Brexit and the Collapse of Political Courage

Chris Smith says MPs should stick to their own judgement when it comes to triggering Article 50.

In 1774, Edmund Burke outlined to the electors of Bristol the role and responsibilities of their elected representatives in the House of Commons. “Your representative owes you,” he said in his oft quoted speech, “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” This, in a nutshell, is the relationship between the Member of Parliament and their constituents. Britain is not a direct democracy, it is a representative democracy. MPs must respect and listen to the views of constituents but must not surrender their judgement.

The logic of Burke’s constitutionally important pronouncement is clear. What the voting public might demand is not necessarily possible, in their own interests or those of the nation. The complexities of issues such as defence policy are considerable and must be mastered before an informed decision can be made. The public are not in regular receipt of expert reports, they do not have teams of specialist advisors to help them unravel the complexities of intricate problems. For that reason we elect representatives and provide them with the time and resources to make informed decisions on our behalf. We might not like their decisions, but that is the system.

The reaction of many MPs to Brexit, in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling (which upheld both the duty of our elected representatives to pass informed judgments and parliamentary sovereignty) destroys this essential relationship between the elected and the elector. Prior to the referendum a mere quarter of MPs supported exiting the European Union. Our current Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the leader of the Opposition and 73% of MPs asserted that leaving the EU is bad for Britain. They argued, having been presented with a considerable array of advice and evidence, that Brexit is a huge economic, social, cultural and even existential (given the potential for a second Scottish independence referendum) gamble. If they believe this still they should, as the late Tam Dalyell put it, “have the balls to say so and vote accordingly. This is a matter of cowardice if they don’t.”

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister, her cabinet, the majority of the opposition front bench and most hitherto Remain MPs are willing to sacrifice their judgement to the will of 37% of the electorate. Their calculation is simple. In the case of both major parties: to thwart the referendum result may have disastrous consequences in the next General Election. This is the ultimate case of placing party interests before those of their constituents and the nation. The alternative, less cynical conclusion, is that they believe that the referendum result requires they surrender their judgement. That they must helplessly usher in what they believe may end in catastrophe. Yet, as Burke pointed out centuries ago, their informed judgment is their very raison d’etre. To bow to popular opinion in the face of evidence is an historic collapse of political courage.

Of course, MPs are regularly whipped into line by their leaders – their judgement subordinated to that of the party. The gritty reality of politics often renders Burke’s lesson an ideal as opposed to a reality. Yet, if ever there was an issue of sufficient magnitude to remind politicians of their role, then surely it is this. The level of parliamentary opposition to Brexit, the damage it may inflict, place it into an entirely different category from the usual political rough and tumble. This is the most significant challenge Britain has faced since the Second World War. Nevertheless, MPs will cast aside their duty to pass informed judgement and do so in their droves.

If Article 50 is triggered, it will be a clear signal that we cannot rely on MPs to fulfil their primary responsibility – to wield power in a way they believe serves the nation’s interests. Regardless of whether you voted for Leave of Remain, this should be seen as a hugely worrying development.  It undermines the very bedrock of our representative democracy.

Chris Smith is a Historian.

20 thoughts on “Brexit and the Collapse of Political Courage

  1. In Burke’s time M.P.s did not say on a controversial principle, we can’t decide what is right on this matter so we will ask the electors! “Lets hold a Referendum!”
    Then allow those M.Ps who did not agree propose to ; “use their judgement”with the result and ignore the wishes of the electors as Mr Smith wants his fellow M.P.s to do now despite the total collective wish of the people of Wales.
    Welsh leader Jones should remember if he goes on with his pleadings ,Welshmen may think – No democracy – No Assembly and demand another vote to abolish that useless trumpeted up monstrosity.

  2. Brexit and Trump have come about through a popular vote. They seem to have legitimacy because slightly more people think they are a good thing than those who do not. This mechanism of voting is often mistaken for ‘democracy’, and in this case has caused a paralysis in those who want to abide by democratic principles but don’t agree with the outcome. If its wrong its wrong adn we campaign to change it. The loss of backbone comes about when the argument is ceded so entirely and so quickly. Protesting against Trump is good, but where are the Hard Remainers?

    Democracy means governing in the best interests of the people (rather than kings and oligarchs – and arguably, the ‘mob’). I daresay a majority, if asked, would vote for capital punishment – doesn’t make it right, though, does it?

  3. This is an excellent article which encapsulates the present situation perfectly.
    Bearing in mind the desperately low standard of pre-referendum debate and incorrect information, which clearly affected the result, it is irresponsible for MPs to now bow to the “wishes of the people” when they know that it will lead to disaster for the countries of the UK.
    All logic dictates that it should be a free vote for MPs, not on triggering Article 50, but on ALL the options available as things are much clearer now. After all, that’s their job. The result would then clearly identify the way ahead.

  4. This is a very good blog which makes a strong case that MPs are failing to deliver. It also highlights just how poorly understood our democratic institutions are by so many of us – including Peter H.C Davies if his comment is to be believed.

  5. WHY equate Brexit ( UK leaving EU ) with the election of President Trump ?
    Isn’t this a rather ,’false ‘ comparison Huw? You should now , I think check out your own ,’bias’ . As the previous commentator suggests it would be a dangerous to ride roughshod over the will for the British Electorate by a second,or even third Referendum telling us, the public , that M’P’s really know best.
    Really ? I find this hard to stomach given the expenses scandal of not so long ago and the , ‘outside interests’ so many of them having return to after standing down.Yes of course it is in the interests of that privileged, metropolitan urban elite to signal their own, ‘ virtue ‘ at the expense of a democratic vote,and would be shameful. As Hamlet said, ‘It sinks to high heaven.’

  6. It is always difficult in a short article to do a subject justice but Chris Smith’s argument makes too many logical jumps to hold water and speaks more of his personal frustration at current political circumstance than any meaningful analysis or insight. It would all be so different if they just spoke up!

    His reference to Edmund Burke is somewhat spurious in the current situation. Edmund Burke never had to contend with referendums since the first UK wide one was not held until 1975. He also belongs to a patriarchal age when it was held that the masses did not know what was good for them and only the wise and the learned, who also happened to be white wealthy men, could decide on their behalf.

    A referendum has since the 70s become a useful tool of democratic government. It established democracy in both Wales and Scotland and now it has lead to our decision to leave the European Union. I was on the winning side of the argument when it came to Welsh democracy and now I find myself on the losing side. I think this is a disastrous course of action which will cause economic difficulties for Wales. But it’s what the people of Wales voted for and this is the way forward that must now prevail.

    For an elected parliament to ignore the decision of the electorate, having called for the referendum in the first place, and in the name of conscience, would be arrogant in the extreme.

    MPs find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of balancing the result of the referendum against the wishes of their constituents as well as their personal judgment. Some like Kenneth Clarke will vote against it because he considers it wrong whereas Jo Stevens argues that she will vote against it because she wishes to represent the overwhelming view of her constituents. Others, like Tim Farron believe a second referendum is required because the electorate did not vote to leave the single market. There is a wide range of opinions as to where we all go from there.

    But in a democratic society, the democratically expressed will of the people has to prevail, whether that be an election or a referendum. Which is why the peoples of Wales and England cannot impose their position on the Scots who overwhelmingly voted to remain.

  7. I will answer to the name of “Hard Remainer” and hope that I/we all can rise to the needs of the time, especially to protect Wales. Wringing hands will not achieve this. We need to ask ourselves “Why, for example, did Carmarthenshire (no immigrants to speak of, EU or otherwise) which is dependant on EU funded agriculture vote Leave?”
    We need to take opnion polls, interrogate people, listen and persuade and not accept tabloid rubbish about the EU.
    I watched Trump in the US throughout his campaign. Whatever his policies (which do apply in the US though maybe not here) the main thing he showed was to come out fighting. So should we!

  8. Voting Leave offered the opportunity, which many took, to give the political class, who they perceive as putting their and their party interests before those of their constituents, a kick up the backside . For some, maybe a significant some. this was effectively the deciding factor.
    Now we are in a situation where many of the MPs who will vote to trigger Brexit will prove that the perception was correct.

    I think there’s an irony in that and it’s also ironic that many of them see this behavior by MPs as evidence that these MPs are being honorable.

  9. Amazing sentence here:-

    “Bearing in mind the desperately low standard of pre-referendum debate and incorrect information, which clearly affected the result, it is irresponsible for MPs to now bow to the “wishes of the people” when they know that it will lead to disaster for the countries of the UK.”

    (a) Everyone had a chance to debate, although the UK government and the devolved governments clearly had every advantage when getting their message across. “Incorrect information” includes dramatic “predictions” from the Chancellor about an Autumn budget to curdle the blood and further predictions of the end of the economic world for all of us from the Governor of the bank of England.
    (b) ” it is irresponsible for MPs to now bow to the “wishes of the people”. The converse would be true then would it? “It is responsible of MPs to ignore the “wishes of the people”. No one said that Democracy was perfect but I am confident that ignoring democratic outcomes is the road to popular uprising…even in Britain.

    (c) “when they know that it will lead to disaster for the countries of the UK.” Define “disaster” in a way other than “not what I want.” How is it that these MPs are suddenly omniscient about the upcoming disaster when they couldn’t even predict a majority voting “leave”?
    What MPs should be asking themselves is how they failed to act on the growing discontent of their constituents for decades; they reap just what they sow by their previous failings as representatives of the people. I am certain in my own mind that it was the cowardice of MPs in not openly discussing all aspects of immigration that led to the conditions in Britain that ensured Brexit.

  10. Burke’s dictum, quoted by Ken Clarke in a superb speech yesterday, is constitutionally correct – but clearly does not apply where Parliament has already delegated a decision directly to the People in a Referendum.

    The National Referendum is a recent innovation in the British Constitution, so Burke was not familiar with it. Some people dislike the very idea of referenda …or at least they do after the vote goes against them. Such people complain about the ‘ignorance’ of the People …or, again, they do after the vote goes against them. They may even resort to the ridiculous argument that everyone who did not vote should be treated as having voted on their side. Such arguments dishonour the course they claim to represent.

    Burke’s dictum is valid in as much as it applies to representative democracy, but ceases to be relevant when representative democracy delegates to direct democracy. That is what Parliament did when it passed the Referendum Act. The Courts pretended otherwise, but every MP and Peer knows that it did, as did both sides in the Referendum campaign and almost everyone who voted on 23 June. So yesterday’s vote was not about putting MPs having to choose between their own best judgement and the opinions of their constituents but simply confirming what practically everyone thought they had decided already.

  11. The UK, well England and Wales at least, voted to leave the European Union. That was the question on the referendum paper. Before the referendum Leave were saying we could leave the EU and remain in the single market, they even held up the examples of Norway and Switzerland as examples of what a post Brexit UK could be like. Now they are calming that the vote was also to leave the single market. If leave wanted to leave the single market they should have been honest, and lets be honest that goes against their grain, and told us that the vote was also to leave the single market, not desperately try to claim that after the event. The WAG is not trying to stop Brexit, no one is trying to stop Brexit, what politicians are trying to do is safeguard British jobs following the UKs withdraw from the EU. The WAG is doing what we elected them to do, safeguarding the best interests of Wales.

  12. @ J.Jones
    “What MPs should be asking themselves is how they failed to act on the growing discontent of their constituents for decades; they reap just what they sow by their previous failings as representatives of the people.”
    Looks like you saw a referendum as a kick up the behind opportunity.

  13. It’s fine to ask people a preference question – no-one knows what you like more than you do yourself.
    It doesn’t always make sense to ask a consequences question. Why should the majority of people know or be able to guess the consequences of leaving the EU? They’ve never studied it. Listening to facile slogans being bandied by both sides doesn’t make them much wiser. If the question had been: would you like to leave the EU whether or not it makes you worse off, I would take the result seriously. Yes to that and we have to leave – but a lot of people probably swallowed various arguments suggesting they would be better off – contrary to all the best guesses of people who might know. If your friend starts to self harm do you say oh, he wants to slash himself ok? Or do you restrain him and try and talk him out of it?

  14. @ J.Jones
    “To a degree CapM. Didn’t we all feel just a smidgen of schadenfreude?”

    The EU referendum question was not – Do you want to feel some schadenfreude? YES or NO.

    My point which you appear to be endorsing is that people did vote, in part at least, for the idea that schadenfreude would be delivered to them by a vote to leave.
    Personally I think that the supposed delights of schadenfreude are over rated and especially if it’s delivered by a play now pay later deal.

  15. I have always thought the collapse of political courage was joining the European Project!

    We didn’t get a referendum to go in. We had the 1975 referendum to stay in but the lies from the remainers were every bit as mendacious as the 2016 campaign. Later Ted Heath admitted he knew all along that the European Project meant the European Super-State and the slow death of British independence. Each treaty bound us more closely as the intention of ever closer union had intended.

    The EU is a failed structure on several levels – many people in the UK and beyond can see this. Cameron thought he could BS his way to a referendum win which would have meant the end of us at the next EU treaty – just as the Lisbon Treaty was meant to be in its original EU Constitution guise. He gambled and lost. The people had the political courage to make their own decisions for their own reasons.

    During the campaign the MPs, with a few notable exceptions, showed they had no better understanding of the European Project than the average interested man in the street. Mostly they can’t ‘surrender their judgement’ for they showed no convincing evidence of it.

    BREXIT is the beginning of a new political courage in the UK echoed in other EU states – call it what you will. The people of Europe now need to maintain that courage until the anti-democratic evil empire is destroyed. Fortunately the Commission and several EU heads of state are helping considerably!

  16. If we can take the question of the importance of politicians accepting the results of elections and referendums as being settled, the question that is currently live, though not in a neutral context, is the relationship of the UK with the single market. It is not neutral because the current Conservative Government is set on ceasing membership of the single market and the customs union.

    Where does this leave Wales? Firstly, it is unable to influence the Westminster Government. What has not been discussed is the resurgence of England and England’s control of the UK that has, in part, driven this Brexit agenda. There are the usual warm words from the likes of David Davies who says that Wales is taken very seriously and will not be left worse off. But this has the air of noblesse oblige about it. We’ll make sure you’re not out of pocket but we won’t actually include what you may want from the negotiation, just as Scotland’s democratically expressed wish to remain part of the European Union will not be included.

    The Welsh Government’s position, supported by the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru is that they want tariff-free access to the single market. This is a more sustainable position than may first appear since it can be held post-Brexit whatever emerges from negotiations with the EU. There is also serious talk that the UK may be willing to make a substantial payment to the EU for access to the single market. Whether this payment would lead to tariff-free access is yet to be seen and it would certainly be unpopular with Brexiteers.

    But if Theresa May is correct in assuming that the English and Welsh electorates put immigration above economic development as a priority, that issue will have been dealt with by withdrawal from single market membership and the freedom of movement that goes with it. If then the EU is willing to sell access for a considerable price, and we are talking billiions here, then it is harder to argue that payment for tariff-free access is not in the commercial interests of the UK.

  17. Oh it all depends CapM. For me the various pronouncements of Leanne Wood and her supporters clinched it; this certainty that the people of Wales were not like the English, that we would be shoulder to shoulder with the Scots and that together, having demonstrated just how different we were, we would forge on to INDEPENDENCE!

    I still feel a warm glow when I think that Wales and England stand side by side in our determination to rid ourselves of the oppressive tyranny of the EU. That whatever the Scots may say or do, we Welsh will always stand with our neighbours to the East.

  18. @ John R Walker
    “I have always thought the collapse of political courage was joining the European Project!”
    Surely that was when we gave away the empire, the British one that is not the evil one you mention.

  19. @ J.Jones
    So the leave the EU option provided you with a convenient dump for the extraneous political baggage you brought into the polling booth with you. Diolch QED.

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