‘Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all…’ Hamlet
Is there a deep, unreconcilable fault line in British democracy that is snagging the conscience of many in the Westminster ‘mother of parliaments’?
I did not often agree with Mrs Thatcher, but how wise she was to entrust Britain’s final decision on whether to bring back capital punishment to a vote in Parliament, rather than to decide it through a national referendum. That would almost certainly have produced a majority for the death penalty, regardless of historic examples of people proved innocent after having been hanged or electrocuted. Is the ‘go to the country’ solution a negation of the whole structure of democracy by consent? We vote for our constituency MPs, knowing what they stand for. What if, in a referendum, their views are not supported by most of the voters in their constituency?
I have a friend who became an MP. She is now in an unenviable situation. A Remainer, she is convinced that Britain will face economic decline outside the EU, and inevitably become again ‘the poor man of Europe’ who in the early 1970s was seen as a country that ‘won the war and lost the peace’. She has travelled, is a brilliant linguist, and expresses her views forcibly and coherently, though her constituency voted for her and also to leave the EU. Should she follow the voters who chose her or her conscience? She is convinced that it is in her constituents’ interest and the country’s, to remain in the EU. She remembers when Britain was the ‘poor man of Europe’.Too many have forgotten this. Now, nearly five decades later and after joining the EU, this is no longer the case.
Travelling across France and Italy as a young student, I found it strange that everyone was clamouring to learn English but there were no British goods in the shops. That was soon to change, though it did not save the British car manufacturing industry.
But what now? Should my friend, the Member of Parliament, vote according to the wishes of her constituents or according to her conscience, convinced that would be better for them and the country? Or should she vote against her convictions and follow the majority in her constituency? Who bears the ultimate responsibility for future generations? The voting majority or their delegated representative – and his or her conscience? If they follow their conscience, some members of parliament might lose their seats in the next general election. Some voters are calling for the MPs who are following their consciences and not the referendum majority in their constituency, to resign immediately and submit to new elections. This would probably end their parliamentary career.
In the early days of parliamentary democracy, candidates usually belonged to prosperous families like the Baldwins, Chamberlains or Churchills. If they lost, they could return to their country estate or family business. This has not been the case for over a century. Parties must raise the money to pay for campaigns. My friend was a college lecturer before entering parliament. Were she to lose her seat, she couldn’t count on there being a job waiting for her. Entering parliament is now a perilous career choice.
Should members of parliament vote according to conviction and conscience, thus risking deselection and consequently the chance to stand in future elections? Or should they follow the wishes of their constituents and dump their own convictions based on the learning and experience that should enable them to shape the future of a country in the best interests of its inhabitants? Rule by numbers or rule by learning and experience?
Does conscience make cowards of us all?