Euan McColm: Howling hypocrites unmasked by judges' ruling

Are you an enthusiastic racist? Do you resent immigrants? And, while I'm about it, are you sick to the back teeth of democracy? Wouldn't life be easier if you always got your own way, regardless of petty matters of fairness or accountability?

Gina Miller, the lead claimant in the case, speaks to the media at the High Court in London. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA

If so, I’m afraid I have some grave news for you.

Until recently, you were able to conceal these unappealing characteristics behind a cloak that said you were a passionate defender of sovereignty.

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During the campaign on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, you could benefit from the vile xenophobia of scaremongering billboards about refugees while maintaining your only concern was the protection of our democracy; you could surf on a wave of lies about £350m-a-week for the NHS and reject the accusation that you were a petty nationalist.

But you’ve been found out.

When the High Court in London ruled on Thursday that the House of Commons should have a say on the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the procedure that will begin the UK’s extrication from the EU – the response from Brexiteers was extraordinary.

Right-wing politicians – Ukip’s Nigel Farage, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, for example – were livid. How dare three unelected judges stand in the way of the wishes of the majority? The UK had voted to leave the EU and no metropolitan wig-wearing tosser (I paraphrase) should be allowed to subvert the implications of that decision.

The fury of these politicians was accompanied by hysterical howls of anguish from some newspapers which warned, variously, that democracy had died and that one of the judges responsible for the ruling was “openly gay”.

The government has signalled that it will appeal against this ruling; a Supreme Court hearing is expected to take place in December.

Those who claimed that their motivation for voting to leave the EU was the restoration of powers to the UK should hope that the government fails.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary debate flew in the face of the idea of sovereignty. If Brexiteers – as so many claimed – wished the UK’s parliament to “take back control” from Europe then they should have been pushing hard, long before Thursday’s ruling, for the Commons to have a say.

That would be – and hopefully now will be – precisely the sort of sovereignty Eurosceptics claimed to hold so dear.

It is troubling that the Farages and Hannans have turned their fire on the judges involved in this case. It shouldn’t need restating that a judiciary which allows itself to be dictated to by the government of the day – or, indeed, any other influential politician – is hardly independent.

These High Court judges have done nothing more than protect the rights of MPs to act on behalf of their constituents. They have done us all – Brexiteers and Remainers alike – a great service.

Thursday’s ruling threw up some remarkable speculations, the wildest of which was the idea that the UK might not now leave the EU. This theory illustrated the paranoia of some Leave voters and the touching naivety of many of those who voted for the UK to remain.

Of course the UK will leave the EU. June’s referendum may have been “advisory” but there is no way that politicians, from across the spectrum, would risk the backlash that an attempt to ignore the result would create. Both Tories and Labour would suffer heavy losses to Ukip in the next general election if they dared reject the wishes of the electorate in this matter.

There is also speculation that May could call an early general election if the House of Commons doesn’t agree the triggering of Article 50. Those clinging to such a hope should let it go.

The Commons will do as the people wished. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives wish an election forced by a failure to move forward with Brexit. Again, the only winners would be Ukip.

Important though it is that the process of leaving the EU is debated by MPs, I’m afraid that those who believe the Commons can shape the process are being optimistic. Those nations which remain in the EU have the whip hand and, regardless of the feelings of MPs, they will design the sort of Brexit that takes place. It will, I remain certain, be of the hard variety. Any concessions to the UK would only provide succour to others who may be considering leaving.

But it doesn’t matter that any House of Commons debate will be, in the end, symbolic. There is an important principle at stake here.

If we care about parliamentary democracy, then we must fight any attempt to undermine it. If the government’s appeal against Thursday’s ruling is a success, then we all lose our voices in this important discussion.

Our MPs are not just there to fill space on the Commons’ benches, they are there to act in our interests. It is in our interest to understand fully what Brexit will mean for the UK.

Some MPs may argue that, after the implications of Brexit are clearer, there should be a second referendum. There is a reasonable case for this to happen but the politics of such a move are just too messy and Remainers shouldn’t get their hopes up.

What happened at the High Court on Thursday will not change the course of history. The UK will leave the EU at some point in the near future and we will all have to live with the consequences of that. But three judges – now reviled by a large section of society – have done something vitally important. They have protected parliamentary democracy. They have done exactly the sort of thing that Brexiteers argued was necessary; they have defended our sovereignty.

The Prime Minister should call off the appeal against Thursday’s ruling. The High Court has acted fairly and in the interests of democracy and an attempt to overturn its decision would risk the erosion of parliamentary authority.

Brexiteers argued they wanted to bring power back to the House of Commons. Their wish has been granted.