The prorogation protests will only work, however, if they transcend the Leave/Remain divideby Julian Baggini / September 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
I have never been on a political march in my life. That was until this Saturday, when I took to the streets to protest Boris Johnson’s attempt to undermine parliament. I’m glad I did but the experience also confirmed all the reasons for my lack of placard-waving to date—and made me worry about the consequences of this wave of protests.
My march scepticism was confirmed in my first week at university, when we were being encouraged by the student union to go on a “housing demo.” No one could explain to me what exactly the issue was or what we were asking who to do about it. Yet everyone along my corridor in the hall of residence dutifully attended, except me. They returned as vague as they went.
Here were some of the key vices of demos in one neat incident. It was a crude tool to address a complex issue, undertaken mostly by people who didn’t understand it but who did get a warm glow of righteousness and a sense of belonging from taking part.
Over the years I added more reasons to avoid marches. One is that parliamentary democracy works by elected representatives taking time to come to balanced conclusions and not simply responding to the loudest voices of the day. Protests are in contrast attempts to exert “people power” more directly, by literally making yours the loudest voice. They assume that politicians must do what “the people” tell them, to act as delegates rather than representatives.
Burke was right when he said MPs should listen to their constituents, not obey them. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
That’s why people were wrong to conclude that the Blair government was being undemocratic when it refused to heed the calls of the Iraq marches. On the contrary, democracy requires that politicians do not simply follow the often fickle winds of public opinion. To demonstrate on any single policy issue is to pit popular sovereignty against parliamentary sovereignty.
It might therefore seem ironic that I broke my self-imposed demo boycott to defend parliamentary sovereignty. So why did I attend?
Because this is not a single issue protest in the usual sense. In this case it is parliamentary sovereignty itself that is under assault. My protesting was not a call for…