What kind of democracy do we live in?

With the recent decision of the House of Commons to legitimise the will of the people, assuming safe passage through the Lords, Article 50 shall now be permitted to establish the two-year deadline, by which time the UK will cease to be a member of the European Union

Why did we need such a vote? Was the result of the referendum not enough? The Supreme Court ascertained that royal prerogative was insufficient to validate independent government authority to carry out a ‘guideline’ referendum, finding that it was constitutionally appropriate to secure the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

Uproar and cries of undemocratic propensities from large sections of the public and tabloid media emanated from a belief that the 17.4 million people who voted Leave, arguably the largest mandate in British history, were about to be contradicted. Yet even to the casual observer this argument wore thin, it does not seem unconstitutional to have our democratically elected parliament debate, and then vote on the biggest decision since we voted to join the European marketplace.

A large part of the scrutiny still focused on the Leave campaign suggests that although the nation voted to leave 52:48, no consensus on what exactly this would entail was ever reached. To propose that “Brexit means Brexit”, as was so often done during the campaign, is to belittle the electorate. Instead the debate rages between those advocating either a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, its complexity furthered by a lack of clarity and inconsistent interpretations of what Brexit will mean. Indeed, the 2015 Conservative party manifesto promised to “safeguard British interests in the single market”. The likelihood of which decreases with every passing blunder by Boris.

Despite of all of this, parliament voted collectively 494 to 122 to align itself with the consensus reached by the electorate. On the surface this all seems fairly black and white, however at an individual constituency level the decision was not so clear cut.There were more than a few factors that could provide a solid foundation upon which an MP could base their dissent.

To begin with the referendum was close, leaving a huge number of people dissatisfied with its outcome. Moreover, the intention of the result was advisory, highlighting the will of the British people but not necessarily enforcing it. For example, a minor consideration would be to scrutinise the exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds from the vote: come the hour the UK finally leaves the EU people of this age will be able to vote. Then remembering that the youngest demographic of the electorate was overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, a mildly convincing rhetoric begins to appear.

It would be foolish to suggest that the Leave campaign wasn’t highly successful, it invoked emotive arguments, particularly influential to single-issue voters on issues such as immigration. But then the crass voice of Michael Gove comes to mind remarking that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. Who else then shall we listen to? The vote to leave was won on the basis of clear lies, not least of which that £350m could be saved and immediately transferred to the NHS, a top priority for numerous voters.

The concerns potentially held by MPs outlined so far are intended to be periphery to my core concern. Representative democracy. From no less than Sir Winston Churchill (taken from gov.uk):

“The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate. Burke’s famous declaration on this subject is well known. It is only in the third place that his duty to party organization or programme takes rank. All these three loyalties should be observed, but there in no doubt of the order in which they stand under any healthy manifestation of democracy.” Sir Winston Churchill on the Duties of a Member of Parliament

There can be little dispute over an elected Member of Parliament indicating his lack of faith in Brexit, politically, economically or otherwise. The key issue here, then, was the potential for a cataclysmic media backlash, whereby they are incapable of distinguishing between direct and representative democracy.Caution could have been thrown to the wind, and an important lesson in representative democracy administered. It wasn’t.

Despite this, a catalogue of reports documented the likely negative impact that Brexit will have on our economy. Immigration was a key issue for many voters, yet the OBR judged the that the impact of reduced immigration is likely to be detrimental to the UK’s public finances. Who are we, then, to question MPs who may be ideologically or economically opposed to Brexit, if their resolution is based on the best forecasts around? Crucially, if the UK economy doesn’t remain resilient when the UK finally departs the EU, the Leave campaign’s promises concerning extra funding for the NHS are going to leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Leaving aside the result of the referendum, the consideration most likely to have weighed on MPs minds is their future political careers. There are two elements to this. An MP situated in a strong remain constituency would have been committing political suicide by voting against article 50. Whereas another MP might decide to toe the party line, or risk being ostracised from a future cabinet, a strong consideration, as if Theresa May were to have been defeated, she would almost certainly have had to call an immediate election.

Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to Brexit could be described as Lukewarm at best. His near farcical attitude caused uncertainties among members of his own party, let alone the electorate. Labour MPs faced a tough decision, although over 65% of Labour voters backed Remain, roughly 2/3’s of its constituencies voted Leave. A predicament then, were you to find yourself in the shoes of Tulip Siddiq. Ironically, 65% is roughly how remain Jeremy Corbyn seemed to be preceding the election.

But he has little grounds to tarnish their names, many of Corbyn’s 30 years as a backbencher were spent in distain for party lines, which in some part is responsible for his lack of authority as a wielder of whips. That and his particularly unpersuasive rhetoric. It would seem that many of these renegade MPs have identified that in the current political climate, it is significantly unlikely that that Corbyn will be handing out ministerial red boxes. As such, exile from a demoralised front bench is a small price to pay for conscientious objection to a Brexit on terms dictated by Theresa May.

For some conservative backbenchers the stakes were high. Yet, as illustrated by the results many backbenchers recognise a duty not to destabilise government in volatile times. Before the vote, Ken Clarke gave a lusty defence of EU membership in flagrant contempt of the referendum result. That being said, he enjoys an elder statesman’s insouciant disregard for party lines and the consequences of defying them.

Profoundly though, the British people delivered one commandment on the 23rd June 2016: leave the EU. The Supreme Court’s decision to ratify this through parliament was the correct one according to British principles of democracy. In every sense, then, this is a win for democracy, representative or otherwise.

Leave a Reply