Parliament’s Duty to Act on Brexit

The High Court weighs in.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

If it’s upheld on appeal, Thursday’s ruling on Brexit from the U.K. High Court gives members of parliament a responsibility some might prefer to shirk -- namely, to offer the voters they represent their best judgment on Britain’s future in Europe. When the time comes, they need to stand up and do what they’re paid for.

The judges ruled against Prime Minister Theresa May and her government, declaring that a vote in parliament is required before May invokes Article 50 of the European Union treaties, which would formally begin the two-year process of Britain’s departure from the EU. When called on to vote, MPs who disagree with Brexit -- and that’s a majority of the House of Commons -- should block the proposal.

QuickTake Why Britain Voted to Quit the EU

Aren’t MPs bound by the referendum in June, which saw 52 percent of voters choosing Brexit? As a matter of law, if Thursday’s ruling is upheld, they aren’t. And let’s be clear: As a matter of democratic propriety, the answer is the same. In a representative democracy, members of parliament are elected to serve the interests of their constituents, not to take direction from narrow majorities in dubiously framed referendums.

Any MPs who agree that Brexit is a grave mistake -- and it is -- owe it to their constituents to vote accordingly.

Granted, doing the right thing would, as often, be risky. Many parliamentarians will fear the electoral consequences of defying May, her ministers and many of their voters. They’d be wise, as well, to consider the implications of overturning a settled pro-Brexit majority in the country. At stake are not just their own seats, but the composition of future parliaments. What would be cast as a vivid display of contempt for voters could give a boost to dangerous populists.

So it’s vital that MPs who oppose Brexit spare no effort in making that case to the country. The pro-Brexit majority isn’t settled. Opinion can shift, and it wouldn’t need to shift very far. The clearer the likely consequences of Brexit become -- starting with the collapse in sterling and a coming spike in inflation -- the likelier it is that voters will have second thoughts.

In the end, things aren’t that complicated. MPs who want to see Britain stay in the EU need to keep making the case. Then, when the time comes, they should discharge their democratic duty.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.