WHEN the great conservative philosopher Edmund Burke was elected MP for Bristol in 1771, he addressed voters with the following words: “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. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. . . But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. Your representative owes you . . . his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
That defining principle of representative democracy has been undermined in recent times with what constitutional experts call direct or plebiscitary democracy. The 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union has had the indirect effect of emasculating Parliament. Many MPs who believe that Brexit will, on balance, do more harm than good have felt obliged, none the less, to go along with it in terms of enabling parliamentary legislation, because the referendum has shown that it is “the will of the people”.
Let’s leave aside the question whether the will of the majority is a proper expression of the will of the people — or whether it can, when passions rise and tempers heat, become merely a majoritarian tyranny, hellbent on paying no consideration to the concerns of the 48 per cent of the population who voted Remain.
Whatever the final outcome of the current Brexit omnishambles, something has shifted on the British political landscape in recent weeks. MPs who for the past two years have felt their judgement invalidated by the referendum result have finally found mechanisms to bring that judgement to bear on the mess that Theresa May has made of EU exit negotiations.
Governments with big majorities often tend to ignore parliaments. It has been a singular feature of Brexit that Mrs May’s minority government has managed the same feat, despite the fact that she called a General Election in 2015, in which she lost her majority. Now, however, there has been a change in the power balance between the executive and the legislature.
This is, in no small measure, due to the actions of the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Many Conservative MPs heartily dislike Mr Bercow, despite the fact that he, too, is a Conservative. They say that he is a bully, although what really irks them is that he gives as good as he gets to Tory grandees in orotund rhetorical pomposity. They claim that he leans too much to Labour, but his real bias is against Government and in favour of Parliament.
There may be some validity in Conservative claims that the Speaker has bent the letter of the law on parliamentary procedure, but it seems clear that he has preserved its spirit by letting the influence of the back benches be reasserted. And “taking back control” was, after all, supposed to be about restoring Parliament as the sovereign authority. I suspect that he will go down in history as a great defender of the rights of the Commons. From Burke to Bercow — now there’s a thought.