The High Court has ruled that the government does not have the prerogative power to invoke Article 50 in a decision said by legal commentators to represent the most important constitutional decision in generations. That profound statement is, in this instance, more than a simple hyperbole that is usually applied to the legal/political debate.
Parliamentary sovereignty is the foundation upon which our democracy is based and it is the very concept of sovereignty that the Brexiteers based their argument upon when campaigning to leave the EU last summer. Ironically, they should be just as pleased with this ruling as those now dismissed as ‘remoaners’.
If indeed the British people were demanding back their sovereignty in the referendum, they were certainly not demanding that sovereignty meant giving arbitrary power to a PM and three ministers in a government that was not elected.
The matter will now inevitably be appealed to the Supreme Court and will be decided in December. The outcome of that will indeed be perhaps the most important constitutional decision in centuries, let alone generations, and will be central to how Britain is governed way beyond our final departure from the EU. The Royal Prerogative is an anachronistic and undemocratic relic and this ruling is a long awaited step towards a much more representative democracy.
Irrespective of whether they wish to remain or to leave the EU, everyone in Britain should applaud the decision of the court to reaffirm an elected parliament’s supremacy over an appointed minister’s arbitrary and politically motivated use of power.
If the Supreme Court affirm this decision in December, we will be on the threshold of progressive change in the governing of the UK. Far from this being a ‘constitutional crisis’ as our media love to call such events, it will be an opportunity for democracy on a par with the extension of the franchise to women in the early 20th century.
Contrary to the cries of the most strident of the Brexiteers, Parliament remained sovereign throughout our 43 year membership of the EEC and EU. Even when in earlier constitutional cases our learned judges talked of Parliament giving way to the flow of European law in our tides and estuaries, it remained supreme.
It is absolutely correct that in a democracy our elected representatives debate matters of such gravity and vote on it. It would be total irony indeed if in the ‘taking back’ of our sovereignty that we handed the future of Britain to a collection of here today, gone tomorrow appointed politicians — who have only too well demonstrated their beliefs that their political careers are ‘supreme’ over everything.
Barry Turner is senior lecturer in Law and Journalism at the University of Lincoln.