Everyone needs to calm down about the EU Withdrawal Bill. The way anti-Brexiteers are talking about it you’d think Henry VIII himself had risen from his burial vault, sword in one hand, Anne Boleyn’s head in the other, come to crush parliament and the plebs beneath his velvet boot. The Tories’ use of ‘Henry VIII powers’ to incorporate, amend or ditch EU-born laws means they’re ‘acting like Tudor monarchs’, Brexit panickers claim. Please. There’s a chasm-sized moral difference between Theresa May’s executive antics and those of the Tudors: she’s acting on the command of 17.4m people, the largest democratic throng in British history, where they acted from personal kingly whim.
Hearing people who love the EU complain about the frustration of parliamentary democracy is of course hilarious. Like a bull in a china shop moaning about the lack of useable plates. Yet that’s what they’re doing, self-awareness not being their strong suit. The EU Withdrawal Bill, which passed its first stage last night by 326 votes to 290, is a ‘power grab’, they say, because it grants the government the power to rethink and tweak EU laws without parliamentary scrutiny. Executive officials can ‘correct the statute book where necessary’, in relation to EU laws that won’t be relevant post-Brexit, without having to seek the input or nod of MPs. This is a grave body-blow to democracy, EU-philes claim. It is an ‘executive coup’, says one columnist, and it makes Britain ‘vulnerable to tyranny’. It really doesn’t.
There are checks in the Bill. It doesn’t actually give May and her minions Henry-like powers of absolute say-so. There’s a sunset clause, which means the special authority of law-tweaking will no longer be exercisable two years after Exit Day. And, as ministers have repeatedly said, the powers will not be used to make new policy. They will be used to sort out reams and reams of EU law. Britain is subject to 12,000 EU regulations. Parliament has passed 7,900 statutory instruments that enforce EU legislation here. And all that our alleged Tudor-style tyrants are suggesting is that they should pore over all that and see which regulations are still relevant to a nation liberated from the EU oligarchy, and which are not. No diktats will be issued; no new churches founded; no heads chopped off. It’s cool. Imperfect, certainly, and something to keep an eye on, but cool.
If the critics of Brexit were genuinely keen on parliamentary democracy, they’d be excited by the key thing the EU Withdrawal Bill does: repeal the 1972 European Communities Act. It repeals that Act that dragged us into the EU and which — get this — gave European laws precedence over laws written and voted on by the commoners we elect and who sit in Westminster. The repeal of this act is a wonderful moment for British parliamentary democracy.
The ’72 Act seriously wounded the basic principle of every modern British struggle for democracy — that a people should only live by laws they’ve had some role in writing or okaying; that the public must consent to the institutions it is ruled by. It did this by making foreign law, drafted by distant commissioners in another country, superior to our democratic law. If the Brexit-bashers want parliamentary democracy protected and boosted, they will cheer this. They’d be tweeting about Britain’s ridding itself of the ’72 Act at least as much as they are about May’s executive plans.
But they aren’t. And I venture that this is because many of them aren’t really driven by a concern to defend parliamentary sovereignty but rather by an urge to dilute popular sovereignty. To tame and weaken that thing 17.4m ordinary people – shudder – said last June: ‘Let’s leave the EU.’ They fear popular democracy, and especially the popular thirst for Brexit.
After years of nodding along to the EU’s dilution of parliamentary democracy, they’re suddenly fans of parliamentary democracy, but only to the extent that it might be weaponised against mass sentiment. Using democracy as a tool against the demos? It’s the definition of cynical.