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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Brexit: Crisis or Success?

“If the government puts forward a major initiative that loses a parliamentary vote, the government must generally resign, given that defeat on a signature initiative of the government is usually a sign of no confidence in that government”…

The statement above is not wrong. It expresses the usual intuition on the subject. But the convention of the UK or Westminster Constitution (as I understand it) is that a government is not defeated for losing just any vote--if it can recover in short order or show that a majority of the Commons still support the ministers in their place. The more narrow understanding of the convention (in regard to a lost vote in the Commons) is that a government must command a majority for any bill to supply the Crown, as opposed to any bill on any other subject. To put it another way, if the opposition believes the government no longer commands a majority, then it can call a formal confidence vote or vote down a supply bill. That has not happened. So May and her cabinet remain in place. The convention remains intact. 

Notwithstanding PM May's many recent defeats in the Commons, her party still supports her and her cabinet's continuing in office--at least for now. She has not lost any supply votes, And perhaps more importantly, the programme she is putting forward is one to implement a popular referendum. It is not her initiative in the usual sense of that term. 

I don't think there is any substantial issue of a democratic deficit in the UK--in the sense of some long-term institutional failing. We (in the US) are thought to have such a problem in relation to our judges and our written Constitution--where democratically enacted statutes are struck down. And this situation is made less defensible because our Constitution, with its 2/3s and 3/4s supermajority requirements, often leaves the judges (not the legislature) with the last world. By contrast, the UK is always just an election and/or a statute away from any overreach by nonelected functionaries like judges (except for EU law purposes). If the Commons gets Brexit wrong--by failing to implement it when it should, then the voters will have their say at the next election, and if the Commons gets Brexit wrong--by implementing it when it should not, then the voters can elect a new House and have that house seek to take the UK back into the EU. Everything can be fixed by the voters and the next statute. For that reason, I don't see any institutional democratic deficit in the UK--except the fact that there is (by US standards) wide variation in seat "size" by population, and that Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales enjoy relative over-representation vis-a-vis England. I am not particularly worried that the dependencies have no representation in Parliament, or that those abroad for more than 15 years have no vote--particularly where such persons vote in the elections of other countries where they may have citizenship. 

What you are witnessing in the UK is not a crisis. It is a success. When most geographical units secede from a larger entity, they do so unilaterally, and sometimes violently. They do it through war or, if lucky, soft power. The UK is doing everything in accord with publci int'l law, EU law, and its domestic legal system. No armies involved. No violence. No threats of violence. Just elections. It is democracy and it is messy. It compares well to our war dead in 1776 and 1861. The world should be taking lessons--not mourning Brexit. 

If this is a crisis--the world could use many more such crises. 


Seth Barrett Tillman, Brexit: Crisis or Success, New Reform Club (Mar. 26, 2019, 12:07 PM), <>.

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