Yesterday in the Commons, the former Conservative Chancellor, Ken Clarke gave a classic speech on representative democracy, echoing what the Master, Edmund Burke said about their opinions to the electors of Bristol back in 1774:
Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed 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.
That is right. The Member of Parliament is not a delegate, bound to deliver what a majority of his electors want on any given issue. In the normal course of events that is clear enough, as General Elections are seldom, if ever, decided on a single issue. That, in an advisory referendum, a small majority of those who voted voted to leave the EU is an interesting development. It ought to have given the Government pause for thought, but whence the Gaderene rush to edge of the cliff? Cameron showed both a want of judgement and of character when he committed the Government to deliver ‘Brexit’ and then shoved off into well-paid retirement. A man of character would have acknowledged that the people had spoken, but would also have acknowledged the difficulties of acting on what has, after all, been a black and white question; at the very least a commitment to consult the electorate on the final terms of Brexit should have been granted. Those who wanted it should have had nothing to fear, and those who did not could have found some better arguments second time around. It is, in any case, absurd to decide such an issue on the basis of a referendum. But at least it was only an ‘advisory’ referendum; so why, then the rush to the exit?
The answer lies in the battle for the Tory leadership. No candidate who opposed Brexit could have won against ‘Boris’ or, once he was gone, Leadsome. So the dye was cast. Parliament had the chance to do what Burke said was its duty, but again, MPs with long-sttled views chnaged their vote because of ‘the people’. Now, if they really had changed their vote, all well and good, but if they simply trimmed their sails to the prevailing wind, then shame on them. Their job was to offer the country their best judgement, and if they thought staying in the EU was the right thing to do, they should have had the guts to have voted in that direction. When MPs decide to suspend their better judgement, it is time to worry.