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'Career' Brexiteers fail the Edmund Burke test

  • 02 August 2019


Now that the UK is in the final phase of leaving the Union we should ask, before the bell tolls, how much this misadventure — or folie de grandeur — was due to politicians putting their interests above those of the nation, ignoring democratic theory and long-settled constitutional practice.

Democracy, as Abraham Lincoln famously said, is 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people'. He did not, for reasons which should be obvious, distinguish two versions: the first is 'representative' democracy, where the people elect representatives to enact policies in their name. The second is 'direct' democracy where they vote directly on the policies.

The first says members are elected to serve the interests of the nation, while the second says the duty is to do what a majority wants. The latter goes hand in hand with a movement known as 'populism' which sees itself as a counter to 'elitist' politicians who think they know more about government than a majority, however nominal, transient, ignorant or prejudiced.

The reason for highlighting this distinction is because it is accepted by constitutional scholars across the political spectrum that there is really no room for debate: Westminster democracy has always rested on the former version, with members duty-bound to act on their own judgment after consulting widely and informing themselves as best they can.

Direct democracy was practised in Ancient Greece but exists today only in partial form in Switzerland, where the government (the Federal Council, composed of seven members elected by the Federal Assembly) can hold popular votes — on issues they choose — up to four times a year.

But the idea that a majority should decide all major issues of policy had little appeal after Alcibiades' loss of the fleet at Syracuse, the defeat of Athens and the end of the classical age of Ancient Greece. We should, therefore, condemn UK politicians, not for hedging on the promise implicit in the referendum but for making this commitment in the first place. They forgot that democracy means the people elect members but members make the laws.

The clearest expression of this representative or 'trustee' model is found in Edmund Burke's famous address at Bristol in 1774. He spoke to constituents in plain and simple language: '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.