The Lib Dem case for voting against Article 50

November 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

This is an issue I’ve wrestled with a bit recently. The individual steps on the Brexit process will all be difficult for us to work through, and I think it’s important to respect the result of the referendum and the desire for change. I’ve nonetheless come to the conclusion that my party should vote against Theresa May’s article 50 motion when it comes to the House of Commons, and believe that’s the democratically right and reasonable course of action to take.

The first and most important point is that the vote will be on allowing Theresa May to invoke article 50. Read that again and let it sink in. The vote will be on will be on allowing Theresa May to invoke article 50. In other words, this parliamentary vote is not as simple as automatically triggering the results of the referendum. Voting for the A50 bill, or abstaining to permit it to pass, will be a passive endorsement of Theresa May’s government as capable and ready to start these negotiations on behalf of the people of Britain. That’s clearly something that Liberal Democrats should actively oppose. If you’ve been told to go out to the shops to pick up something to eat, it doesn’t follow that you’re obliged to get a pizza. The fact is that May’s stance on Brexit is not the only possible stance, and indeed is about the most illiberal and uncompromising Brexiteer viewpoint possible. In such circumstances, endorsing her as our Brexit leader would be a strange and alien action for a liberal party that believes in internationalism and liberty.

But doesn’t this potentially override the democratic referendum? Well… no, it doesn’t. We only had the referendum in the first place because there’s a Tory majority in the House of Commons. Endorsing the Tory Prime Minister to act upon its results is the job of her MPs, not of the opposition. If she can’t get a majority in the house then she should put forward a vote for an election to receive a specific mandate for her post-Brexit vision (indeed she should arguably do this anyway, given that vision seems to be significantly in breach of the Conservative 2015 manifesto that committed them to supporting Britain’s membership of the single market). This is in any case a hypothetical argument, given we know that the A50 bill will pass thanks to the Tory majority and support from the UUP, DUP, and probably Labour. The job of a credible, sensible opposition is holding the government to account, and the specific UKIP-style Brexit of Theresa May’s government needs to be held to account very badly indeed. In such circumstances, it is vital for the Lib Dems to remind the country that May is seeking a specific, hard-right wing form of Brexit, and it would be irresponsible not to oppose it and remind the country that the loss of, for example, single market access is a choice made by this government not just an automatic impact of the referendum vote.

The Lib Dems could certainly set out reasonable guidelines for assurances that would, if given, allow Theresa May to win their support for her triggering Article 50. The retention of full single market membership as the primary and overriding aim of negotiations should be foremost among these, along with the retention of British participation in all EU-wide science and education schemes and continued free movement to allow British workers to take advantage of opportunities across the continent. She will of course not give these assurances thanks to her anti-immigration zealotry, but they are in no way incompatible with Brexit (see also Norway and Switzerland, both of which are very noticeably not EU members). Once again, pointing out that this is her choice (and that of her supporters in Labour and other parties) will be important in the ongoing arguments on this issue.

Brexiteers themselves should be happy to see the Liberal Democrats providing a functional opposition to their proposals. The wholly sovereign parliament they so cherish is only weakened if the executive arm of government is allowed to use a tight referendum result to bludgeon the legislature into submission. Not only that, but it is vital for both sides that Europhile, pro-trade, and pro-migration voices are still heard in this debate, to prevent further disaffection and division in the country as the 48% of voters who chose Remain face increasing exclusion and alienation from the political process. If the Brexit camp are as confident and optimistic as they wish to project about Britain’s future, they must surely as part of that welcome discussion and debate over our direction of travel.

So with that, I urge our Liberal Democrat MPs to do the right thing and not give Theresa May the unanimous validation she craves for her agenda. It would be both undemocratic and a travesty if almost half the country went without being spoken for on this matter, and would give a significant boost to the hard right-wing of the Tories who are eager for parliament to shrink back and let the executive rule without distractions like democracy getting in the way. The liberal and the democratic choice is to be the voice for those who would otherwise go unspoken for, to speak truth to power, and to hold the government to account. On all those counts the case is clear; the Liberal Democrats should vote against Theresa May’s future motion to invoke Article 50.

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