EU Withdrawal Bill: Who watches the watchmen?

Matt Bates /
Sep 21, 2017 / Opinion

When we struggle to get people to the polls  – and those of us who do vote are pretty nonchalant about the whole affair as it stands – bringing honest, engaging politics to the table is fundamental.

So it feels just a little bit shit that the Conservatives (plus 11 other MPs), despite flustering around soundbites re. taking back control, are making considerable effort to hide politics from the House of Commons.

The EU Withdrawal Bill passed, with 326-290 votes, into a second reading last Monday evening. With the House of Commons Library describing it as the most significant legislative bill since we entered the EU, it is designed to limit turbulence during our nearly probable exit from the EU. Paraphrasing the 121 page document, penned by the now iconic in his own ineptitude Brexit Minister, David Davis, if passed, the bill will immediately enshrine all current UK-affecting EU Law into the UK’s updated legal system. The round about 12,000 ‘retained EU laws’ will come into effect the day we officially leave the EU, and at least as far as the law of the land goes, not a lot will change.

However, change will come when the the government begins its behemoth task of altering the retained EU law to create a workable and cohesive final product, free of black holes and loopholes. The EU Withdrawal Bill therefore calls on so called ‘Henry VII powers’, which allow Brexit officials to make alterations to the law as deemed ‘necessary’; alterations made in back rooms of Westminster behind doors very much closed, without any vague inclination of the usual parliamentary scrutiny.

And the reasoning behind a group of Tories having a relatively free go at swathes of our constitution, while uncomfortable, has some substance. The sheer number of laws which have to be reviewed, relativised to and integrated with UK institutions, is phenomenal. There isn’t anywhere near enough time to hold parliamentary discussions on each and every law – particularly if we wanted a ready-to-go bill for exit day. The EU Withdrawal Bill is a quick fix, which, in light of how crap everything else Brexit is going, won’t cause Davis any unnecessary stress.

But again, there are slight, low-key, barely noticeable undercurrents of the complete undermining of parliamentary and voter sovereignty. Which is a bit naff at the best of times, but is even worse when Brexit is potentially the biggest legislative change the UK has undergone since we joined the EU. Or it’s even worse when it poses really specific challenges to the agency of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales in terms of devolved powers. The Withdrawal Bill could have acted as a landmark acknowledgement of pro-independence sentiments in devolved parliaments and given Sturgeon the opportunity to really get something done, but instead brought everything back to Westminster.

And all this is fine. It’s a bit of what we’ve come to expect. The Bill is a very specific violation of the generally held view that we vote to have a say in our politics and suggest a vision for the country. While, yes, we understand that Brexit is hard and the Tories are struggling with it; and yes, there isn’t enough time or patience in the day for every MP to really get into the nitty gritty; and yes, maybe just give us another Boris saga to keep us busy, and we may get over it.

But when there is discrepancy about how long the government could potentially keep such powers, it’s a little bit more then a slight violation. It’s a red mark against a government who ran an election campaign about being the only party strong enough to deal with Brexit; the outcome of a referendum which was in part orientated around concerns of sovereignty and democracy. It’s discourse centred around taking back control from a bourgeois, capitalist elite who dictated from slightly too far away – who were slightly too abstract and incomprehensible – for comfort. For so many Leave voters, it was about taking a stand and taking charge.

Yet now, after the snap-election, the Conservative government have positioned themselves in ambiguous seats of elevated authority, under a pretence of it being absolutely fundamental. While there is a small chance of the bill not going through, and it may have some amendments taped on the end, there isn’t much more to be said than our government have proven time and time again that when you’re the demagogue of your own echo chamber, even subverting the most basic principles of democracy is necessary.

Words by Matt Bates

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