Since the 2016 referendum, the issue of our membership of the EU has dominated British politics, exposing deep flaws in our constitution and absorbing huge amounts of time and energy. But the UK’s relationship with its European neighbours does not stand alone, divorced from all other factors; it is part of a broader constitutional question of how sovereignty should be shared between different levels of society, a question that also takes in the union between the four countries of the United Kingdom, and the relationship between local and central government generally – both of which have been sources of huge dissatisfaction for many years.
When people feel their voices are not being heard and their local communities have no real autonomy, it’s no surprise that they feel resentment towards remote administrations whose workings they know little about. For years, though, national politicians and media have blamed the EU for decisions that have actually been made in Westminster.
Did the referendum result really reflect genuine widespread hostility towards membership of the EU? Or was it primarily the result of people voting for the only change on offer, as a way of expressing the anger and hostility they feel towards the system as a whole?
A satisfactory solution to the current crisis will have to allow a majority on both sides to feel that their views have been respected. As things stand, withdrawing from the EU clearly won’t do that, because huge numbers who want to remain feel that they’ve been sidelined from the start and will immediately start campaigning to rejoin. But simply revoking the decision – whether it happens directly or as a result of another referendum – will be seen as a massive act of betrayal, by large numbers of people who currently feel that their voice has been heard for the first time in their lives.
If the government had initiated a proper debate on the relationship between local government and higher authorities, it might well have shown that public frustration has far more roots in London than it does in Brussels. In that case, restructuring the UK’s internal governance would probably have dissipated much of the hostility currently directed towards the EU. Even if that process had ended up confirming the desire to leave, it would have allowed the whole issue to be debated in a more balanced fashion than was possible once withdrawal had been declared the only option.
Instead, the government hastily committed to withdrawing from the EU, without any attempt to debate other options. They entirely failed to explore whether other, less disruptive reforms might have satisfied the public’s hunger for change, without us having to leave the EU. As a result, Parliament and Government have wasted huge amounts of time and energy that could have been used to focus on many pressing matters that are currently being neglected.
In general elections, voters elect representatives to legislate on ordinary matters and to oversee the routine business of government. But constitutional issues govern the way the whole system operates, and their importance transcends ordinary politics. They can only be given the attention they deserve if they are separated from MPs’ routine work, and they can only be properly resolved by people whose mandate on those constitutional issues is not entangled with issues of routine government.
Neither a general election nor another referendum will let the true will of the people be expressed clearly and unambiguously. Only a specially-elected Assembly will be able to properly get to grips with the complexity of the changes that are now needed.
MPs should accept that the current crisis is beyond their power to resolve. Parliament should legislate for a Constitutional Assembly to be convened, to sit for a limited period, to debate what principles should govern how sovereignty is shared between different levels of society, both within the UK and in the international sphere — with power to legislate on constitutional issues arising from the 2016 referendum.