In five months’ time, UK citizens will lose the protection of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and be at the mercy of a government with a 79-seat majority and a track record that shows it cares little for democratic norms and practices. Justin Meadows, Membership Co-Ordinator for the Oxford Region, explains why he is worried.
It is often said that the UK doesn’t have a constitution. Then often comes the response “yes it does, it’s just unwritten”. Even the riposte isn’t quite right. The UK constitution is written down. Since the Parliament of 2017-19, for those of us interested in these things, we have all become experts in Erskine May. It is better to say that the UK doesn’t have a codified constitution i.e. a constitution that is written down in one place.
During the UK’s EU membership, I suggest that our uncodified constitution hasn’t been too much of an issue for the vast majority of voters. My concern, which I would like to explain to you below, is that we are now at the mercy of majority Government. Few, if any safeguards, exist against an over zealous Government, now that the UK has left the European Union.
For 47 years the UK population has been secure in the knowledge that a few laws were just beyond the reach of any Government. The most notable of these laws stem from the Lisbon Treaty, or the treaty of the European Union as it is sometimes known.
The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, with its 54 Articles, provides a minimum level of protection to all EU citizens wherever they may reside within the Union. These rights cover life, family, property, travel, freedom of association, freedom of self expression etc. Rights which can be enforced by any individual through “the courts of the Union and the Member States”.
If, as a government, you wanted to renege on these rights they would either have to accept the consequences of breaking an international treaty or trigger your nation’s exit from the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. I know I don’t need to explain Article 50 to UK readers, it is all too familiar, but for the benefit of others, this is the process followed by a nation state that wishes to leave the EU and it lasts for a minimum of two years.
“So what?” the Brexiteers may say? The UK has written all EU legislation into domestic law. Yes, the Government has often mooted its desire to repeal the Human Right’s Act but that has always been with the intention of replacing it with a British Bill of Rights.
We are told that the British Bill of Rights will be ‘land of hope and glory’, red white, blue, bigger and better than anything contained in the Human Rights Act. And, of course, we have never been given reason to doubt government claims.
Let’s explode a myth. Same-sex marriage was passed in the UK by the coalition government in 2013. David Cameron was Prime Minister at the time and the Bill had Government time to pass through the legislative process. It is therefore perceived that the Conservatives enacted same sex marriage.
However, in the final vote for this legislation 118 Conservative MPs voted in favour and 129 Conservative MPs voted against the Bill. It is a myth that the Conservative party enacted same-sex marriage. The majority of its MPs voted against it. The vote was only won because the other parties in Parliament heavily supported it and, whilst the largest single party, the Conservatives did not have a majority in Parliament at that time.
I don’t think it is a controversial statement to say but the first past the post electoral system favours decisive results. Supporters trumpet this as one of the benefits. The UK’s voting system is designed to make coalition government (for example 2010-15) less likely and majority government more likely.
The UK’s Conservative party is a formidable election winning machine. During my lifetime, the Conservative party has been in power 27 years to Labour’s 17. If I were homosexual and married, I wonder how I might be feeling now. The Conservative party that voted against the Act is now in power with a large majority. They have a reformist zeal. The Government could easily repeal this law. Through party patronage, whipping and first past the post, there is little to check the Government’s power.
However much better the British Bill of Rights might be compared to the EU’s Charter of fundamental human rights, it is now only ever one vote away from being repealed. Without some sort of codified constitution to provide the sort of check on the executive’s power that the EU used to perform, we are all at the mercy to any Parliamentary majority.
The right to join a trades union – one vote from being banned.
The right to an education – one vote from being banned.
The right to vote in an election – one vote from being banned.
So, what do I miss about the UK’s membership of the EU? Many things, including the right to travel, live and work across a continent. I also miss that little bit of comfort knowing that [any] government, whether I voted for them or not, does not hold absolute power.