If MPs uncritically accept the results of the EU referendum, they are not doing their jobsby AC Grayling / August 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Populism is finding its voice on both sides of the Atlantic—in the Trump phenomenon in the United States, in the Brexit vote in the UK, in other separatist movements in the European Union. Populism is the people pushing back at elites and giving voice to dissatisfaction. There is something to applaud in this, and something to fear—even for the populists themselves—and there are complicated lessons to be learned from it.
Populism can be defined either as left wing or right wing, the former characterised by anger over inequality and economic austerity, the latter by anxiety over immigration. The combination of the two makes a very toxic mixture; populist demagogues are quick to forge the link, typically blaming one on the other.
Populism is sometimes the antecedent of revolution, but revolutions typically require an organising vanguard to capture and direct populist sentiment. Revolutions almost always consume those who start them, and usually end with power being taken by regimes impatient of further populist unrest and therefore more repressive than the displaced regime. This is one of the clearer and most regularly disregarded lessons of history.
If a state were run on populist reactions to current affairs—say, by referendums on every issue—the outcome would be chaotic. The time, expertise and management of detail required in the government of complex societies could never be provided by ochlocratic rule (government by the mass of people.) Civil liberties and minorities would be at risk. The effective rulers of society would be emotion—generally inflamed emotion—and the short-term. This is precisely why the institutions and practices of representative democracy have evolved: to manage the crudities of mere majoritarianism.
These institutions and practices constitute a brake allowing for mature consideration to supervene. Instead of mass referendums we have an elected legislature. In order for representatives to give detailed consideration to affairs of state, and to make informed decisions, they have to have plenipotentiary powers. They are not mere messengers, mouthing the wishes of their constituents: they act on their behalf. If they do it badly they are not re-elected—that is the continuous democratic supervision their electors exercise.
Representatives have multiple responsibilities. They have to serve the interests of the country as a whole; they deliberate on measures affecting the whole country, and are thus representatives of the whole country.
They also have to serve the interests of all the people in their constituencies, not just those who voted for them, and these interests are sometimes best served by not carrying out the will of those who voted for them. Capital punishment is a good case in point. Members of a legislature might take the view that capital punishment amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. Populist sentiment is almost always in favour of it. Everything from enforced wearing of car seat belts to paying taxes is in the public interest but against the will of many. If representatives did not see and act upon the larger benefit, but slavishly followed a referendum-style expression of opinion, they would not be doing the job that the institution of representative democracy expects of them.
So let us take the pressing case in point. In the advisory non-binding referendum on EU membership, 52 per cent of those who voted—37 per cent of the total electorate: less than a third of the population—voted for Brexit. Prior to the referendum it was publicly known that 76 per cent of the members of the House of Commons saw remaining in the EU as in the best interests of the UK. Well, you would therefore think it entirely reasonable that parliament should say: we note the expression of opinion from that third of the electorate, but we choose to act on the responsibility we have to serve the best interests of the country, and to remain in the EU. To do this is not merely the right but the duty of MPs.
Equally, though, the lesson for representative democracy is that the nature of the task it imposes on representatives too easily makes them insensible to the concerns that populism expresses. Here the solution is not to accept the solution that the populists propose, but to show leadership by persuading, educating and arguing, by addressing the deeper difficulties that cause the overlying difficulties that people who turn to populist nostrums experience. Digging into these complexities, and showing this leadership, is also a responsibility of MPs, which they likewise duck if their response to the advisory referendum vote is, as a surprising number of them seem to think, an instant forfeiture of the challenging duty to do what they actually think is the right thing for the UK.