Jim Hacker (Yes Minister): “It’s the peoples’ will. I am their leader; I must follow them.”
Recent attitudes to a prospective post-Brexit parliamentary vote shows the declining importance of principle in British politics. It seems to me that in the first 75 years of the last century, politicians had principles which, in general, did not change and from which they were reluctant to reject for political advantage. Politicians would rather cross the floor of the house or enter the political wilderness rather than vote for something in which they did not believe – Churchill being an obvious example. Even in the last quarter of the last century, when trounced in a general election, politicians from the losing party did not immediately accept the politics of their opponents; rather they concluded they had failed to convince the public, and investigated why. The parties might have changed their leaders under such circumstances, but the individuals within the parties did not often change their personal views – consider Tony Benn, for example. Indeed after the death of John Smith and four consecutive general election defeats, Blair’s election meant the Labour leadership took a centrist position, much to the chagrin of old Labour apparatchiks who saw much of his politics as betrayal.
On 23 June 2016, the British people voted 52% to 48% to leave the United Kingdom; like it or not, this is a fact. In the run up to the referendum, politicians backed each side of the argument. With the exception of a couple of MPs (I’m betting Baroness Warsi might feel a little silly switching sides to Remain four days before the result was known), opinions were entrenched and strongly held – held indeed as matters of principle. Yet following the referendum, almost all of those backing Remain (who are in a majority in parliament) appear now to be happy to vote through Brexit, saying “we must respect the will of the people”.
Of course the will of the people must be given respect. However, that does not mean it needs to be blindly followed. Listening, but following ones own principles, and not having them change with the direction of the political wind, is an honourable stance. A politician of principle would, it seems to me, say “I believed this before, and vote with a 4% majority has not changed my mind. I respect your opinion, but I disagree with it, and you elected me as to parliament as a representative to vote in the manner I think best and according to my party’s manifesto. I shall thus vote in the manner I believe is in the best interests of the UK and my constituency, and if you disagree with me, I will be deselected or fail to be re-elected, because that’s how democracy works”. Note that no MP, Douglas Carswell excepted, has a party with a manifesto commitment to leave the EU.
Most pro-Remain MPs have taken the line of backing a parliamentary vote for Brexit because not to do so would be “political suicide”, as David Allen Green notes in the Financial Times. But that seems to me an abrogation of their political principles (assuming they had them in the first place). Britain is a parliamentary democracy, and the crown in parliament is sovereign (ironically a position Leave campaigners were only too keen to emphasise a few weeks ago). If there is question of the legitimacy of our MPs, it should be resolved through a general election. But to change one’s views based on a relatively small majority of the people being in disagreement with you seems to be the mark of a politician more interested in their continued political career than in the principles they claim to hold.
Capital punishment was (with a minor exceptions) abolished in England, Wales and Scotland in 1965. In every subsequent parliament until 1997, a vote was held to restore the death penalty, and every such vote failed. Throughout this period, surveys consistently showed the British people to be strongly in favour of restoring the death penalty at least in respect of some crimes (70% being in favour according to one survey), but on the occasion of each parliamentary vote, most MPs voted against the apparent will of the people. Those MPs did not sacrifice their principled stance. I wonder whether the same would happen now.