This week Britain’s House of Lords passed the crucial amendment to Theresa May’s Bill to Exit the European Union that would give Parliament a “meaningful vote” at the end of the Brexit negotiations. This vote could include the option to stop Brexit altogether if the deal she offers is less attractive than remaining an EU member.
This parliamentary maneuver may sound obscure but it matters, because May’s position is that the only choice that she will present to parliament next year will be between accepting whatever deal she manages to negotiate, and crashing out of Europe with no agreement on the divorce terms at all.
The House of Lords does not really have the power to force May to change her position. Amendments passed by the unelected Lords are effectively just requests for the elected House of Commons to think again. May’s Conservatives can easily overturn Lords amendments, especially if the main opposition Labour party continues to vote with the government, on the grounds that appearing to oppose Brexit would mean defying “the will of the people.”
This unity between government and opposition is something that Britain has only experienced in times of war. It is a dangerous subversion of democracy, which requires open-minded debate and effective political opposition. The idea that it is undemocratic to question the wisdom of a referendum because the “people have spoken” slides easily into the tyrannical doctrine that anyone who challenges the government’s interpretation of a referendum is an “enemy of the people,” and all political opposition is an act of treason or sabotage.
Democracy cannot function without political opposition. The Lords vote this week defied the majoritarian tyranny that has started to creep into British politics since the referendum. It could mark the start of a return to normal parliamentary democracy in Britain. The best thing now would be for Labour and other opposition parties in the Commons to unite with potential Conservative rebels and back the Lords amendment. That probably won’t happen, but the effort to re-create a functioning parliamentary democracy in Britain could yet break the taboo against reopening the debate on membership of the European Union.