Courage                                             

 

This was written on the day when Thomas Mair was convicted of murdering Jo Cox, MP – not a good day for lecturing MPs on courage.  But there are things that need to be said.

 

The people of the UK do not, by and large, hold their representatives in Parliament in high regard.  They see them, for the most part perhaps unfairly, as politicians first and representatives only as an afterthought.  The expenses scandal of 2009 revealed the depth of their mistrust and even scorn, more than it revealed any large scale wrong-doing.  But there is no escaping the fact that the first thing on most MPs’ minds is their standing with the party to which they belong.  Even the most dedicated constituency MP knows that her/his opportunity to serve his/her constituents is entirely in the gift of the Party at the local or national level,  She/he equally knows that advancement to service at the national level, in the Government, depends on absolute loyalty to the Party.  Unfortunately, aspiration to ministerial or cabinet office seems to be the primary motivation of many MPs:  witness some of the recent resignations of seats.  (What happened to the Chiltern Hundreds, what happened to honourably crossing the floor?)

 

When the referendum took place, both of the major parties had an official Remain policy.  Many commentators have estimated that two thirds of sitting MPs were in favour of Remain.  Government Ministers, specially the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, were prominent and vocal supporters of the Remain campaign.  The main opposition party went in to the 2015 election on a declared Remain policy (manifesto, p.76), even if the new leader appointed after the election is lukewarm about it.  The general opinion in Parliament, then, was that remaining in the EU was best for the people of the UK.

 

The referendum result showed, or seemed to show, that the opinion of the people differed, if only by a very small margin.  Unfortunately, that margin is very difficult to gauge, for two reasons.  First, referendums have a natural bias in favour of change:  those who want change are more active and more likely to vote than those who are content (there was only a 72% turnout).  Secondly, the Government’s prominent role in the Remain campaign invited an anti-Government protest vote, a strategic vote for Leave.  The referendum was advisory only, and the advice it gave was advice to Parliament.  Parliament has a duty to consider it carefully, but is in no way bound* to agree with it.  Its considered majority opinion before the referendum was that Remaining was best for the country.  The referendum result by itself should not change that opinion:  only reconsideration of the original reasons for it should change it.  If Parliament’s considered opinion is still for Remaining, it is not only free but duty bound to vote against any Government Bill that seeks to invoke Article 50 of the TEU.

 

That will take courage.  The Government is cynically trying to force Brexit through, against its own earlier policy, to maintain the unity of its party behind its leader.  The main opposition party, behind its already lukewarm leader, is afraid of alienating the large proportion of its constituency who (for whatever reason) voted Leave.  Both parties will severely punish members who vote against the current party line.  MPs must be willing to risk their political lives and vote with their conscience.

 

It will also take courage to resist intimidation from outside Parliament.  Two MPs who spoke out immediately after the referendum, David Lammy and Anna Soubry, have suffered vile abuse and even threats from anonymous individuals.  There were vicious attacks on the judges of the High Court in several national newspapers.  The flames of intolerance have been fanned to searing heat by various political pressure groups and newspapers who pander to a readership eager for simplification, vehemence and identifiable villains.  MPs who vote against Brexit will undoubtedly be exposing themselves to abuse and even perhaps physical danger.  But they must remember the great price that has been paid, by many over the centuries, to achieve our present democracy.  They must ask themselves if they should abandon its principles in the face of the much smaller risk they are asked to take.

 

 

*  The High Court judges quoted A V Dicey (who wrote the book on our constitution) in their 3rd November judgement.  He said the law knows “nothing about any will of the people except in so far as that will is expressed by an Act of Parliament” and will “never suffer the validity of a statute to be questioned on the ground of its having been passed … in opposition to the wishes of the electors”.

 

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