From Burke, to Bercow: its decline and fall shows how, as a philosophy, representative democracy has run its course and needs to be replaced
Note: Amended, longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Thursday 24th January 2019
It’s the justification MPs habitually use when ignoring or defying the clearly-expressed wishes of their constituents, and also their perennial fallback when challenged on it. Our Parliamentary system, they assert, follows the Burkean principle. We are here, they insist, not as delegates, but as representatives: not to follow your instructions, but to exercise our judgement on your behalf.
The principle derives from the political theorist and MP Edmund Burke’s Address to the Electors of Bristol in 1774, and in particular the paragraph cited below.
An elected MP was not, Burke reminded them, a mere delegate who should blindly obey the instructions of his voters: but their representative, empowered by them through the very act of their sending him to Parliament, to exercise his – not their – judgement, using his brain and his conscience, of what was in the best interests of the country.
“But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Yet only 20 years or so later, in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, Burke was criticising those who deferred to technocratic experts, or who looked abroad for inspiration from regarding everything in the constitution and government at home as illegitimate or usurped. Extolling the inherent virtue in common-sense values, he said of them:
“they despise experience as the wisdom of unlettered men”
MPs have deployed Burke’s initial, 1774, argument ever since. But does it remain valid in early 2019? Or has it run its course and become effectively redundant, sustained cynically now by a cohort of MPs increasingly distant from, and contemptuous of, their voters, as a self-affirming expedient?
When Burke delivered his address, Bristol had an electorate of roughly 5,000 out of a population of about 80,000. This small electorate was based on a very restricted franchise. Very few working men and non-owners of property were able to vote, and women were not allowed to vote at all. There were no political parties as we know them, and no manifestos. Politics was, in the words of constitutional historian Dr David Starkey “a matter for gentlemen and their immensely rich aristocratic patrons”.
Illiteracy remained at approximately 40 per cent for males and approximately 60 per cent for females (remarkably, illiteracy actually increased in the last quarter of the 18th century), and education levels were relatively poor, compulsory mass education being still several decades into the future. Even for those with both the franchise, plus sufficient education and literacy to convey their views to their MP, communications were poor. The main rail line between Bristol and London was opened only between 1838 and 1841. Before that, the mail coach between Bristol and London took around 38 hours.
How, then, would it have been possible, practically, for there to be regular communication between Edmund Burke MP and even his very restricted electorate? Arguably, Burke’s philosophy of the relationship between an MP and his electors was the only one which was feasible in the circumstances of his time.
Contrast the situation now. The median constituency size is about 72,400 in England (albeit slightly smaller in the devolved nations) but with a universal adult franchise. We have mass education, plus an adult functional literacy rate of approximately 85 per cent, but whose definition excludes people who “can understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources”. The proportion of people able to communicate with their MP is therefore probably over 90 per cent.
We have multiple sources of information, and multiple platforms of mass communication. Nine in every ten people had internet access in the home in 2018. There is, I would contend, no bar to being informed about what our MPs are doing, and equally no bar to their communicating with us. Indeed, many are assiduous users of e-communication in all its forms to do precisely that.
Any structural justification for the continued applicability of the Burkean principle of representation has therefore vanished.
Our political parties, although more organised, are also more centralised. More than ever before – though admittedly with some variation between parties – election candidates are chosen, not by local associations, but by Party HQs either giving them a limited “choice” between two or three centrally-approved ones on a centrally-controlled candidates’ list, or imposing them directly.
Party policy boards, by whichever name called, decide the policies, which the candidate is pretty much required to endorse. Dissent and independence of mind are not encouraged, and seldom rewarded. Patronage is ruthlessly exploited and the whipping system ruthlessly deployed to keep most members in line.
The resultant submission to conformity is compounded by too many of our representatives being virtually professional career politicians, devoid of any significant formative outside grounding. In relatively recent times, MPs who were not wholly or mainly reliant on their Parliamentary income, and who, to decide their beliefs, could draw on real-world experience – rather than an immediate post PPE degree stint as a party assistant, researcher and unsuccessful candidate prior to acquiring a safe seat, were less inclined to undue deference to the Party hierarchy.
Hand in hand with that has gone an increasing tendency to outsource more policy-making which would once have been MPs’ responsibility to debate and democratically determine, not merely to Civil Service officials and QUANGOs, but to unelected and unaccountable international or supranational bodies like the UN, EU, NGOs and other elements of the International Liberal Order.
The consequence is that we now have a cadre of politicians whose role, rather than representing their electorates to the Government and the Executive, has morphed more into one of representing the Government and the Executive to their electorates. Far from becoming representatives and not delegates, they have become spokesmen and not representatives.
The Parliamentary chicanery which has occurred since the 2016 EU Referendum was not the proximate cause of this – it had been building for many years – but it has both exacerbated it dramatically and exposed it to public awareness like never before. It’s worth reciting some of the basic facts.
At the May 2015 General Election, it’s now widely assumed, having promised to hold an EU referendum if elected, but confident the promise would have to be junked as the price of their preferred option of a second coalition with the Liberal-Democrats, Cameron’s ‘Conservatives’ won an absolute majority which they were not anticipating.
In June 2015, MPs voted by 544 votes to 53 to hold that referendum.
In the 2016 EU Referendum, and on best estimates, Britain voted to leave the European Union by 406 parliamentary constituencies to 242. It voted to leave the European Union by 263 voting areas to 119. Conservative-held constituencies in 2016 voted to leave by 247 to 80. Labour-held constituencies in 2016 voted to leave by 148 to 84.
In contrast, among 2016 MPs, Remain was the preferred option by 400 to 248. Charting 2016 MPs’ declared voting intentions against the actual voting results emphasises the relative chasm between MPs and the voters they claim to be “representing”, which persists to this day.In February 2017, MPs voted by 498 votes to 114 to trigger Article 50.
At the 2017 General Election, approximately 85 per cent of the votes cast went to the two main parties both of whom pledged in their manifestos fully to implement the Referendum result.
Yet something like a 70 per cent majority of MPs is clearly now intent on either diluting Brexit to meaninglessness, reversing it by spuriously demanding another referendum or extending Article 50, or preferably just cancelling it altogether in flagrant disregard of the largest mandate ever delivered for one specific policy in British political history.
The current anti-democratic and constitution-threatening procedural subterfuges being assiduously prosecuted by the cross-party Parliamentary anti-Brexit Movement are too many and too current to recount in detail here and most readers will be familiar with them anyway.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to see how our MPs as a body can any longer plausibly claim to be “representing” either their individual electorates or the nation collectively, even on the most generous interpretation of the principles Burke enunciated. Whatever takes their place must reverse the trend of the last thirty years or so and return to more truly “representational” methods of public political engagement. That means, in my view, much more direct democracy, and in several forms.
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 with the occasional exception, neither main party 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 and even more so recently, in several Parliamentary constituencies, the anger of majority Leave voters with their, not only Remain-voting, but actively Brexit-blocking, MP is fuelling attempts at de-selection, which, under the present rules, is almost impossible.
That exacerbates 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 MP 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.
More referenda are 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, in the present Parliament, approximately 70 per cent of MPs are ostentatiously refusing to honour. But 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?
That the Swiss, who via decentralistion, localisation & frequent referendums have the most say in their government, routinely come out as the nation having the most trust and confidence in their government, is no accident. We should learn from them.Representative democracy, as a philosophy, has run its course – effectively killed off by the very MPs who cynically use it as justification or excuse for their blatantly anti-representational conduct.
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