How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it? The debate on an EU referendum on Monday has caused no small measure of anger on all sides, within and without the Conservative Party and the country. The government was wrong to impose a whip, so stirring the backbench debate to greater gravity than perhaps it deserved. That caused some anger. The European Union itself prompts anger in varying measure. These are appropriate causes.
But wise Marcus Aurelius was right to counterpoise causes and consequences. I am afraid that I must respectfully disagree with Francesca Preece, who argued yesterday on these pages that MPs ought to be representing “the wishes of the people, not their own”.
It is a historic principle that Members of Parliament are representatives of the people, not delegates sent by the people. It is as it is, or has been as it is, since the earliest days of our modern parliamentary democracy.
The best articulation of this simple fact was provided by Edmund Burke, in a speech to his Bristol constituents in 1774. The philosopher-politician’s words have a rare timbre and rhythm; winsome force and poise; and their lesson is as relevant now as it was nearly 237 years ago to the day.
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.
But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislature are matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination.
Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.
A marriage of views is self-selecting in part, but otherwise coincidental. The ‘EU rebels’, as this group has lazily been termed, rebelled for their conscience. In the words of one: “to sleep easily”. There is no doubt that the views of their constituents and certain opinion polls have played a steady and cumulative part in their decision to back a referendum – not only over the past few days and weeks, but over years and decades. But the MP’s decision must be made by them. Several times on Monday, MPs who voted for the motion invoked Burke’s famous distinction.
Francesca says that “only 111 MPs represent the wishes of Britain’s citizens” and “484 scuttled shamefully into the Commons to represent the view of their party leaders, and not the country”. Simply put, that is being as ungracious to the opinions of politicians as they are being accused of themselves. The Manichean dichotomy that if you voted for the motion you’re a eurosceptic patriot and against the motion a traitorous europhile is as uninformed as it is absurd.
We can argue about how much people truly care about the EU. When asked about the EU directly, polling does show significant dissatisfaction. When asked about the EU relative to other subjects, however, it comes pitifully low down the list of concerns. Jobs, healthcare, education and justice are more important to people. Their aspirations are of a roof over their heads, a decent living, and the best possible start for their children. Their fears are for their careers, the environment around them, their health and the security of themselves and their families. That is the balance that elected politicians have to strike.
If the consequence of Monday’s vote is anger, the debate can only degenerate. To quote Burke for a final time: “patience will achieve more than force”. That is what MPs, in their judgement, voted for on Monday. And as much as it was the honourable right of others to disagree, it was their honourable right to do so.