THE Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he was “horrified” by the abuse directed at three High Court judges on social media last week, after they ruled that the Prime Minister must take Article 50, which would begin the process of leaving the European Union, to a parliamentary vote.
Theresa May had argued that MPs did not need to vote on the legislation, given the majority result of the referendum on membership of the EU in June (News, 1 July 2016). But the panel of judges unanimously agreed with campaigners that the move would be unconstitutional. The Government is appealing against the decision in the Supreme Court.
The judges were subject to abuse and “trolling” on social media, after making the front page of national newspapers last Friday. The headline on the front page of The Daily Telegraph read: “The judges versus the people”; the Daily Mail chose “Enemies of the people”.
In a statement posted on his Facebook and Twitter pages on Saturday, Archbishop Welby said: “I’m horrified by the trolling of British judges and those going to court — British values call for honest but good disagreeing. We need reconciliation, not abuse.
”Those criticising the judges are not distinguishing between “Should we leave EU?” (yes we should, the vote said so) and “How legally do we do it?” (parliament confirms it).
“Independent judges are fundamental to British values, and we have the best. It’s wrong to attack them for declaring the law.”
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, who took part in a debate on the implementation of Article 50 in the House of Lords on Tuesday, agreed that the public should be “very alarmed” at the media reaction.
“The press can criticise the judges’ decision, but ad hominem attacks — portraying them as a bunch of rogues, and calling them enemies of the people — is unacceptable,” he said in a speech to his diocesan synod on Saturday. “But it is the threat to the public conversation that is so dangerous and potentially poisonous.”
Bishop Baines later told Radio 4’s Sunday: “The press don’t just reflect the public discourse, they shape it.” Such headlines had not been seen since Nazi Germany, and in Zimbabwe, he said. “In a parliamentary democracy, with parliament sovereign, which is apparently what Brexit was about, then surely the rule of law is important to that institution, and to undermine the rule of law in this way is a very dangerous thing.”
Stephen Glover, a columnist for the Daily Mail, said that the comparison was “utterly outrageous”, and accused the Bishop of “acting like a worldly politician” to change the outcome of the referendum. But Bishop Baines, who voted Remain, said that he would vote for Article 50 to be processed in Parliament, since it was the will of the public.
The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, said that the Government had every intention of triggering Article 50 by March next year, as previously planned. In a statement to the Commons, which was repeated for debate in the Lords, he said that the “point of no return” on Brexit had been passed when the vote was decided.
Confirming that the Government would have to wait for the outcome of the Supreme Court hearing in January before further action could be taken, he urged MPs to schedule their own vote on Article 50 ahead of time. The Government would not be pushed into revealing its terms of negotiation, or forced into a second referendum, by those opposed to Brexit, he said.
“Parliamentary scrutiny, yes; telling the Prime Minister which cards to play, seeking to force her to disclose her hand to those she will be negotiating with, no.”
The Scottish Parliament sought to intervene in the process this week. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said that the “democratic wishes of the people of Scotland and the national parliament of Scotland cannot be brushed aside as if they do not matter”, since Scotland voted to remain in the EU by 62 to 38 per cent, in June. The UK as a whole voted 52 to 48 per cent to leave.
If approved by the Supreme Court, a vote on Article 50 would have to take place in Holyrood as well as Westminster.
At the first meeting of a forum involving the administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, on Wednesday, Mr Davis said that the Government was willing to share its “latest thinking” on Brexit with those nations’ respective leaderships.
“I want to ensure the free and trusted flow of important information between all parties involved,” he said. “So we are asking the devolved administrations to bring us their analysis that will help shape our priorities for the negotiation with the EU, and we will share our latest thinking.”