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How Parliament disdains the people Representative government still contains a Burkean snobbishness about the general will

Credit: by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

February 1, 2019   4 mins

Edmund Burke famously insisted that voters use their judgment to elect Members of Parliament so that the Members of Parliament, in turn, could use their own judgment to decide the weighty matters of the day. In other words, once elected MPs are free to decide whatever they please irrespective of the views of their constituents.

In practice, of course, most MPs are likely to seek re-election and so would be foolish to deviate too far from the way their constituents see things. But the settled way we have come to understand the role of an MP is that s/he is an independent agent, and not merely an extension of the collective will of their constituents.

Before Brexit, it was mostly only constitutional anoraks that concerned themselves with such matters. But the results of the 2016 referendum, when broken down into votes by constituency, has exposed where a gap has opened up between the view of the MP and the view of his or her constituents.

Yvette Cooper, for example, was a prominent Remainer, yet 70% of the people of her constituency – Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford – voted to leave the European Union. Under the Burkean understanding of being an MP, she is quite free to try and derail Brexit against the wishes of her constituents. And here, she has much support: “The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain,” claimed Winston Churchill. “His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative not the delegate. Burke’s famous declaration on this is well known.”

The Burkean philosophy on MPs not being delegates but representatives has now become the standard line for expressing the relationship between MPs and the people who voted for them. But we shouldn’t be too comfortable with it. Burke was a terrible constituency MP. He visited his Bristol seat infrequently, and he disagreed with the city’s merchants over opening up trade to the Irish. So when Burke told the voters of his Bristol seat on the day of his election in 1774 that “your representative owes you … his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you if he sacrifices it to your opinion” he was, in a fancy way, telling them to get stuffed – that he would vote however he likes.

It may not be a great surprise that as re-election approached he came to realise he had no hope of winning again. Voters don’t like being told their views don’t count for much. And it says something about Burke’s attitude towards voters that, after losing his Bristol seat, he went off to secure a rotten borough under the patronage of Marquis of Rockingham; one that did not require the need to have – or to listen to – pesky voters. “Bidders in an auction of popularity” was how Burke dismissed politicians and the vulgarity of elections.

Burke was no great fan of democracy. He was terrified at the prospect of a French revolution coming to Britain to destroy the established social order of church and nobility. Burke believed that government should be the preserve of the “natural aristocracy”. And he had little time for the views of uneducated, common people whom he thought could be easily swayed by the those who would appeal to their emotions and their prejudices.

This Burkean line, of course, is remarkably similar to a view that has often been repeated by Remainers – that poor, simple, ordinary people didn’t really know what they were doing when they voted to leave because they were being manipulated by demagogues and liars.

It is extraordinary that a man who finds democracy so distasteful has become the go-to person for an understanding of the relationship between an MP and their constituents. English democracy didn’t begin this way. The first proper conversations about democracy in this country are often thought to have taken place during the Putney Debates of 1647.

The revolutionaries who met in Putney’s Church of St Mary the Virgin to discuss what the country might look like after the tyrant King had been ousted envisaged a much more direct form of democracy, including annual elections for MPs. Legitimate power comes up from the people; morally, it is a bottom up thing. And chopping the head off a king – 370 years ago this week – is as arresting an image of the rejection of top down governance as it is possible to imagine. From here on, only the people are sovereign. That was the idea.

But the sort of direct democracy imagined by the Levellers at the Putney debates was never going to be acceptable to those with an established interest in running the country. Those arguing against the Leveller position claimed that it was irresponsible to give the vote to people without property, and thus without a proper stake in the country. And a version of this argument has echoed down the centuries, with the established order continually looking for ways to mute the full consequences of the democratic instinct.

Burke’s idea of representative democracy is another, albeit subtle, version of that counter revolutionary move against the idea that the people are sovereign.

Fast forward to our current political quagmire. On the 9th June 2015, the House of Commons voted by 544 votes to 53 to have a referendum on our membership of the EU. In other words, the Commons itself agreed by a huge majority to have an exercise in direct democracy to break the Parliamentary log-jam over Europe. And what many MPs initially accepted at least was that such an exercise, albeit it advisory and no legally binding, nonetheless morally trumped the representative ‘think for yourself’ functions of an MP. Going into the lobby in early 2017 to vote for the triggering of Article 50, many MPs felt obliged to act more like delegates, ventriloquising the people’s will. And many deeply resented it.

What Brexit has exposed is how much our supposedly democratic system is weighted against democracy itself. When an exercise of direct democracy is conducted within a representative system, the representatives generally don’t like it. For the very idea of representative government still contains a sort of Burkean snobbishness about the general will.

The battle over whether Brexit will be implemented is not just a battle about Brexit per se, it is also a battle about who is boss: the people or MPs. Brexit may be an exercise in repatriating power from Europe to Westminster. But it is also a reminder that the moral source of political authority lies ultimately with the people and not with politicians.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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