Parliament v. Government v. the People
Friday 22nd March 2019: As the UK’s government and House of Commons battle it out for different versions of Brexit, Jonathan Clark* reflects on the principle behind the Speaker’s ruling, the behaviour of the government and that of a majority of MPs, and where the buck stops now.
The Speaker has been much criticised for his ruling that a motion substantively the same as one that has been voted on already cannot be voted on again in the same session.
Aside from his own tactical preferences, the principle involved is perfectly valid. The first instance of such a ruling may be as long ago as 1604, but it is as alive today as it has been in all subsequent decades. It embodies the valid principle that the legislature may not be coerced by an overbearing executive that demands obedience and uses its many means of coercion to secure the result it wants. A judge will not demand that a jury vote again, and again, until it delivers the verdict the judge requires; and the same principle should shield the electorate from a legislature demanding repeated referenda until the electorate gives the result that the legislature seeks.
The executive, then, has taken an outrageous step. So has the House of Commons, for the majority of Remainer MPs in the current House are manifestly out of line with the verdict of the electorate. The present impasse reminds us that no institution of government is necessarily right; but the buck has to stop somewhere, and in current constitutional practice it stops neither with the person of the monarch; with the Prime Minister; with Parliament collectively; or with the House of Commons alone. It stops with ‘the People’, hitherto a vague and rhetorical expression but now given massive embodiment by the rising institution of the referendum.
For Jonathan Clark’s analysis of where sovereignty resides link.
*Jonathan Clark is a historian of Britain, Europe and America. He has been a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and Peterhouse, Cambridge and has held the Joyce C. and Elizabeth Hall Distinguished Professorship of British History at the University of Kansas. His publications include A World by Itself: A History of the British Isles, (ed. and contrib.) 2011. He is a co-author of Politeia’s History in the Making: The New Curriculum: Right or Wrong? with David Abulafia and Robert Tombs, and of Triggering Article 50, Courts, Government and Parliament.