EU repeal bill is a power-grab by ministers

EU repeal bill is a power-grab by ministers

Brexit voters will feel betrayed as they realise that ‘take back control’ really means even less democracy than before.

Brexit voters will feel betrayed as they realise that ‘take back control’ really means even less democracy than before

In his bestselling book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that storytelling is the characteristic that allowed the human race to thrive. While other animals also live in groups, people rule the world because they found a way to work with thousands of members of their species whom they have never met. “The secret was probably the appearance of fiction,” he writes. “Large numbers of strangers can co-operate successfully by believing in common myths.”

The best politicians are the myth-makers. From Cicero to Churchill, Thatcher to Blair, leaders succeed by shaping a narrative of the world around which voters can unite. Martin Luther King had a dream, Nelson Mandela took the “long walk to freedom”. The storytelling is not always so benign, of course. Adolf Hitler created a myth of the Fatherland, peopled by an Aryan super-race. For better or worse, politicians triumph by persuading people to believe in something that is bigger than themselves.

That is truer than ever in our current “age of unreason” when the populists specialise in spinning fairytales that are full of heroes and villains. Donald Trump, who learnt his myth-making skills in the world of reality television, won last year’s US presidential election by promising to “make America great again”, a fantastical vision of a previous era that never existed. By contrast, Hillary Clinton lost because she offered only technocratic competence.

The bill will create a field day for lawyers and civil servants

In this country, the Brexiteers seized victory in the Europe referendum by shaping the myth that the United Kingdom could “take back control”. It will never be possible for a single nation to be entirely in charge of its own affairs in an inter-connected globalised world, but the slogan appealed to a primeval instinct for self-determination, while tapping into an anti-establishment mood. While politically it was brilliant, practically the pledge was as misleading as the idea of giving an extra £350 million a week to the NHS. But as Arron Banks, who bankrolled the Brexit campaign, said: “The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally.”

As parliament returns after the summer recess this week, the myth that the British people will “take back control” after Brexit will run up against the reality of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. In contrast to the one-line slogan that could be written on the side of a bus, this runs to 60 pages with multiple sub-clauses and explanatory notes. Although the first line states simply, “The European Communities Act 1972 is repealed on exit day”, what follows is fiendishly complicated, creating a field day for the lawyers and civil servants who understand how to exploit any period of flux.

The stated aim of the proposed legislation is sensible enough, to incorporate all European law into UK law, giving stability by ensuring that there is no sudden change in the rules and regulations after Brexit. What worries MPs from all parties, however, is that the bill seeks to hand enormous power to ministers to introduce laws without parliamentary scrutiny. It is a constitutional minefield with potentially far-reaching democratic consequences.

According to an analysis by Tory rebels, there could be about 9,000 so-called “statutory instruments”, pieces of legislation that can be introduced without a House of Commons vote, in order to smooth the passage of Britain’s departure from the EU. In short, ministers will be able to force through thousands of changes to the way the country is governed with no way for MPs to hold them to account.

Cabinet ministers have no idean where the negotiations will end

These executive powers are supposed to be for “dealing with deficiencies” in UK law that result from any retained EU legislation, but the categories covered are so vague that almost anything could be shoehorned into them. Far from giving control back to the people, this is a massive power-grab by the executive. Even if all the reforms are utterly benign and well-intentioned, accountability is being bypassed.

Conservative rebels are concerned that the bill simultaneously ends this country’s commitment to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, removing another protection from the British people. “This is very dangerous,” says one MP. “It takes away the rights you had under EU law and gives the government the power to decide what rights it will give back to you with no proper scrutiny.”

Although there are no plans by Tory pro-Europeans to vote against the bill when it has its second reading in the Commons next week, Dominic Grieve, the former Conservative attorney-general, is drafting a series of amendments which will focus on limiting the

so-called “Henry VIII powers” to amend or repeal legislation without further parliamentary scrutiny, named after the 1539 statute that gave the king the right to legislate by proclamation.

One Brexit-supporting minister says the bubbling dissent over the constitutional implications of the bill is “Remain sentiment masquerading as a crusade for parliamentary sovereignty”. But with wide support across party boundaries in the Commons and the Lords for curtailing the government’s authority, ministers acknowledge that they could be forced to make concessions.

There will be bitter arguments too over the Tory rebels’ plan to support an attempt to give parliament a final say on the deal struck by the prime minister with the EU. One MP says the Conservative Party is much more “fragile” after Theresa May’s announcement that she intends to fight the next general election. Even cabinet ministers have no idea where the EU negotiations will end up. As one admits: “At the moment there are still unresolved issues about the precise nature of the relationship we should have with the EU after Brexit and what trade-offs we are prepared to make. I don’t know how divided the cabinet is on that because it hasn’t been discussed.”

The myths of the Brexit campaign are slowly but surely being exposed as fantasies. Britain will not close its borders to immigration after Brexit, and nor should it. The European Court of Justice will end up having some influence over rulings in this country. And the free-trade deal with the EU that Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, said would be the “easiest in human history” is set to be the hardest in living memory.

Many voters will feel betrayed when they realise that “take back control” was a fiction too.

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