Stephen MacLean perceives the ‘End of the Beginning’
‘MPs hand Theresa May the starting gun on Brexit’. That is how the Independent recorded last Wednesday’s ‘second reading’ in the UK House of Commons to permit the Conservative government to begin exiting the European Union. And what a process it has been.
Many will argue that Brexit has been in the works since September 1988, when then prime minister Margaret Thatcher argued that ‘We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.’
This became known as her ‘Bruges speech’, and inspired countless Britons to struggle for UK sovereignty against Continental encroachments. An eponymous ‘Bruges Group’, with Lady Thatcher as its founding president, was formed the next year to continue the fight.
Unrest smoldered under successive Labour governments, culminating in widespread disgust at the passing of the Lisbon Treaty — the compromise alternative when a formal agreement failed to receive sufficient votes from member states to pass, and for critics a ‘constitution’ in all-but-name for a federal Europe.
Attempting to quell dissent among his Eurosceptic MPs, coalition prime minister David Cameron promised an ‘in/out referendum’ early in 2013 and, in February last year, called for a June 23rd vote — which ‘Leave’ campaigner Boris Johnson called Britain’s own ‘Independence Day’.
Mr. Cameron, who resigned after leading the unsuccessful Remain camp, was succeeded by Theresa May, who vowed to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and initiate talks to pull Britain out of the EU.
But not so fast. Or ‘festina lente’, as the Romans used to say.
Brexit opponents argued in October that the Government could not take unilateral action without an authorising vote in Parliament. The High Court concurred and Mrs May appealed to the Supreme Court in December, which ruled two weeks ago that the referendum results were not sufficient legal grounds for the Government to act alone. In subsequent days the Government introduced legislation to remedy its oversight and last week the bill’s first major hurdle was passed, with the House of Commons voting 498 to 114 on second reading to ratify the Brexit results.
Next the ‘European Union (Notification of Withdrawal)’ bill undergoes line-by-line scrutiny in ‘Committee of the Whole’ where it may be amended. Sent back to the Commons, at this ‘report stage’ it will face further amendment from MPs before a final ‘third reading’; if passed by a majority, the bill is subjected to a similar step-by-step procedure in the House of Lords; if peers pass additional changes to the legislation, it must return to the Commons in a ‘ping-pong’ exercise until a ‘finished’ bill is agreed by both Houses — at last, to be presented to Her Majesty for Royal Assent. And all this, the Prime Minister hopes, before her self-imposed end-of-March deadline to set in motion Article 50.
Brexiteers discouraged by these seemingly interminable obstacles to independence can take heart from their heroic leader during World War II. After endless setbacks in its fight against Nazi Germany — the loss of continental Europe, the flight from Dunkirk, the London blitz — British forces triumphed over ‘Desert Fox’ General Erwin Rommel at the ‘Battle of Egypt’ in November 1942.
The war was far from over but, for Sir Winston Churchill, the victory achieved at El Alamein marked the turning point for future Allied success. Likewise, after numerous setbacks following the June referendum, this initial Brexit legislation’s easy passage through the Commons may signal that its tide has turned, and reclaiming British sovereignty well in sight.
‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end,’ Sir Winston told an expectant Mansion House luncheon. ‘But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’
Stephen Michael MacLean maintains the weblog The Organic Tory