Guardians of the People: Why are Liberal Democrats defending the public will and not obstructing it
It’s been almost eight months since the result of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom. On the 23rd of June, the British public has decided to leave the European Union by a narrow margin of 52% people in favour of leaving with 72% turnout. One of the peculiarities was that a majority of the Members of the Parliament has actually voted Remain, including the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and a majority of the Conservative party.
Since then, the political debate has been in massive turmoil.
After the resignation of David Cameron as a PM, the new cabinet led by Theresa May has been plagued with in-fighting, incoherent public stances, mass resignation from key diplomatic posts and an obvious complete lack of any specific strategy and goals for the upcoming negotiation with the EU and its 27 member states. Theresa May and her leading ministers, including David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, have made it clear in recent weeks that they would like to pursue the strategy of the so-called “hard Brexit”, meaning exiting the Single Market with its four fundamental freedoms and the Customs Union as well as many other European institutions. This decision puts the lives, jobs and future of many Brits as well as foreign national living in the UK in jeopardy. What more, it also shows that Theresa May and her cabinet are trying to usurp the Brexit for themselves. It took tremendous effort and pressure from both the public and the opposition parties as well as a ruling of the Supreme Court to even put the time of triggering of the Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and the White paper for Brexit to vote in the House of Commons, the ultimate legislative and representative body of the British public. May has shown time and again that she is not willing to listen to anyone apart from her close circle when she dismissed any concession to Scotland and Northern Ireland, the countries that voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU.
With the Labour party disintegrating under the leadership of hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, whose relationship with the EU is cold at best, the gauntlet of any true opposition to the governing Tories has been picked up by the Liberal Democrats, a party which has been present in Cameron’s coalition government of 2010 but experienced a sharp fall in popularity at the last general election, securing mere 8 seats in the House of Commons compared to the previous 57. However, they have vigorously fought for Britain’s place in Europe prior to the referendum and have continued their fight afterwards, rightfully calling Theresa May on lacking the mandate for hard Brexit. There has been a severe backlash from the Conservative leaders, commentators and media such as the Daily Mail. They have collectively accused Liberal Democrats of disregarding the will of the people, which has been clearly indicated in the Brexit referendum. This is, however, a fallacious claim.
The Brexit referendum consisted of a single question with the wording “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”. While the case of remaining is quite clear as it only pertains to the status quo, the second possible outcome is very ambiguous and unclear at best. Yes, the public vote has decided to leave the European Union but this exit can take on many shapes and forms. Theresa May, who has never earned her mandate as a Prime Minister in the general election, has unilaterally opted for the harshest form of exit. It is however only fair to argue that not every one of the 17,4 million Leave voters has had the same idea in mind.
The Liberal Democrats are not trying to obstruct the will of the people. In fact the contrary is true – they are trying to secure the best possible deals for both the British and the European citizens and are rightfully criticizing the government for pursuing a dangerous objective. Hard Brexit will undoubtedly have unfavorable consequences for Britain, almost regardless on the outcome of the negotiation. It will hit the key British industries such as financial services sector, whose constituents do not want to lose the access to the Single Market, which amounts to about a quarter of the world GDP. Walking away from the Customs Union, among other things, could jeopardize the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. The cost of the possible trade barriers and return to the WTO rules will almost exclusively be borne by the customers. 44% of the British exports goes to the Single Market and Theresa May willingly risks significantly lowering that number. Curbing immigration is likely to negatively impact the NHS and other sectors of the economy that rely on it. All of the aforementioned issues were not on the ballot last June. It is very worrying that the Conservative government should assume the power for the hard Brexit without an actual consent of the people.
Liberal Democrats are only right to point out these inconsistencies and the potential grave dangers. That is the actual purpose of the opposition, which is even more crucial when they might be the only party, possibly along with the SNP, representing the 48% of the British voters who backed Remain as well as those Leave voters, who never wanted to leave the Single Market. Their fight for open, tolerant and united Britain is protecting the will of the people a giving voice to a possible majority of the British public which is currently being blatantly overlooked and ignored by the British government.