Keeping a Brexit plan secret shouldn’t be a piece of cake in a free country

We should make better use of our right to demand answers


Another day, another crack in the armour, as written notes spotted in the hands of a senior aid entering David Davis’s Brexit bunker apparently spilled the beans on the government’s fabled ‘plan’.

Naturally, denials this was the plan were quickly made by the government, but equally important is the fact we’re jumping at table scraps at all.

When the EU referendum result was announced, it was heralded by Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and the Sun newspaper as Britain’s ‘independence day’, implying a parallel with America’s liberation from British rule.

But as these tribunes of the people ought to know, governments, in the words of the US Declaration of Independence, ‘derive their just powers from the consent of the governed’.

It could be argued the referendum was government seeking consent for one or other course on EU membership, though how democratic the process was is highly questionable. But ‘one vote then shut up’ is hardly an example of radical democracy.

Yet what have we seen since June 24? A new Prime Minister and cabinet nobody voted for (not even Tory MPs) flat out refusing to give the broadest outlines of their intentions, a Three Stooges Brexit department, a Foreign Secretary who tells more to Czech newspapers than British ones, a Brexit Secretary who says we’re leaving the single market one day, and then has to take it back the next, a legal attempt to block MPs from doing their jobs, and leaks that reveal a back-of-the-envelope strategy without the resources to carry it out.

In a democracy, government policy should not be kept secret from the public or their MPs. In a country with a free press, we shouldn’t have to wait for leaks to find out what our government is up to.

And here that other fine document of liberty, the US Bill of Rights, might point to a way out of this democratic cul de sac. Its first amendment places the role of a free press at the apex of all other freedoms.

But a relatively unfettered press corps is only as good as its journalists. As Mark Twain quipped, the glory of the United States is that it has freedom of speech and the prudence never to use it. That ought to sting for anyone who has a chance to interview a government minister and lets them off the hook.

So the next time they get a chance to interview the Prime Minster or one of her cabinet, they should ask her what her plans are with regard to Brexit, and not move on until she gives a substantive answer.

It’s unlikey Theresa May is unaware of the distinction between a ‘plan’ and a ‘goal’ (a point well made by editor Ian Dunt), and it’s the role of an interviewer or someone with the resources to ask the government questions to wring out of politicians some information on both.

The PM and her cabinet ought to get the Paxman-Michael Howard treatment until they are shamed into answering direct questions with direct answers – on the single market, on free movement, on everything.

The bogus claim these answers will ‘show our hand’ to our EU negotiating partners must be dismissed as a silly evasion. EU diplomats will presumably find out what we want when we start the talks, so nothing is lost by saying so now.

Regardless, the British people deserve to know what the government has in mind now so we can have a say on it before those negotiations begin. If May’s cards are so close to her chest even the British parliament can’t see them, she can’t claim to be practicing democracy.

As for non-journalists, you can always write to your MP, or to your publicly-funded broadcaster, and insist they hold to account this ramshackle government on matters that will determine the future of this country.

In a democracy, keeping something as important as a Brexit plan secret should not be a piece of cake – and we can’t have or eat it if we can’t see it or know it exists. This ‘let them eat platitudes’ stuff has to end, and it won’t do so except by popular demand.

Adam Barnett is staff writer for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBarnett13 

See: PMQs: Theresa May ‘Trumps’ her way through Brexit plan questions

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