Saturday 17 November 2018
On Thursday Theresa May published her draft Withdrawal Agreement, kindling a day of turmoil.
Will she survive? Will this government survive?
Her best option to survive is to agree to another referendum, with three options:
- Her ‘deal’
- No deal, hard Brexit
- Remain within the EU
When David Cameron declared a referendum for June 2016, he had every expectation that it would be a no-brainer, and the nation would solidly vote remain.
The danger of referendum democracy is it assumes ‘the Will of the People’ is where power lies. The notion of ‘the Will of the People’ goes back to social contract theory, and particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas that all government is exercised directly as an expression of the General Will of the people. That sort of direct democracy doesn’t work, though, for large and complex nations such as the UK. (Indeed, he didn’t write The Social Contract with large, complex nations in mind, but rather small, face-to-face communities where mutual accountability was a reality. Even then, he had to invent the figure of the ‘Governor’ to oversee processes and keep in line those who dissented.)
In large and complex nations, something more sophisticated is required: democracy that votes in a representative government.
The development of constitutional, representative democracy in this nation has long and interesting roots, which stretch back to Edmund Burke, who was its finest architect. He, in turn, owed a debt to Richard Hooker who argued in Book I of his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity that the consent of the people is required for government, but this can be held indirectly by others. (The best brief introduction to this aspect of Hooker is in Paul Avis’ book Beyond the Reformation? (2008: 142ff; or read book I of his Laws.)
In Burke’s hands, this meant that the Member of Parliament, who was elected by the people of his (and now her) constitutency, held authority by consent, not as a delegate, but rather as a representative. What’s the difference? Delegates vote in parliament the way the electors require and tell them to. A representative is elected to use their judgement, and vote according to their reason and conscience. Edmund Burke lost his seat as MP for Bristol over this issue – principled person that he was. In doing so, he established the precedent that our UK MPs are representatives, rather than delegates.
Unfortunately, since the Referendum of 2016, most MPs (Ken Clarke excepted) have acted as delegates, either through fear of losing their seats, or through a misguided understanding of their own authority. So we have a elected parliament whose members are largely ‘remain’ and yet who trot out the mantra of respect for the Will of the People, as if the referendum result were a direct and unambiguous mandate and executive decision.
Theresa May and her colleagues have done the best job possible to deliver under the terms she laid out for herself, given the constraints (Northern Ireland border, EU negotiators, etc), the potential disasters of crashing out, the pressure of ideologues, and the ineffective opposition. She has done her best to serve the Will of the People. No one could have done better. She has held her ground with commendable dignity and integrity.
She would strengthen her personal position by accepting the need for a second referendum to test her withdrawal agreement.
No one should fear or refuse a second referendum. If it goes Leave again, Brexiteers would prove they were right in their initial gut-driven vote. If another referendum confirmed the Brexit impulse, I for one would accept it – because now, at least, the Will of the People has had two years of proper opportunity to understand what Brexit would mean and the divisive, disastrous consequences. If the nation still votes Leave, then remainers really do need to sit up and accept that Leave is where we’re going, with all the damage to our nation entailed, in a world where old orders are changing in frightening ways (climate change, Russia, China, the US). If, now it knows what it voted for, the Will of the People takes the opportunity to change its mind, then at least the nation could be confident in the result. All the polls suggest that the mood of the nation has shifted decisively towards Remain. So what exactly is the Will of the People now? Perhaps it isn’t written in stone, as so often implied …
Cameron was fool-hardy and thoughtless to call the referendum in the first place (if for understandable reasons, like fulfilling his promise). Having done so, however, the result (either way) should never have been given executive status.
It should have been taken as a wake-up call that the state of the nation is deeply divided on some crucial questions like immigration and border controls, European legislative systems, agricultural and fishing agreements (and any number of fears and anxieties that were not honoured by a liberal political class that was out of touch). It might have been the opportunity to make helpful progress, working together as a nation that took this opportunity to re-assess what it means to be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish – British in a United Kingdom in a world of change, where pressing issues, such as climate change and terrorism, require more global governance, not less.
Immediately after the Referendum in 2016 MPs should have had more confidence in their own authority as elected by the people within a representative democracy. They should have taken courage in their judgement that staying in (and arguing for reform on key issues) was best for the nation, and worked with a clear understanding of their representative, rather than delegate, status. The Will of the People is always going to be confused and divided, and fickle – that’s why we need MPs to make informed and courageous judgements for us.
Theresa May’s most courageous act, now, would be to call for a second referendum.
And then to pass a law making ‘referenda’ illegal, or at least ever only advisory.