Brexit blog: Strain at a gnat but swallow a camel
In her continuing series of Brexit blogs, Catherine Stihler MEP looks at the Supreme Court hearing into parliament having a say over the triggering of Article 50.
During last week’s Supreme Court hearing the phrase to “strain at a gnat but swallow a camel” was quoted. Taken from the Bible (Matthew 23, verse 24), Jesus warns the law makers of his time not to be hypocrites; whilst focusing on the minutiae they fail to recognise the bigger picture. In the context of Brexit it is truly extraordinary that the British Government could question the High Court´s decision to allow the British Parliament a say over the triggering of Article 50.
So what is the bigger picture? Simply put, for centuries people have fought and died for the right of Parliament over the monarch. Now we are no longer in the days of monarchs being beheaded because they wanted more power. The series of powers known as ‘prerogative powers’ are powers which used to be held by the monarch, but which are now in effect held by the executive or HM Government. Yet, for a government to exercise these powers, and to challenge a High Court decision on such an important matter as allowing Parliament a say, is extraordinary.
The Government wishes to trigger Article 50 and negotiate the UK’s secession from the European Union using this mechanism. In doing so they would bypass Parliament and the Government, not Parliament, would be in full control of the Brexit process from a UK perspective.
Those, such as Gina Miller, who brought this case, argued that key to our membership of the EU is the European Communities Act 1972. This Act paved the way for EU legislation to take effect in the UK. It meant that any rights arising from EU legislation would be conferred on UK citizens by virtue of our EU membership.
They conclude that as it was an Act of Parliament – the sovereign decision making body in our country – that paved the way for individuals to gain such rights, it must also be through UK parliamentary legislation that the process by which these rights would no longer apply to UK citizens is triggered.
The High Court agreed and the Government appealed their decision to the Supreme Court.
Now, for many people who opted to side with Vote Leave in the June referendum there is an illogical sense of betrayal thanks to this court action. They, wrongly, feel this case is about stopping Brexit.
It doesn’t matter that people who voted both ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ brought the case; it doesn’t matter that this case is about ‘how’ Brexit is to be triggered and not ‘whether’ it should; and it doesn’t matter that using prerogative powers would undermine the very sovereignty of parliament they claim to have defended by voting ‘leave’.
What matters is how it makes them feel.
It feels like someone is conspiratorially trying to undermine his or her vote. It feels like ‘the Establishment’ is up to no good. This is what populism in this country has reduced our political discourse to. It doesn’t matter what evidence there is or the merits of an argument, what counts is how you can spin a grievance and use emotions to cloud reality. For standing up for what she and her fellow petitioners believe, Gina Miller has been subjected to some of the most disgusting and shameful abuse. For making a ruling based on law, the High Court judges have been vilified by the right-wing press as ‘enemies of the people’.
Populist politicians like Nigel Farage and sub-gutter journalism have stoked this hatred, as I mentioned in a previous blog post. Their language of ‘enemies’, when talking about those who disagree with their position, or ‘swarms’, when describing people who seek safety or a better life by coming to our country, has poisoned our political discourse and created an environment where hate begets hate.
I don’t want Brexit. I campaigned against it because I knew it would be so incredibly damaging to our country. This case, now being considered by the Supreme Court following the appeal hearings, is not about stopping Brexit but about going about it in a way that puts the people’s representatives (MPs) in control.
For those who fear a stitch-up I would argue parliamentary scrutiny is precisely what you want. A behind-closed-doors deal is not in the nation’s interest – we need transparency and openness on this vitally important process.
I hope our Supreme Court upholds the High Court’s ruling when it makes its judgement in January and I also hope that the Scottish Parliament will have its say in the process too. So far there have been too many ‘straining at gnats but swallowing camels’ like those who wanted to ‘Take Back Control’. Maybe they will begin to ‘Take Responsibility’ but like those waiting on pre-referendum promises being delivered, I wouldn’t hold my breath.