In the run-up to last week’s vote on membership of the European Union, British voters were told this was a once in a generation decision. “Remain” or “Leave,” there would be no turning back.
Well, maybe not.
The reason is not the online petition demanding a second referendum, signed by over four million people. Right now, that’s not in the cards.
What might save the British from themselves is their “unwritten” constitution.
Unlike America’s written document, the British constitution is the sum total of documents as old as 1215's Magna Carta, and all the laws and statutes passed by Parliament. In Britain’s long history, referendums are a relatively new phenomenon. The first such vote was held in 1973, and none have the force of law. Only an act of Parliament can do that.
That’s where things get tricky.
Parliament has “legislative supremacy.” Following each general election, a new Parliament comes into being. No Parliament can be bound by its predecessors, and none can bind its successors.
In its 2015 election manifesto, David Cameron’s Conservative Party committed itself to an “in-out referendum” on British membership of the EU and promised to honor that vote “whatever the outcome.” But this pledge is binding only until the next general election. This explains a remark made by Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party. Hours after their victory, Farage demanded creation of a “Brexit government” in the current Parliament. It would then implement Article 50 of the EU treaty that begins the two-year process to separate Britain from the common market.
Once this process starts, there really is no turning back.
If, on the other hand, implementing Article 50 is delayed and a snap general election held in the next few months, the winners might not bind themselves to carrying out a British exit, or “Brexit,” from the EU.
Recent news coverage has focused on the chaos that has enveloped the leadership of both the Conservative and Labour parties. Another split, though, is largely being ignored.
The “Leave” camp that won last week’s referendum was a coalition of forces and, especially, personalities. Along with Farage, the other face of the Brexit campaign was Boris Johnson, the leader of rebel Conservatives opposed to the EU. Johnson isn’t nearly as anxious to, in Farage’s words, form a government that “that gets on with the job.”
In fact, Johnson is playing for time. It’s clear that some in the Brexit camp, Johnson most of all, never expected to win the referendum. Instead of giving “Brexiters” their clean cut from the EU, Johnson now emphasizes renegotiating the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe, indeed of keeping it in the union. As he likes to say, “I am pro having my cake and pro eating it.”
Johnson’s aim all along was to use the Brexit campaign as a vehicle for taking the Tory Party leadership from Cameron. Now that he’s the odds on favorite to become the next Conservative leader, he’s like the dog that chases a car and, having caught it, doesn’t know what to do.
As their victory became apparent, Johnson and the Tory Brexiters called on Cameron to stay on as prime minister for the time being, in effect handing him the job of sorting through the wreckage of the referendum vote. Cameron, to their surprise, was unwilling to play along and announced that he will resign as soon as Conservatives pick a new leader at their annual conference in October. But with the EU’s other members insisting on a quick UK exit, they might not have that much time.
Meanwhile, the promises Brexiters made to voters — that they will maintain full access to the European market, that they will have full control over Britain’s immigration policies, and that money British taxpayers currently send to the EU will be spent on programs closer to home, notably the National Health Service — look increasingly hollow. Or, were outright lies.
That makes a snap election all the more likely. As one commentator on Britain’s ITN network put it, the Parliament elected in 2015 is now a “zombie Parliament.” With most of its members in favor of staying in the EU, these same MPs aren’t going to see that it’s their job to pass the legislation required to implement Brexit.
On the face of it, failing to carry out the wishes of British voters expressed in the referendum is undemocratic. But if a general election brings in a new government committed to reversing those results, it’s also hard to see how that would be any less valid than the referendum itself. Traditionally, general elections are the way the British have settled questions like this. As the crisis over Brexit worsens, it’s also the best way for British voters to save themselves from themselves.
Matthews is a professor of British history at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA