Brexit, the Meaningful Vote and Edmund Burke: a historical rather than a democratic education

Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities & Education, shares his thoughts on the historical context of this week’s Meaningful Vote on Brexit.

And so it begins (again). No sooner had the last mince pie been consumed, the turkey sandwiches exhausted and the Hogmanay malt drained, the Parliamentary brouhaha over the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal flared once more.

There have been a number of strands to the Westminster debate in the run up to the Meaningful Vote both before and after the Christmas recess. One of the more prominent has been the exhortation – from both Leavers and Remainers as it is not a particularly partisan point – that the citizens in the constituencies have spoken through a referendum and thus Members of Parliament as the elected representatives for the constituencies must simply reflect that ‘democratic’ voice in the Division Lobbies; job done.

The convention that MPs vote in groups in a particular way is primarily and popularly associated with the robust party system and the Westminster ‘whipping’ operation, but these are relatively modern features of parliamentary convention. While it was true that at the turn of the 18th century Westminster was gripped by a clear division between the Whigs and the Tories to the extent that Queen Anne (yes, her of The Favourite) plaintively asked her first Lord Chancellor, Sidney, Lord Godolphin ‘to preserve me from these merciless men of party’, the spectacle of MPs voting in one way because their constituencies had returned a Whig or a Tory member was less common.

Indeed, the commonplace experience of Crown ministers in the 18th century was having to build coalitions of votes on particular measures in order to get Government business through the House. This was often uncertain work: in the 1760s, five administrations came and went over an eight-year period with the Earl of Bute’s lasting just over 300 days, while the longest serving Prime Minister, George Grenville, was afforded a whopping (comparatively) two years and 86 days in office.

A ‘context as contentious as Brexit’

The 19th century did herald a stiffening of collective and party-identity voting based on the constituency returns but only by degree. Lord Palmerston was but one 19th century Prime Minister who had to pay heed to the Westminster parliamentary democracy and construct through rhetorical persuasion and influence a coalition of MPs in support of his policies. Famously, in late June 1850, during a four-day debate on the Government’s foreign policy, Palmerston, then Foreign Secretary, was on his feet at the despatch box for four hours 35 minutes cajoling, persuading and exhorting Members individually across the House for their support. On this occasion, the context was as contentious as Brexit.

Following the Don Pacifico incident, in which a British subject who had settled in Athens was burnt out of his home during anti-Semitic riots, Palmerston deployed British gunboats to force the Greek Government to pay reparations. Then, having successfully secured a settlement, Palmerston sought to enshrine his gun-boat diplomacy in policy through legislation which invoked the Roman Empire’s ‘security’ passport expressed by the phrase ‘Civus Romanus sum’ by similarly asserting that British citizens wherever, whenever should be assured the protection of the ‘strong arm of England’.

Articulating the principle on how MPs should vote

The continuous thread in these examples from the 18th and 19th centuries is the recognition that Members of Parliament can take a view on matters of moment without necessarily being shackled to a party or indeed a constituency stance. Perhaps ironically for the current Prime Minister, it was the doyen of British political conservative thinking, the 18th century parliamentarian and statesmen Edmund Burke, who articulated the principle on how MPs should resolve to vote when called to the Division Lobbies.

Given the sobriquet, ‘dinner bell Burke’ by his parliamentary colleagues, who uncharitably (but not unreasonably) thought his speeches to be prolix and convoluted and thus tended to empty the chamber when he rose, Burke is perhaps best known for his conservative opposition to the French Revolution set out in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). It was, however, his address to the electors of Bristol in 1774 which laid bare any notion that MPs by dint of their election were instructed to vote in a particular way. Arguing then that ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion’, Burke laid stress on a Member of Parliament’s individual judgement in determining how to vote and gave expression to a practice which had been relatively standard in the 18th century and would continue to be so into the 19th.

So, in the coming days, when we are told that it is an affront to ‘democracy’ that MPs might not vote according to the referendum result as instructed per consistency, remember Burke and recall history; the working of ‘democracy’ is much, much more nuanced than our current parliamentarians and media would have us believe.

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