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Thursday, January 24, 2019

The balloon goes up: has Parliament cut its own string?

As Parliament continues to try ways to subvert the results of a Referendum it previously assured us would be binding, "Raedwald" detects what I call "a dangerous groundswell" in public opinion.

I go on to comment:

"I'm reading a potted history of the English Civil Wars and there are points of similarity between the 1630s/1640s and now: arrogant and slippery Government, discontent with the system of representation in Parliament, multiple ideological fracture lines in the populace. 

"Charles thought he could dodge round it all and carry on. Our current political establishment seems to think it can do so, also."

At this time we begin to hear calls for direct democracy, or at least closer ties between the people and their MPs in an age where travel and electronic communication have almost abolished our separation from Parliament. However, enthusiasts for direct control overlook how divisive voting can be, and how intemperate, prejudiced and ill-informed are many of the participants.

So, who is fit to decide?

We go back to the New Model Army's Putney Debates of October-November 1647. One of the issues was Parliamentary representation: the system was out of balance, constituency sizes varying from "around a dozen to several thousand."(1) The first demand of the Levellers faction, stated in their draft "Agreement of the People", was:

"1. That the people of England being at this day very unequally distributed by counties, cities and boroughs for the election of their deputies in parliament, ought to be more indifferently proportioned according to the number of the inhabitants: the circumstances whereof, for number, place, and manner, are to be set down before the end of this present parliament."

The word "inhabitants" needed clarification.

Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, for the Levellers, argued that owning or renting property should not be a criterion. For him, the franchise should be universal for all adult men:

"Really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under."

General Henry Ireton saw a potentially destabilising implication in this:

"In choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by, no person has a right to this, who does not have a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom…if we take away this law, we shall plainly take away all property and interest that any man has."

Rainsborough was swift to deny that he was arguing for anarchy, but Cromwell intervening and attempting to take some of the heat out of the discussion, still noted that there was such a potential in the proposal:

"No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but [that] the consequences of this rule tends to anarchy; for where is there any bound or limit set if you take away this [limit], that men that have no interest but the interest of breathing [shall have no voice in elections]?"(2)

When the property qualification was at last abolished in 1918, and women to some extent were also enfranchised, the size of the electorate tripled. Later, all adult women could vote; then (in 1969, and presumably because he thought young people would be more like to vote Labour) Harold Wilson dropped the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. In 2015, Labour's Ed Miliband was proposing to drop it further, to 16; last year, a Cambridge professor mooted a reduction to age 6.

Surely there must be some age below which people cannot be judged capable of mature understanding. But we don't have educational or IQ bars to voting, so why age?

And one could argue that the right to vote is not to do with having sufficient judgement to direct public affairs, but instead to register one's desires, since governments are now involved in almost every part of our lives.

Besides, isn't the exercise of skilled and well-informed judgement the role of the Parliamentary representative? Thus (htp: Michael St GeorgeEdmund Burke in 1774:

"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.

"Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but 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."

In any case, how can an MP fairly represent a constituency deeply and almost equally divided on some great matter?

So for most of the time we may accept the argument that MPs have the good of the nation as a whole for their guiding star.

But what sharpens the contest over Brexit is the sense that politicians are acting neither in accordance with the manifestos on which they stood at the last General Election, in which undertakings were given to see the Brexit process through to its conclusion; nor in accordance with the will of the majority of the electorate in the Referendum; nor (as that majority judged) in the people's best long-term interests.

This raises questions about the status of party manifestos; about "First Past The Post"(3); about the power to reselect MPs; about the potential conflict of personal and career interests of MPs with their duty to the public; about whether it is or was ultra vires for Parliament to compromise or give away national sovereignty without a most serious, carefully balanced debate and plebiscite; about the authoritative status of that plebiscite.

For it was a plebiscite, not a referendum: leading politicians and the Referendum pamphlet itself made it clear that what the people decided would be the last word on the matter.

A fine and dangerously fractious mess.

As I said on Raedwald's:

"In 2016 the Government could have said, decision made; we shall implement it, negotiate a sensible settlement with the EU in the interests of the country as a whole, and assiduously seek to reunite the people as we go forward.

"It is not too late to do so, even now; but it is getting late."

(1) John Miller, "The English Civil Wars," Constable and Robinson (2009), p. 167
(2)  Keith Lindley, "The English Civil War and Revolution: A Sourcebook," Routledge (1998) pp. 152-155
(3) It's interesting to see that the Alternative Vote was already being used in the twentieth century:
"The universities constituencies which returned more than one Member used the single transferable vote system to elect the Members."
- "The History of the Parliamentary Franchise," House of Commons Research Paper 13/14 (1 March 2013), p. 43

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