Neither our current democracy, nor our present Parliament, are institutions fit to be entrusted once again with the powers of self-government we will have succeeded in retrieving from Brussels
Note: this is the longer (and updated) version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Tuesday 28th August 2018
Over two years after Britain voted, narrowly but still decisively, to leave the European Union, that it remains necessary to say “if Brexit happens”, is not only a shameful indictment of the ruling class’ contempt for mass democracy, but also a warning of what must follow if it does happen.
52 per cent of those who voted in the EU Referendum, no fewer than 17.4 million people, voted Leave – the largest vote for a single policy in British political history. On the best academic psephologists’ estimates, approximately 63 per cent of Parliamentary constituencies voted Leave. Approximately 85 per cent of votes cast in the 2017 General Election went to the two main parties whose manifestos and candidates both pledged to respect and implement the Referendum result.
Yet about 70 per cent of the 650 MPs who purport to represent us were opposed to Brexit, and still are. Even before the Referendum, a significant number voted against one being held at all.
Many of those 2017 election pledges were self-evidently made dishonestly. Over the past two years, we have seen repeated Parliamentary obstruction – from both the elected Commons and, even worse, the unelected and unaccountable Lords, and often going down to knife-edge votes – to almost every Brexit-progressing measure introduced by a government that is clearly reluctant to implement the electorate’s decision.
This experience has surely, therefore, made one thing abundantly clear: that, if Brexit does happen, we cannot retrieve from Brussels our powers of governing and legislating ourselves, only to vest them once more in the very same Westminster Parliament which not only spent the last 45 years eagerly giving them away in the first place, but which still vehemently opposes their repatriation and our recovery of democratic self-government.
So Brexit must, in my view, be followed very quickly by significant Parliamentary and electoral reform, to strengthen democracy & the power of the electorate over the legislature, and to curb its ability to ignore or negate the expressed majority-view of the voters – to make legislature, government and executive work, not in the interests of the New-Class Establishment-Elite’s cartel, but in the interests of the people.
We must start with abolition of the unelected, unaccountable, House of Lords, which has become largely a refuge for superannuated politicians after their rejection by the electorate, a bauble with which to reward donors, or a safe harbour for otherwise unelectable placemen. It has been teetering on the edge of democratic legitimacy for years, but its conduct during the passage of Brexit-related legislation has surely signed its death warrant.
Many of the intemperate, anti-democratic speeches made by unelected Peers during the Lords’ passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill, outraged that the great unwashed masses of the British electorate had been allowed to determine their own constitutional future, and that their decision dared to diverge from that of their betters, will rightly be forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of history.
Two, however, should be preserved for posterity, to remind us at some future date of what we needed to rid ourselves of. In the first, Lord (Chris) Patten, pillar of the Europhile ‘Liberal’-Elitist Establishment, on the, to him, intolerable folly of removing such decisions from him and his ilk exclusively:
In the second, Lord Hailsham, better known to politics watchers as former Conservative MP Douglas Hogg, who acquired during the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal a justly permanent notoriety, for charging to the long-suffering taxpayer such items essential to the performance of his Parliamentary duties as the costs of cleaning his moat, tuning his piano, and fixing the stable lights at his Lincolnshire manor-house.
That Britain needs a bi-cameral legislature is undeniable: but that the House of Lords as presently constituted should under no circumstances comprise its upper, revising, Chamber, is surely equally so. Whatever format we eventually settle on is debatable: but that it must be on the basis of selection by universal franchise, not favours and cronyism, is a sine qua non.
Reform of candidate selection should be high on the list. The Tories’ notorious A-List of Metro-Cameroon Cuties to be imposed on unwilling constituencies has thankfully gone, and Labour’s dominance by hard-left Momentum seem to have done for All-Wimmin shortlists: but neither main party, with the occasional exception, appears at all keen to open up their candidacy processes to a wider selection and thus make them, not only more transparent, but more representative of their local members’ views and concerns.
So the case for constituency Open Primaries, by which all the members or even the registered supporters of a party in it can choose their candidate, is strong. There have been too many instances, in all parties, of either centrally-favoured rising stars, or ministers dumped out of a marginal and desperately in need of a safe seat, being foisted on to constituencies against their will, to the detriment of a sound local candidate who knows the constituency and its concerns far better.
A proper Recall Mechanism, by which a minimum percentage of constituents can “recall” a MP to face re-election, is a priority. Momentum for one, unsurprisingly, accelerated after the 2009 expenses scandal, and intensified when several MPs were caught out having voted in debates on legislation, in the outcome of which they had a direct financial interest.
One of whom, co-incidentally, was one Richard Drax, who made several protesting interventions when a Recall Bill was finally debated, to the effect that MPs were all honourable men whose reputations might suffer were their constituents to read in the Press that they were the subject of a Recall Petition. Which, you might think, was precisely the point.
But it’s not only to deal with misconduct that a Recall Mechanism is required. Since the 2016 EU Referendum was held, one of the main talking points of its aftermath has been the huge disparity, in so many Parliamentary constituencies, between MPs and their voters on the issue of Britain’s EU membership.
That has exacerbated the need for proper Recall. In both main parties, how many Remainer MPs allegedly “representing” solidly Leave-voting constituencies would persist in obstructing Brexit in defiance of their electorates, if a mere 5 or 10 per cent of their voters could trigger a Recall and force them to re-stand for election and possibly lose their seat?
MPs, of course, are dead against it. Tory Zac Goldsmith’s Bill presented in the 2010-2015 Parliament, to allow constituents to recall an errant MP to face re-election, was watered-down almost to the point of ineffectiveness. MPs decreed instead that only a committee made up of themselves was fit to decide whether one of their fellow-MPs had misbehaved sufficiently to have to account to his electorate. So far, astonishingly, none has been so judged. That must now change.
More Direct Democracy is needed, both to counter the tendency of the elected to ignore the views of their electorates once elected, and to sustain and/or enhance voter engagement in politics.
For national-level democratic participation we must rely on a once-in-5-years cross-marking exercise, based on manifesto commitments and campaign promises which relatively few expect their parties to honour. But in an age when we can book a holiday, arrange life-insurance, or apply for a university course with a few mouse-clicks or screen-touches, why should this be?
The Swiss manage to hold between 7 and 9 referendums each year, and on issues other than major constitutional questions like the voting system or EU membership, and are hardly the divided society that the anti-referendum campaigners claim. In fact, that the Swiss are also regularly the people expressing the highest confidence in their system of government is no coincidence.
The potential abuse of postal voting through over-generous qualification, and the related issue of voter ID-fraud, urgently need addressing. The requirement for voter-ID at the polling station in a democratic election ought to be axiomatic and a subject beyond debate, while postal voting needs once again to be restricted to those verified as genuinely too ill or infirm, of overseas on military service.
Objections to some of the above will no doubt be raised on the grounds that they contravene the Burkean principle that the elected MP is his electors’ representative, not their delegate. My contention however, and which I intend to explore further in future articles, is that so many elected MPs themselves, by so manifestly disregarding the majority wishes of their individual electorates and the country as a whole, have now stretched this principle to breaking point.
Without significant Parliamentary reform to make the legislature more responsive to the electorate, extra-Parliamentary action starts to acquire a legitimacy of its own. That prospect should be welcomed by nobody: but a Parliament constituted on its present basis is not a fitting repository of powers hard-won back from Brussels.
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