Britain’s Greatest Export: Parliamentary Sovereignty and why you should vote Remain to guard it.

Kathleen Garnett

If, like me, you are a British patriot then you should vote to stay in the European Union. It is the most patriotic act you can do this year. The Brexiteers bandy around the place as though they own the intellectual rights to British patriotism but let me assure you their rhetoric is of unsound provenance. BoJo likes to portray himself as “Churchillian”. He has even a written a book on Britain’s war time leader to gain credentials. Look at how he postures in interviews. Legs spread wide apart, hands firmly clamped on his ample knees, chin jutting out in fierce determination to try and resemble something of Churchill’s war-time defiance.

BoJo flatters himself if he thinks he has anything in common with the man who led Britain to victory over Nazi tyranny. The only thing that Churchill and Johnson have in common is their wide girth. Were he alive today Churchill would puff cigar smoke in BoJo’s face and order him out of the war room as an unkempt tramp and imposter. Churchill strove to save Europe from tyranny. BoJo’s desire to leave the EU gives succour to tyrants. Churchill urged his troops to fight the odious Gestapo, “on the beaches… on the landing grounds … in the fields and in the streets, in the hills; on the seas and oceans … and never surrender,” precisely because the odious Gestapo were such an affront to the British values of decency, democracy, pluralism, the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty.

The Brexiteers would have us believe that they are the guardians of this heritage and the only true defenders of Churchill’s legacy. They are wrong and do not have the intellectual wherewithal to understand the real meaning of parliamentary sovereignty or of Churchill’s greatness. He didn’t fight so that Britain could remain insular. He fought so that Europe could be free from tyranny. At the end of the war did the victors demand the rights to the Rhine? No. Did Churchill demand Calais be returned to Her Majesty? Of course not! The victors of the second world war were not interested in territory. They were interested in winning freedom. The second world war was the mother of all battles for the idea that each European nation state can enjoy parliamentary sovereignty and learn to co-operate not hate.

Brexiteers conveniently airbrush Churchill’s “United States of Europe” speech from their own speeches because it contradicts the weakness of their assertions. Yet, in 1946 – one year after the end of Nazism Churchill stated

“…. we must re-create the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe, and the first practical step will be to form a Council of Europe. If at first all the States of Europe are not willing or able to join a union we must nevertheless proceed to assemble and combine those who will and who can. The salvation of the common people of every race and every land from war and servitude must be established on solid foundations, and must be created by the readiness of all men and women to die rather than to submit to tyranny.”

Churchill held no grudges against Germany. What he could not abide was Nazi tyranny and how it stole sovereignty from her people. Churchill felt no venom towards the German nation but was ready to spit poison at the idea that the free world could compromise with Hitler’s regime. Yet, as far as the Brexit rhetoric goes parliamentary sovereignty is about Britain’s right to self-determination and their resentment at the imposition of “foreign” laws. This belief may stem from an erroneous and an incorrect reading of Sir Ivor Jenning’s 1959 views on parliamentary sovereignty where he stated that metaphorically speaking parliament can legislate to ban smoking on the street of Paris. It is also a complete misreading of an 1882 statement by Sir Leslie Stephens that “…if a legislature decided that all blue-eyed babies should be murdered, the preservation of blue-eyed babies would be illegal;” Under this logic Parliament gives Britain the right to do what it likes, when it likes and all outside concerns be damned.

This misreading of parliamentary sovereignty is worrying because it completely misses the true significance of this important concept. Parliamentary sovereignty’s first and only true meaning is that it represents the supremacy of the legislature over the absolute power of an absolute monarch, dictator, autocrat or kleptocrat. The only reason the British still call it “Parliamentary” is because that is the name of our legislature in Westminster. Outside of the United Kingdom it is referred to as “Constitutional” sovereignty – in other words the supremacy of democratically elected legislatures and an independent judiciary over an absolutist ruler.

The concept of parliamentary supremacy emerged in the sixteenth century as a rallying cry for those who wanted to see an end to hereditary kings and queens who ruled through “divine right” not representative democracy. The early Acts were limited and in no way represented what we understand today by parliamentary supremacy. The fact, however, that the parliament in Westminster was the first legislature anywhere in the world at the time to challenge the right of a king to rule without any break to his or her authority should be, indeed is, a matter of great pride to the British. Thus, the real significance of parliamentary sovereignty is not self-determination as the Brexiteers suggest but that it represents the death of absolutism and the birth of British values – the very values that British troops fought to defend between 1914-1918 and later between 1939 – 1945.

The concept of a legislature that is supreme and more powerful than an absolutist regime was such an inspiration to France in the eighteen hundreds they sought to emulate the experiment. It took a bloody revolution, a reign of terror and years of Napoleonic wars before they could get anywhere near the holy grail of a legislature that is sovereign and whose laws are supreme to a King or Emperor. Absolutists, generally, do not cede power without a bloody fight.

The recent history of many (though not all) EU member sates is about this very violent and bloody struggle. The struggle between those who want to adopt a form of governance that Britain currently enjoys and the rejection of an absolutist who wants to impose their will on the people through force and terror. The post-war European landscape is dominated by the victory of the concept of parliamentary (or legislative) sovereignty over absolutism. Hitler in Germany. Franco in Spain. Salazar in Portugal. The Junta in Greece. The Stasi in East Germany. Communism in eastern Europe.

Many continental, European liberal democracies still look to Britain as an inspiration and the standard bearer on how to defeat absolutism through a constitutional democracy. It is our greatest export. Sadly, the struggle is not at an end. In recent years we see a re-emergence of absolute tendencies in Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey. We see the evil rise of Isis and the stubborn refusal of Assad to relinquish power to an independent legislature.  There are still too many absolutists whose legitimacy to govern stems not from parliamentary sovereignty but from their willingness to use violence, repression and fear.

In recognising the tyranny of Nazism and later Stalinism, Britain did so much to help stabilise what until 1945 was a fractious continent dominated by absolutism. Churchill was instrumental in setting up the European Convention on Human Rights because he knew – having stared the dark forces of tyranny in the face – that the only way to prevent a repeat was for European nation states to share and benefit from the very values which Britain had fought so hard to defend on the sea and in the air: democracy, pluralism, non-discrimination the rule of law and the rights of individuals with regard to the State.

This is Britain’s greatest export to continental Europe. The core EU values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union are in large part inspired by such values. We should rejoice that our continental neighbours share these values with us. If you are a British patriot do not believe the rhetoric of Johnson, Gove and Duncan-Smith that parliamentary sovereignty is only about self-determination and that the EU is an affront to this. The EU has adopted British values in a way Winston Churchill would be proud of. The language of the Brexiteers is so odious precisely because it gives succour to the forces of tyranny – the very forces that every British patriot, for good reason, despises. If you value these values vote Remain on 23 June to protect them.

One thought on “Britain’s Greatest Export: Parliamentary Sovereignty and why you should vote Remain to guard it.

  1. Pingback: Shared values – memories of belonging | EU Perspectives

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