It also explicitly pointed out (§6) that if there were to be any suggestion otherwise, that a supermajority would be required because of the major degree of constitutional change, and deprivation of citizens’ rights, that would be involved in a decision to leave the EU.
(2) The vote on the day represented 37% of the total electorate enfranchised for the poll – an electorate that excluded 16-17 year olds, a large class of expatriates, and those of our fellow EU citizens who live in the UK and pay their taxes here (‘no taxation without representation’: you allowed EU citizens to vote in the Scottish referendum of 2014 – and 16-17 year olds, and expatriates). There is no polity in the world outside North Korea and a handful of other places where major constitutional change, and removal of rights from citizens, could be countenanced on the choice of 37% of the total electorate. Instead the norm is 66% – see the US constitutional provision on this, and your own Parliamentary requirement for a 66% threshold to trigger a General Election out of term. Even our own Trades Union legislation requires a higher threshold than 37% to trigger a strike.
(3) Parliament is sovereign. The refusal of the government to allow a full debate, with an unwhipped vote, on whether to take the ‘advice’ of the advisory referendum, is unconscionable. This is the most significant, dangerous and consequential matter facing the country since the Second World War; even though it is a wholly unnecessary self-inflicted crisis, it is a crisis of historic proportions. As an MP your being sidelined is a grave matter, and a subversion of our democracy. Allow me to remind you what it says in the House of Commons Commission Report, Annex 6, 2001: ‘MP’s Generic Job Description’: it is an MP’s job to ‘Represent, defend and promote national interests,’ ‘challenge the Executive in order to influence and where possible change government action in ways which are considered desirable,’ and ‘to hold the Executive to account.’ The Government is seeking to prevent you from doing your job at this time of crisis.
The reason why I am sure you will not mind my writing to you again on this matter is as follows. As an MP, political debate and activity is your full-time occupation. We taxpayers pay your salary so that you can do this on our behalf. Those of us with busy non-political lives depend upon your carrying out fully the sober and rational task of representation with which you are charged. We know what the outcome should be of a free Parliamentary debate and vote. The majority of MPs and members of the House of Lords are of the considered and informed opinion that continued EU membership is in the best interests of the UK. In light of the foregoing considerations, the fact that the Government is bypassing the known sentiment of Parliament, and refusing to allow it to reiterate that sentiment formally on the floor of both Houses, is a very serious matter.
You know what Edmund Burke said to the electors of Bristol on 3 November 1774: that it is an MP’s duty ‘not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living…his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience…Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment.’ This, Burke says, an MP ‘betrays’ – his word – if they allow any consideration other than the best interests of the country and its people to sway them from doing what their mature judgment and enlightened conscience tells them is right.
‘Brexit’ is a disastrous folly. Most MPs know this. It has not yet even be triggered and is doing grave damage to the country and its economy. You are by now aware that a majority of the country does not want it, including many of those who were misled into voting for it by an unscrupulous Leave campaign. I earnestly ask you to act accordingly.
Professor A C Grayling
Master, New College of the Humanities