Parliament has been the central institution of British public life for 750 years. That is why David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and the Government’s supporters and opponents, have to think very carefully about what Parliament’s role should be in reaching a satisfactory Brexit settlement.
There have been hardly any important events since the 1260s that haven’t involved Parliament. In 1258, leading barons had sought to bring the king, Henry III, under control. One of their demands was that the king should call a “parlemenz” at Oxford. The king objected. There was an armed struggle. But the point was won. By the 1270s, Parliament had started to meet twice a year at Westminster.
Since then Parliament has loomed over monarchs and their subjects except for a period during the disastrous reigns of the Stuarts. Charles I did without Parliament for 11 years. When the royal messenger was on his way with an order to adjourn in 1629, members locked the door and held the Speaker down in his chair. To no avail. Parliament did not meet again until 1640. Two years later, the English civil war began, Parliament versus the King. The King lost.
Yet you may well ask what have the events of 400 years ago to do with Parliament’s role in the Brexit debate? OK; let’s go back just 76 years to an event with which Brexit has sometimes been compared in terms of its importance – the opening stages of the Second World War. On 1 September 1939, German troops had invaded Poland.
Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister. The House of Commons met on 2 September expecting the Prime Minister to announce an ultimatum telling the Germans that unless they withdrew there would be war. Instead he prevaricated. When Arthur Greenwood, acting Labour leader, rose to speak, the Conservative member, Leo Amery, bawled, “Speak for England, Arthur.” After the House broke up in confusion, Greenwood went to Chamberlain and told him “it would be impossible to hold the House”. The next morning the British ultimatum was delivered and the Second World War began.
Then in May 1940 an attempt to confront German power in Norway had proved to be a disaster. British troops had to be evacuated. Public opinion turned against Neville Chamberlain. On 7 May he opened a two-day debate on the Norwegian campaign. There were many territorial officers whose units had suffered in Norway present among the younger Conservative MPs. They were hostile. The First World War naval hero, Roger Keyes, who had become Conservative MP for Portsmouth North in 1933, attended in the full uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet including medals. He too denounced the Government.
What experts have said about Brexit
What experts have said about Brexit
1/11 Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond
The Chancellor claims London can still be a world financial hub despite Brexit “One of Britain’s great strengths is the ability to offer and aggregate all of the services the global financial services industry needs” “This has not changed as a result of the EU referendum and I will do everything I can to ensure the City of London retains its position as the world’s leading international financial centre.”
2/11 Yanis Varoufakis
Greece's former finance minister compared the UK relations with the EU bloc with a well-known song by the Eagles: “You can check out any time you like, as the Hotel California song says, but you can't really leave. The proof is Theresa May has not even dared to trigger Article 50. It's like Harrison Ford going into Indiana Jones' castle and the path behind him fragmenting. You can get in, but getting out is not at all clear”
3/11 Michael O’Leary
Ryanair boss says UK will be ‘screwed’ by EU in Brexit trade deals: “I have no faith in the politicians in London going on about how ‘the world will want to trade with us’. The world will want to screw you – that's what happens in trade talks,” he said. “They have no interest in giving the UK a deal on trade”
4/11 Tim Martin
JD Wetherspoon's chairman has said claims that the UK would see serious economic consequences from a Brexit vote were "lurid" and wrong: “We were told it would be Armageddon from the OECD, from the IMF, David Cameron, the chancellor and President Obama who were predicting locusts in the fields and tidal waves in the North Sea"
5/11 Mark Carney
Governor of Bank of England is 'serene' about Bank of England's Brexit stance: “I am absolutely serene about the … judgments made both by the MPC and the FPC”
6/11 Christine Lagarde
IMF chief urges quick Brexit to reduce economic uncertainty: “We want to see clarity sooner rather than later because we think that a lack of clarity feeds uncertainty, which itself undermines investment appetites and decision making”
7/11 Inga Beale
Lloyd’s chief executive says Brexit is a major issue: "Clearly the UK's referendum on its EU membership is a major issue for us to deal with and we are now focusing our attention on having in place the plans that will ensure Lloyd's continues trading across Europe”
8/11 Colm Kelleher
President of US bank Morgan Stanley says City of London ‘will suffer’ as result of the EU referendum: “I do believe, and I said prior to the referendum, that the City of London will suffer as result of Brexit. The issue is how much”
9/11 Richard Branson
Virgin founder believes we've lost a THIRD of our value because of Brexit and cancelled a deal worth 3,000 jobs: We're not any worse than anybody else, but I suspect we've lost a third of our value which is dreadful for people in the workplace.' He continued: "We were about to do a very big deal, we cancelled that deal, that would have involved 3,000 jobs, and that’s happening all over the country"
10/11 Barack Obama
US President believes Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU: "It is absolutely true that I believed pre-Brexit vote and continue to believe post-Brexit vote that the world benefited enormously from the United Kingdom's participation in the EU. We are fully supportive of a process that is as little disruptive as possible so that people around the world can continue to benefit from economic growth"
11/11 Kristin Forbes
American economist and an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England argues that the economy had been “less stormy than many expected” following the shock referendum result: “For now…the economy is experiencing some chop, but no tsunami. The adverse winds could quickly pick up – and merit a stronger policy response. But recently they have shifted to a more favourable direction”
However the most dramatic moment was Amery’s doing again. Turning to Chamberlain, he ended his speech with Cromwell’s words to the Rump Parliament: “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” It was this that generated the anguished discussions that led to Chamberlain’s resignation and his replacement by Churchill. Never underestimate Parliament.
With this history in mind, and as a lover of Parliament, you might expect me to be critical of the Government’s decision not to ask the House of Commons for approval before triggering Article 50. The pro-Leave Conservative backbencher, Stephen Phillips, put the matter very well. In a letter to the Speaker, Phillips said that bypassing Parliament was “simply not an acceptable way for the executive to proceed”, adding: “I and many others did not exercise our vote in the referendum so as to restore the sovereignty of this Parliament only to see what we regarded as the tyranny of the European Union replaced by that of a Government that apparently wishes to ignore the views of the House on the most important issue facing the nation.”
In fact I am not so worried as Phillips is. It is important to preserve the sanctity of the Referendum vote. For the moment, I am prepared to take at face value the words of David Davis. In the House of Commons on Monday, referring to the Brexit process, he stated: “I want this House to be engaged throughout, and we will observe the constitutional and legal precedents that apply to any new treaty on a new relationship with the European Union. Indeed, my whole approach is about empowering this place.” I trust this will be the case.Reuse content