13th March 2017
One of the stock answers which a new Member of Parliament learns is that they are representatives not delegates.
Certain MPs will go further and invoke solemnly the words of Edmund Burke in his famous speech to the electors of Bristol (1774):
Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
There is sense in this approach.
Electors can get rid of MPs at elections. MPs can in the meantime vote as they wish. There is thereby a pressure valve between the voters and the matters before a legislature.
If a MP goes against what his or her voters want then a new MP can be elected at the next election.
This valve is a feature of the UK’s “parliamentary democracy”.
And, in turn, “parliamentary democracy” is a principle of the (uncodified) British constitution.
Against this principle is now this relentless and alien doctrine of the referendum mandate.
The 2016 referendum on EU membership was not legally binding: MPs could have legislated for this but chose not to do so. MPs instead chose for the Brexit referendum to have advisory power.
But it is now being treated by many MPs as having total power: things are being done in the name of the “mandate”.
Today in the House of Commons there were two votes on sensible amendments to the Article 50 notification bill. These amendments had been inserted by the House of Lords. But they were voted down by the majority for no good reason.
Perhaps there was a good reason which was not easy to detect. Perhaps.
But it seems to me that many MPs who vote on Brexit are betraying – instead of serving – their constituents, when they sacrifice their judgment to their constituents.
Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe “parliamentary democracy” is better circumvented than observed.
That is a matter of opinion.
But is also a matter of principle: either “parliamentary democracy” is taken seriously as a principle or it is not.
And when a MP next reaches in his or her mind for the stock Burkean response to being asked about why they are not voting as their constituents would prefer on a particular issue, they will find the words are empty.
On Brexit, many MPs are voting as – and behaving like – delegates not representatives.
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