The conversation at a London dinner between a staunch Conservative Brexiteer and an equally keen member of the Remain camp went something like this.
“What about British sovereignty?” demanded the Brexiteer, who owns a medium-sized enterprise. “What about that unelected body that drafts legislation and tells us – the sovereign British people – to do what they tell us?”
“If I understand you correctly,” said the Remainer, “you think it’s wrong to have an unelected body involved in making legislation because it challenges our sovereignty, is that right?”
“Absolutely,” she replied. “That’s the core of our case. That’s why we have to leave. We have to take back control”
“But you don’t complain about that famously unelected body, the House of Lords, making laws and obstructing bills coming from the elected body the House of Commons.”
The flow of the Brexiteer stopped but not, of course, for long.
This exchange took place several months before the referendum campaign got underway, but it contains the central problem for Brexit Tories, which is that sovereignty today is not the Tudor-style autonomy they advocate, but rather it is about the expression of the wishes of a free people in their parliament and the constitution of their country.
It is simply inconsistent for Leave Tories to express outrage about the powers of the Council of Ministers and the Commission, as well as the relative powerlessness of the European Parliament, without first conceding that their Government has done absolutely nothing to resolve the considerable democratic deficit in the way the UK votes at general elections, at the same time as allowing an unelected chamber, built from a combination of merit, patronage and inherited privilege, to continue to take part in the government of this country.
Incidentally, it’s worth remembering that 92 members of the House of Lords are there because they have inherited a title – these legislators are elected by fellow peers of the same party and do not even have to undergo a general vote in the House of Lords. One of the latest peers to benefit from this antiquated process is the Ex-banker, now Times Columnist Matt Ridley, who sits as Viscount Ridley and is a passionate Brexiteer.
He is someone who never stops invoking the cause of the British people’s sovereignty, yet it never seems to occur to him that his presence in the House is an offence to sovereignty that is equal or even greater than anything we have to put up with in Europe. The system is archaic. The election of Lord Granchester to the ninety-two in 2003 required just three votes from fellow hereditary peers.
The wider point is that, in the last two decades, we have seen many erosions of liberty as well as a period of presidential-style government by Tony Blair, in which the Houses of Parliament were virtually ignored by Blair’s style of “sofa government”. But you rarely, if ever, heard a squeak from Conservatives like Boris Johnson or Michael Gove, either because they didn’t care about these issues of democracy and liberty, or because they haven’t thought about sovereignty in a modern way, which is to define it as the expression of the people in their democratic institutions – in and outside this country.
The only Conservative Brexiteer to consistently stand up for Liberty and question what was going in Parliament under Blair was David Davis, but it has to be said that despite his service to the cause of freedom he has not been prominent in advocating the reform of the House of Lords and the introduction of a fairer voting system.
There are big problems with European institutions. Nobody can sensibly deny their remoteness from the European people or lack of democratic accountability. These need to be changed; a new European Union needs to emerge from the Referendum campaign in Britain, which is having such a profound impact on the way Europeans think of the Union. But it ill behoves such great statesmen as Gove, Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, to name another vocal Brexit Conservative, to propose themselves as champions of British sovereignty when plainly they don’t give a damn about the independence and modernity of the institutions they claim to protect.