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.

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