Burke, and being against “the coercive authority of such instructions”

When I first heard the words “MPs don’t get to choose which votes to respect” (repeated loyally by the PM and Party Chairman) my first thought was that someone is going to mention Burke.  No doubt many of you had that same thought.  And Sunder Katwala had it first and best, and wrote a splendid essay on CapX which you should read.

In case you are wondering what I am on about, this refers to a famous letter written by the great Conservative Edmund Burke to his constituents, in response to pressures you can guess at. The MP for Bristol is being asked to respond strictly to the ‘coercive instructions’ of his constituents, and he responds thusly:

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,–these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

MPs are not delegates or ambassadors, bearing firm instructions, but representatives.  They are members not of their constituencies, but of Parliament, and should not go there and blindly ignore the wider good of the whole community.  It is not a place for him or her to sacrifice “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience … to you, to any man, or to any set of men living”.

It is a beautiful letter, though as Sunder observes it provides no slam-dunk for the opponents of Brexit; the decision to have a referendum was clearly decided by a parliament of MPs exercising that judgment and conscience. To ignore the referendum as if it didn’t happen would be an act of bad faith. Moreover, Sunder points out that the representative model argued for by Burke is rather unpopular with the public, who much prefer the “do as you are told” model of democracy.

However, I think Burke’s broader point still stands against the focus-group tested, judgment-lobotomising line, “MPs do not get to choose”. That is precisely what MPs are there for.  More generally, while they are under a duty to follow instructions such as those issuing from that (advisory) referendum, this is one duty only amongst many others.  There are absolutely no “come what may” instructions, no “do or die”‘s that outweigh all other considerations, no matter how weighty.  In fact, the entirely business of deliberative democracy is a matter of weighing dozens of contradictory duties: the duty to keep the government solvent against the need to fund public services; the duty to protect the environment, against our personal freedom to choose how we behave. There are constraints and trade-offs everywhere, from the high abstractions – liberty against security, efficiency against fairness – down to the smallest value for money argument or row about burdensome red tape. It is why we have government by collective agreement – so all the interests can be weighed.

This is staggeringly obvious, but still not appreciated enough. Just because none of the other duties are expressed in as crude a form as a referendum vote, does not mean they suddenly cease to apply. The then-PM in weighing up her withdrawal agreement had to balance the (important) need to pursue that referendum result, against all the others pressing upon a responsible prime minister: to keep the economy working well, to maintain our international standing and friendships, public safety, to provide for an orderly life for the citizens, and many more. She found these were best navigated by the construction of a complex deal likely to keep us close to the European economic sphere but outside its slowly constricting politics.  I think it was ugly, and as good as one can expect given the constraints. In my opinion, it found the unhappy balancing point of that unhappy plebiscite; one that would annoy a lot of people, but basically do the job.

Above all there was never a duty to render realistic the impossible promises made in someone else’s referendum campaign.  There is no “spirit of the vote”, and if some hyperventilating campaigner promised a paradise of zero regulation, fountains of cash for everyone, and trade deals with all of South America, tough.

Absolutely any arrangement that meant the UK no longer featured on this Wikipedia page fulfils the strict requirements of the vote. Beyond that, there is only what the government and Parliament in their mature judgment thinks is wise for the whole community, in light of all possible considerations. If they decide a No Deal Brexit tramples over too many other important duties, that is what you sent them to Parliament to decide.

Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc, and formerly in my mid-40s. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

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Freethinking Economist

Economic advice. No longer special.

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