Former MEP John Stevens sets out what Conservatives who wish to stop Brexit believe.
The time has come for those of a Conservative disposition who believe that leaving the European Union should be stopped to state their case. Significantly this is primarily on the same ground as many Conservative Brexiteers: the preservation of the sovereignty of Parliament and of the United Kingdom.
A clear majority of Conservative Members of Parliament believe that Brexit is a mistake. The power of this belief is not meaningfully diminished by the fact that a minority of these only subscribe to it if Brexit, as seems probable, takes the form of the Chequers plan. However, it is overridden by the stronger belief, held by a slightly different clear majority, that to renege on the referendum result would dangerously damage our democracy.
Given that it seems the only legitimate way to reverse the 2016 referendum result is to hold another referendum, such a concern might be considered a contradiction. I say “it seems”, since we have no certain constitutional principle to guide us. Parliament is both author and interpreter of our unwritten constitution. And we are still far more a representative, than a plebiscitary democracy.
Indeed the advocates of the Chequers plan rely on this to justify not holding another referendum to grant it greater legitimacy. Some, in order to present the Chequers plan as merely a staging post towards a looser final deal with the EU, emphasize that no Parliament can bind its successor: the essence of parliamentary sovereignty. Others, however, hint darkly that another referendum would lead to “violence in the streets”: the deference of democratic process to disorder that would also be the negation of parliamentary sovereignty.
What must be beyond dispute is the extreme constitutional danger of a situation where a referendum result runs contrary to the convictions of Parliament. With Brexit, most MPs, from the Prime Minister down, are implementing, or tolerating, a policy in which they plainly do not believe. This risks not merely future good government. It damages our particular form of democracy more surely than holding another referendum to reverse, or confirm, the path upon which we are currently set.
Conservatism, which places fraternity before equality, and the individual before the collective, plainly has a far greater interest than the Left, especially the extreme Left, in the continued primacy of Parliament in our constitution. But it is proof of the profound paradoxes in our present predicament that this can now only be properly preserved by revisiting the popular mandate on our relations with the EU.
Amongst the many reasons, economic, geopolitical, cultural, why Conservative MPs regard Brexit as a mistake, the most authentically “Tory” is the risk it poses to the Union with Northern Ireland and Scotland. Amid all the convoluted controversy about the border and the future of the Anglo-Irish Agreement one thing is abundantly apparent: any form of leaving the EU is worse for Northern Ireland than remaining, and thus worse for the preservation of its present relations with the rest of the UK. The same, on a comparable basis, is true of Scotland.
Conservatives, who generally have a higher regard than our other political traditions for the exceptional stability and success of the British state over the past three hundred years, have consequently often found it more difficult to appreciate the strong Continental commitment to the EU, which stems from their less happy history. Yet Northern Ireland and Scotland demonstrate very well the key arguments for deep European co-operation: that it overcomes the pain of the past and offers the promise of power and prosperity for the future.
Few clashes of identity have lasted longer than that between Ireland and England. And no multi-national union has been more successful than that between Scotland and England. It is natural that the Irish, both nationalists and now increasingly unionists too, should value the mutual tolerance of identity that EU membership affords. Just as it is natural that Scots, both nationalists and above all unionists, should value the potential of a multi-national union in Europe and not just in Britain.
The EU is a community of nation states the founding principle of which is that both the moving (Alsace-Lorraine, Transylvania) and the creation (Catalonia, Lombardy) of frontiers within Europe belongs to the past. This principle underpinned the removal of the claim to the territory of Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic’s constitution in 1999. It renders Scottish independence as an EU member impossible if the UK itself remains in the EU: the central reason for the defeat of the independence referendum in 2014.
There are no more fundamental beliefs for a Conservative than the preservation of our representative democracy and of our nation-state. It is completely understandable why so many Conservatives have seen in these beliefs the reason for advocating that the UK leaves the EU. But a closer examination of the constitutional and political realities, to say nothing of economic and cultural considerations, should reveal that this course is actually playing into the hands of those who espouse a populist English nationalism about as far removed from our deepest partisan values and as hostile to our deepest national interest as it is possible to get.