Not In Our Name

A simple way to strengthen our democracy

Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament exposed a simple fact: our democracy is not fit for purpose. Not only does the government of the day enjoy sweeping powers over Parliament, but when it comes to what Britain does internationally our democracy has very little control over what’s done in our name.

That’s why we’ve launched the Not In Our Name principle.

It’s based on three simple steps. First, end the extreme secrecy in what position UK negotiators take internationally. Second, give Parliament the right to mandate British the government to take particular positions in international negotiations. Third, give Parliament the right to a final say on signing international treaties.

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Read the technical briefing note here (PDF)
Write to candidates in the UK general election

Here’s why it matters.


Parliament is sovereign in the UK, right?
Yes, but… Once a government is elected and can command a majority in Parliament it has sweeping power over our democracy. That’s why Lord Hailsham famously said in the 1970s it amounted to an elective dictatorship: ‘the government controls Parliament and not Parliament the government’.

But can’t Parliament still hold them to account?
In lots of areas, Parliament still enjoys lots of power to scrutinise, check and balance what the government does. But foreign policy, including the ratification of international treaties, is different. What the British government does and says in foreign affairs takes place under the royal prerogative or the ‘Crown in Parliament’.

Why does it matter?
This system was not as much of a problem in an era when international politics played little role in domestic politics. But today more and more of what happens in domestic politics is affected by international treaties and agreements. Trade deals, in particular, have a major affect on UK domestic law, as do European rules and treaties.

What’s this got to do with Donald Trump?
If Britain leaves the EU and signs a trade deal with Donald Trump’s America it will lead to the marketization and selloff of our NHS. As it stands, Parliament does not even have the right to vote on whether to sign Trump’s deal or not. The government could just sign it and Parliament would have to accept it.

What are the 3 big problems with the status quo?

1. Secrecy. As diplomacy is traditionally done away from prying eyes, rules that could transform our NHS are negotiated in secrecy with zero transparency.
2. No mandate. Parliament cannot vote to mandate the government to take a particulate position in international negotiation. Our democracy just has to accept whatever government comes up with.
3. No final say. Worse still even international treaties that massively affect things like the NHS can be signed by the government without Parliament having the right to a final say. There’s no requirement to ratify them.

How does this relate to the EU?
EU rules automatically become law for EU members. The British government puts forward its position in European institutions ‘in our name’. But Parliament has no power to mandate the government to take particular positions. This has fed the mistaken idea that European rules are things ‘done to us’ and not things Britain has shaped. In fact, the opposite is true. Britain has for decades successfully used its influence to move the EU in the wrong direction towards more cuts and privatisation. But Parliament only has a very limited right to scrutinise and shape these decisions.

So what’s the Not In Our Name principle?
It’s a simple way to strengthen our democracy. It would:

• Introduce full transparency over negotiations
• Give Parliament the power to mandate a particular position in international treaty negotiations
• Give Parliament the right to a final say on an international treaty
• Establish a special procedure for how Britain relates to the European institutions

8th December 2019