Does the UK government have the unilateral right to ignore instructions from the electorate if it finds them to be “harmful” based on narrowly subjective criteria? And if so, shouldn’t we do something to constrain that power?
A couple of days ago I mused that the most fundamental question facing both Britain and America right now is that of whether or not the people should be permitted to make mistakes as they participate in the democratic process.
Regardless of whether one thinks that electing Donald Trump and voting for Brexit were “mistakes” or not (and I strongly believe that Trump was a mistake and that Brexit is not), it is a question we must ask ourselves because of the nature of the opposition to both. In both countries, large parts of the opposition are not content to let events play out and then capitalise at the next election; rather, many want to thwart these unwelcome electoral decisions altogether.
This is best encapsulated by the #Resistance movement in America and by the #FBPE (follow-back pro-European) social media movement in Britain – people convinced that their nation has made the wrong choice, and unwilling to wait for the “regular order” of the normal democratic process to reverse what they see as an existential mistake made by the voters.
Yesterday I wrote:
In both cases, the objectors – those who want to summarily impeach Donald Trump or overturn the EU referendum result in the light of “new facts” – are actually saying something quite serious. They are saying that in the cases of highly consequential decisions, the people are wrong and should not be allowed to inflict their wrongness on the country via the ballot box.
The implication is that some decisions are simply too important, consequential or irreversible to be left to the direct judgment of the people (unless, conveniently, the choice in question can be blended with a bunch of other decisions in a general election, supported by all the main political parties and thus be preserved in perpetuity). And the clear subtext is that the ruling classes know best, are imbued with a deeper wisdom and sense of morality which must prevail any time there is a conflict between the governed and the governing.
I also wrote that politicians rarely if ever explicitly come out and actually say that they reserve the right to overturn or ignore a decision made by the people and expressed through the political system if they happen to dislike it. Rather, they obfuscate and couch this point (or threat, depending on how you interpret it) with grave warnings about the dangers of populism – some of which are valid, but which are never accompanied by an explicit statement of the precise circumstances under which the political class reserves the right to reject an electoral decision made by the people.
But no sooner had I published these thoughts than I came across a story in the Huffington Post reporting that Conservative junior government minister – Dr. Phillip Lee MP – last night made the following statement in a short burst of posts on Twitter:
The next phase of Brexit has to be all about the evidence. We can’t just dismiss this and move on. If there is evidence to the contrary, we need to see and consider that too. 1/3
But if these figures turn out to be anywhere near right, there would be a serious question over whether a government could legitimately lead a country along a path that the evidence and rational consideration indicate would be damaging. This shows the PM’s challenge…2/3
The PM has been dealt some tough cards and I support her mission to make the best of them. It’s time for evidence, not dogma, to show the way. We must act for our country’s best interests, not ideology & populism, or history will judge us harshly. Our country deserves no less 3/3
My emphasis in bold. Phillip Lee is stating here what most politicians are only willing to tiptoe around – the fact that the government and the political class reserves the absolute right to ignore an instruction from the electorate if an ill-defined process of “rational consideration” of a certain pool of “evidence” that they themselves select means they think that it would be unwise to do so.
Still we get no specifics about just how potentially damaging a scenario would have to be or what form the damage would have to take for this antidemocratic override of elitist salvation to kick in, but here we have an admission in plain English, from the mouth of a government minister, that senior politicians think in this way. But if government ministers are going to publicly claim the prerogative to ignore an instruction from the electorate if they happen to dislike it, at the very least the people have a right to know the precise circumstances and criteria under which this might happen, both now relating to Brexit and in the future relating to the many other important national decisions that we will have to make in coming decades.
And as I wrote yesterday, this is just further evidence that Britain needs to debate and ratify a written constitution for the United Kingdom, one which “upgrades” the patchwork of our unwritten constitution and augments or replaces large parts of it with a document which clearly sets out the limits on government, the rights of the people, electoral and judicial processes and more, all in a language which people have a fighting chance of understanding.
But in the short term, for Brexit’s sake if nothing else, we also need to challenge Dr. Phillip Lee’s casual but totally unproven assertion that “evidence and rational consideration” might give the government legitimate grounds to ignore the result of the EU referendum. Phillips is clearly talking here only about the economic case – he references the leaked Brexit Impact Report. But by restricting his focus on the reasons for Brexit to such a narrow point he is saying that either the non-economic reasons for voting to leave the European Union don’t exist, or that they do exist but are outweighed by the economic reasons to remain.
This is a considerable feat of omission by Phillip Lee, one which is best illustrated with an example.
Imagine – and I acknowledge that this is an extreme example to which I draw no direct parallel, though it clearly illustrates my point – that one were to take Dr. Phillip Lee back to the Britain of 1939 as war loomed, or in 1940 after Dunkirk. Would he have counselled appeasement of Germany on the same grounds? After all, if one considers only the economic metric, the Second World War was always going to be utterly ruinous for Britain. Aside from the military and civilian casualties our cities were levelled, our industry appropriated by the government (and in some cases not returned to private hands for decades), food and clothing were rationed, arts and science were overshadowed and our footprint on the world stage shrank in every conceivable way.
Surely, then, the right course of action would have been to make a deal with Hitler, no? Peace at any costs? After all, we are only considering the economic metric here, because we are “rational” and look only at Approved Facts. After all, life under a puppet Westminster government wouldn’t have been so bad for most of us. Who really needs self-determination so long as the occupying power is delivering the many fruits of a non war-ravaged economy? And hey, who knows, maybe the Nazi war machine might even have helped modernise British industry, which was already falling behind our competitors at the time. On every front, things would have been better had Britain stayed out of the war. Loved ones would have lived and families remained intact. Our major cities would not have been pockmarked with bomb damage. Coventry Cathedral would not be a burned out shell (though I mean no disrespect to its replacement).
Now, the decision to go to war in 1939 is not the same as the decision to leave the European Union. But it was Phillip Lee, not me, who proposed a vague, ethereal set of criteria under which the government might claim the right to overrule the people in the event that politicians think they know better on a key national issue. I am simply showing one reasonable endpoint of applying the very framework that he proposes.
In reality I do Phillip Lee the courtesy of assuming that he would not have been an appeaser, that his intellect and moral code would have compelled him to risk immense short-term harm – not just to Britain’s economy but to our very continued existence as a country – in service of a higher goal, namely freedom. Further, I am convinced that Phillip Lee would not have had to sit down for a second weighing the risks and creating economic forecasts before arriving at his decision. Because Dr. Lee knows as well as I do that cold hard numbers do not encapsulate the value of this country or the dignity, resilience and potential of her people.
And yet Dr. Lee is quite happy to pretend – again, I do him the courtesy of presuming that he is intelligent enough to actually understand that other very valid and serious arguments were in play during the EU referendum but simply chooses to ignore them to bolster his argument – that the entire decision should be based on a government cost-benefit analysis or the output of an Excel spreadsheet on a Whitehall computer.
We see this again and again from Remainers – this steadfast, stubborn, furious refusal to look at the question of Britain’s membership of the European Union in anything other than their own chosen short-term economic terms. People doubtless have their own reasons for thus deliberately restricting their peripheral vision, but at this late stage none of those reasons can be deemed honourable or respectable. Dr. Lee knows full well that whether one agrees with them or not, there were very valid arguments about sovereignty, self-determination, trade relationships, immigration and national identity which together with the economic warnings formed the complex backdrop against which every single one of us cast our vote on 23 June, 2016.
To pretend that the sudden discovery of “new evidence” (as if the publication of a new economic forecast can be called “evidence”, given their consistent record of alarmism and inaccuracy) constitutes anywhere near sufficient reason to overturn a national plebiscite which was based on a multitude – a multitude – of factors, is deeply disingenuous and really an affront to any notion of democracy.
Furthermore, it is a total fallacy to talk piously about the need to respect “evidence and rational consideration” when deliberately focusing only on the evidence you want to see, and simply pretending that no other evidence and no other rational arguments exist for the opposing side.
Even if you are an ardent Remainer, this should concern you. Because after the government uses this get-out clause to avoid following the direction given to them by the EU referendum, what’s not to stop them from starting to disregard other, future directives from the electorate? After all, we have no written constitution to constrain the government or make our rights and the separation of powers crystal clear.
I think that Dr. Phillip Lee knows all of this. I believe he is a good person simply trying to win the argument for his side, or perhaps just blinded against other perspectives after years of percolating inside a bubble where the very idea of life outside a supranational government of Europe seems absurd. But he his also spinning a falsehood. Remainers in general are spinning a pernicious falsehood, and have been doing so since the referendum campaign began. And now that this falsehood threatens the integrity not only of the EU referendum vote but of our wobbly, unwritten constitutional settlement it needs to be confronted and stopped.
If Dr. Phillip Lee genuinely thinks that the government has the authority to unilaterally disregard the result of a referendum in which it committed in its own propaganda to obey, let him clearly state the case. Let him publicly outline first the legal and then the moral basis on which such an act might be justified, and provide other examples of when such a code might apply.
And then let’s have another talk about that boring old campaign for a written constitution.
Update – 31 January
Reports suggest that Dr. Phillip Lee MP has now been slapped down by Downing Street and told to “air his views in private” rather than on Twitter in future. However, the government has not explicitly repudiated Lee’s argument. Whether this is due to their continuing incompetence, internal division or secret agreement remains to be seen.
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Well put, Sam – this effectively nails Phillip Lee’s argument to the wall. As you say, his approach springs from the narrow Remainer mindset of economic pragmatism – i.e. if it won’t be good for my wallet’s contents this week or next, it can’t be the right thing to do.
As you also imply, it would be good to see repudiation of this weaselly attitude delivered loudly and clearly by government and mainstream media – we can keep on hoping.
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Many thanks David. If only I were a little more articulate myself when it comes to speaking extemporaneously I would love to be the one to do it. I’m sure there is a way to reduce the point of my rebuttal to the perfect, pithy put-down which might be really effective from the mouth of the right person. Alas, credible defenders of Brexit from the democratic/constitutional side are in short supply (though more plentiful than the cohort who try to make the democratic case for the EU).
We live in hope!
‘But if these figures turn out to be anywhere near right, there would be a serious question over whether a government could legitimately lead a country….’….
…’..But if xxxxxxx turn out to be anywhere near accurate, there would be a serious question over whether a politician\politicians could legitimately lead a country…’..
…and becomes a line quite pregnant with consequences.
Why stop at a post-Election scenario? We already look to the Parliamentary ranks of the two main parties and there are figures facing each other who should not be in charge of two pieces of lego unsupervised, let alone be given responsible office? Today’s entry in EUReferendum.com being a good exemplar of supporting evidence. The text there describes eccentric circles around a Government which is utterly adrift. They haven’t even prepared the fundamentals, let alone begun to take the details into account. We’re looking at pretty definitive gross negligence. There are people in the current UK Government who should be staring down at prosecution proceedings – not presiding over a Cabinet portfolio?
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