By Tom Mitchell
The symbolism was undoubtedly tortuously manufactured. The intended effect of christening the EU Withdrawal Bill as the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ in the Queen’s Speech was to draw parallels with the ‘Great Reform Act’ of 1832, which famously expanded democracy in the UK. Presumably, Mrs May hoped that arbitrarily putting the word ‘great’ in front of the defining act of her time as PM would result in a sort of nominative determinism whereby the bill transpires to be a roaring success purely on account of its name.
Sadly for Mrs May, this is unlikely, and the irony of aligning the Great Repeal Bill with a celebrated expansion of democracy is unmissable to all but the most determined Brexiteer. The truth is that the bill is about as undemocratic as is imaginable in a nation where parliamentary democracy supposedly reigns. Tory rebels indicate that there could be as many as 9000 ‘statutory instruments’ (items of legislation that can be introduced without a Commons vote) implemented over the next two years in order to secure safe passage from the grip of a perceived European tyranny.
Even taking for granted the benign intentions of Mrs May and the Tory government (and one should never really presume the good offices of those with keys to power), the lack of parliamentary scrutiny risks the nation’s future being decided by swivel-eyed loons on the right of the Conservative Party. Keir Starmer made no mistake when he labelled this a “power grab” by the executive. Of particular concern should be the abandonment of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – the government now has the capacity to remove the rights we had under EU law and choose which ones it returns to us. Unilaterally. Without parliamentary scrutiny.
Given the Daily Mail’s fervour to throw off the shackles of “anti-democratic, corrupt pan- European bureaucracy” (actually, the elected European Parliament), they are surprisingly acquiescent in allowing the (genuinely unelected) bureaucrats in Whitehall to take control of “taking back control.” If the British people “knew what they were voting for,” they can’t simultaneously claim that they were voting for sovereignty. One must either admit that the realities of Brexit were unclear at the time of the referendum, or that the case for leaving the EU had nothing to do with ‘sovereignty’.
Matthew Parris, a pro-Remain columnist for The Times, makes the fair point that “there’s obviously no way to import EU regulation into domestic law except in one huge gulp” on account of the quantity and complexity of laws that need to be transferred. The fact that this puts paid to the argument of Liam Fox and John Redwood that “getting out of the EU will be quick and easy” has gone largely unnoticed. It also demonstrates that, as a nation, we can’t be that irritated by EU legislation, given we’re going to introduce the overwhelming majority of it into British law without alteration. Whilst I broadly agree with Parris’ argument, it would seem reasonable to expect the items of legislation that we do want to change to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and debate. Any change to the way we are governed ought to be debated, and not cooked up behind closed doors in a smoke-filled room.
Aside from the anti-democratic nature of the bill, there are other serious problems with it. Richard Benyon, a former Conservative minister, asks how do we replicate “the process of infraction — fines with lots of noughts on the end that are imposed on a member state’s government for non-compliance?” Ministers previously acted in accordance with EU laws on clean beaches, food hygiene and the environment because of the certainty of punishment for breaching them. This is one of the major attractions of supranational organisations like the EU – they compel nation states to act in a manner they otherwise might not, for the benefit of everyone. Unless the government takes the unusual step of fining itself if they fail to keep beaches clean (remember anything is possible in politics in 2017), then they will have to conjure up another incentive to do so. A feeble, disrespected and disregarded British ‘kite-mark’ regime looms, I fear.
There is little about the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ that is worthy of such a pompous, grandiose title. Brexiteers have already been disappointed by the realities of leaving the EU in the year since the referendum – Britain will not close its borders to immigration, the European Court of Justice will continue to have jurisdiction over us and the trade deal that was supposed to be “the easiest in human history” looks harder with every passing day. But in the Great Repeal Bill lies their greatest disappointment to date. The mantra by which Leave won the referendum will be betrayed; “taking back control” was a lie.
Photograph: Rajan Manickavasaqam via Flickr and Creative Commons