14 August 2019

To understand Boris and Brexit, look to Edmund Burke

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They are proud of Edmund Burke in Bristol. His statue stands on Colston Avenue, fist aloft, the inscription declaring “I wish to be a Member of Parliament to have my share of doing good and resisting evil”.

Burke is celebrated to this day for his Speech to the Electors of Bristol on election day in 1774, in which he set out why an MP owed his constituents his judgment and conscience, but didn’t necessarily owe them the total subjugation of his own views to theirs. In his view, MPs were elected to represent their constituents best interests as determined by the MP’s judgement, rather than simply to represent the wishes of a constituent, regardless of his own judgement.

That theory of representative democracy remains popular to this day – with our elected representatives. But a new YouGov poll shows that it is unpopular with the voters who elect them.  Burke’s theory of the role of the representative has 80% approval among MPs – but only 7% among the general public, where the idea of the representative as a delegate wins broad majority support.

One could imagine Boris Johnson, as a Telegraph columnist or a backbench MP, paying tribute to the Burkean understanding of how parliamentary democracy works. But the Johnson administration, if it is forced into an early election, clearly has its eye on making an appeal to direct democracy central to its argument.

The frustration of not getting Brexit over the line has seen rising support for No Deal if necessary among those who voted Leave in 2016. But that has not broadened support for Brexit itself, with a plurality tending to say it was the wrong choice in 2016.

So the YouGov poll demonstrates the steely logic of preferring to frame the debate around the question of democratic legitimacy, rather than about Brexit itself. Among those who voted Remain in 2016, 19% adopt the Burkean position and see their MPs role “to act according to their own judgement, even when this goes against the wishes of their constituents” – but three times as many (57%) prefer to see MPs as delegates of their constituents. The country remains split down the middle on the issue of the day, but changing the subject to one about the merits of democracy may shift the argument.

Today’s People’s Prime Minister’s Questions offered one more small symbol of this approach by seeking to establish a direct relationship between the Premier and the public.  In the name of democratic accountability, live Facebook broadcasts from the Prime Ministerial iPad seek to cast those pesky media intermediaries as a rather 20th century encumbrance.

It is a familiar approach in Presidential systems – particularly in De Gaulle’s replacing of France’s 4th Republic, dominated by the parliamentary system, with a plebiscitary and Presidential 5th Republic. There is an element of chutzpah in this being emulated by an indirectly elected Prime Minister – who took office through a party contest, not a public choice – but it strengthens the logic of an early election.

Whether the Prime Minister gets to fight a ‘Peers versus the People’ election remains to be seen. It depends on the choices that both Government and MPs make during the political crisis to come.

Nor is it certain that it would work. “Crush the Saboteurs” was the Daily Mail headline on the day that Theresa May called the snap 2017 General Election. That request for a personal mandate was refused. The theory that a united public were frustrated by the divisions of the politicians, when tested, seemed unfounded: the public were as divided as their elected representatives.

There has not been an election fought on clashing interpretations of political legitimacy since the 1910 elections, after Lloyd George’s People’s Budget was thrown out by the unelected House of Lords, overturning centuries of precedent. That gave Asquith and Lloyd George a “Peers Against the People” rallying cry – and they did stay in office, though it took two almost-tied elections in 1910 to establish that, wiping out the Liberal landslide majority of 1906.

But, despite appearances, the poll doesn’t necessarily prove that there has been a great swing away from a Burkean understanding of representative democracy.

The most obvious victory of the Burkeans came with the abolition of capital punishment in the late 1960s. Three-quarters of the public disagreed with that decision for another generation: British Social Attitudes data shows that support for the death penalty for some crimes eventually fell below 50% for the first time in 2014, almost half a century later.

It is quite likely there have always been clashing views between voters and their MPs – but these have rarely come into conflict as directly as in the Brexit crisis.

Many of us think there is a great deal to be said for the Burkean theory of representative democracy, despite its minority appeal. But there is also a sound Burkean defence of the demand that the 2016 referendum result should be implemented.

Those who regret the decision to leave the European Union may decry the simplicities of direct democracy, but the referendum was the deliberate product of our representative democracy – of pressure within parties, from voters and within parliament to secure a plebiscite. Indeed, the House of Commons voted by 544 votes to 53 for a referendum, as MPs responded to the result of the 2015 general election.

As a political community, those on both sides of the EU argument made a shared decision to settle the issue by a public vote.  Parliament certainly has a voice in how Brexit is delivered – but democratic legitimacy will require that it is delivered, until and unless there is a referendum vote to the contrary. Indeed, a campaign to “Return” after exit will always have more legitimacy than one to “Remain” before we have left.

The limits of the Burkean theory of democracy was also well known to Burke himself.  Indeed, the Bristol statue declares BURKE 1774-1780. This celebrated, famous resident was a single term MP.  He did not run again, because it was clear that he would not get elected. Those among Bristol’s merchant classes who made up the city’s limited electorate were less interested in an MP able to theorise about democracy and revolution, and were more interested in one prepared to defend their interests.

I tried to do my bit for Burke among future generations last Autumn, when speaking at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. As it fell during half-term, my daughter Zarina came to Bristol too. Our tour of the city included dodging the roadworks for her to pose with the Burke statue, with a modern twist to celebrate the way in which our democratic values are more inclusive today than those of Burke’s time.

Perhaps this poll is depressing news for those seeking to promote the reflective values of Burke in our democracy today – but don’t write them off too soon. The next election might end up promoting evolution, more than revolution, in the norms of British democracy.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of the independent thinktank British Future