Failure by our politicians to deliver Brexit would be an affront to Britain’s democratic traditions

As ministers, MPs and peers ruminate on the politics of the Chequers plan, they should remember what is at stake: Britain’s democracy and the freedom of people to determine how and by whom they are governed. People rightly expect that the democratic system and sovereignty they voted to save by their Leave vote will be respected. The Chequers plan, which proposes an EU-UK trade deal that keeps EU law for goods and puts swathes of Britain’s economy under Brussels, respects neither.
Britain’s democracy and history of freedom rests on a principle recognised by Kings and Prime Ministers over the centuries: that the authority to govern derives from the people on whose support (and taxes) they must rely. By the 19th and early 20th centuries people followed matters of policy with knowledge and scepticism, as politicians and their policies were taken on at the hustings and public meetings. The reality of power may have been rawer then than it is today, but the perception by all parties was that ultimately, in Britain, the freedom to determine how they were governed entrenched other benefits – Britain’s stability, the rule of law, property rights. It also allowed dramatic change to occur without the violent upheavals or dictatorships of the right or left prevalent in its continental neighbours.
Britain’s greatest leaders have always recognised that when people went to the polls and decided on a change of direction, it had to be honoured. Change was duly executed and losers settled down to play fairly and give the other side a chance. By contrast, after the June 2016 vote, political hysteria by the losing side mounted. MPs, peers, the bien pensant press and big corporations that opposed a genuine Brexit scorned the voters’ decision and claimed it meant Armageddon for the economy. With the Chequers plan, Mrs May gave way to this undemocratic pressure to bind the country to EU law for goods trade, though held out for keeping UK law for services.
The irony is that Chequers is in principle as antipathetic to the EU as it is to the voters who chose Brexit. The EU is rationally and openly pursuing its aims, as its chief negotiator Michel Barnier has made clear. Bringing the talents of French ministerial rationalism to the service of the European project, his focus has been fixed on its unchanging goal: to cement member states into a single political, constitutional and legal bloc under one law, one court, one parliament and one government. Put quite simply, the EU and the Single Market is a seamless whole. There can be no ‘pick and mix’.
Rather, therefore, than seeking quasi-membership of the Single Market for goods, ‘the cherries’ as Barnier puts it, the Government should abandon a course that not only goes against the EU’s ideology but would be disastrous for Britain, undermining its ability to play to its strengths, to trade globally and restore the UK’s market economy over time to compete on goods as well as services.
Brexit has, from the start, been sustained by a vision very different from the feeble and ineffective capitulation represented by Chequers: a vision of UK constitutional sovereignty and freedom under UK law. If Britain’s vote and the democracy it aimed to protect is to be honoured, the country’s future cannot be half in the EU. Being bound by a rulebook designed to promote a centrally-directed economy and a politically unified EU would make it difficult for the UK to strike competitive trade deals as a third country or develop its strengths as a free market economy. Rather, constitutional sovereignty is needed to build on economic success.
The best plan has always been to seek a mutual recognition trade deal with the EU on the lines of Canada’s CETA deal, including also specific provision for financial services to trade on the basis of equivalence. Not only would that suit British voters and the Chancellor who has championed enhanced equivalence for financial services free trade; it should also suit the EU: the bloc’s Canadian deal sets its own precedent and mutual recognition equivalence deals for financial services are popular with the EU and govern the trade with the US financial sector. If the EU were to refuse, then the UK could trade successfully under WTO rules.
Both options would work well for the Irish border, provided the UK held to its proposals for a technological solution. They would reinforce the UK’s standing globally as one of the world’s oldest democracies and this country’s global trading ties with the Commonwealth and fellow European powers. That international role is the consequence of a strong democratic tradition in a country where the exercise of political power owes less to patronage, money, favours or interests than to the authority vested in it by voters.


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