There is an interesting section in the 2019 Conservative Party general election manifesto, it begins on page 47 with a heading and a couple of worthy paragraphs:
Subsequent text goes on to explain the kind of things that will be reviewed or done to ‘evolve’ the UK’s constitution. It will be interesting to see in what order these things will happen to ensure that the evolution results in a creature better adapted for the political world. Before the constitution evolves, it would, perhaps, be good to consider whether it is poorly adapted or doomed to extinction due to predatory action.
Although I took little real interest in politics until quite recently, I did think that the UK was a representative (some say ‘Parliamentary’) democracy and that the electorate in each constituency voted for candidates to be their MP. I also thought that the winning MP then represented all of their constituents, whether those people could or did vote for them or not. When it comes to Parliament, I thought that all MPs in the House of Commons had a collective responsibility to always act in a way that they judged to be best for the whole nation and that all of Parliament (Commons and Lords) were supposed to ensure that the Government always acted in the best interests of the nation by scrutiny of all proposed Executive actions. In this model, it seems that some constituents choose who will win the competition to represent all of them and, then, that all of ‘the people’ are represented in the House of Commons, which can hold the Government to account. It is important to note that ‘all of the people’ have not elected the Government.
I’ve pondered hard to try to understand where and how referendums fit into the system of democracy in the UK. Some say that referendums are events of ‘direct democracy’, which our representatives decide are occasionally necessary to determine what voters amongst the people they represent, want the Government to do regarding a particular issue. The idea seems to be that referendums determine what the people represented by MPs want, so that the result of a referendum may be taken as “the will of the people”. This seems odd when only eligible voters can participate in them and, unless by exception, the result stands no matter what proportion of those eligible actually vote.
On the face of it, referendums appear to be good ways of finding out what voters want but I struggle to understand how the result of one can be taken as “the will of the people” – unless, of course, either a majority of the people vote for the result or the result indicates clearly what “the will of the people” is.
So, do our representatives decide whether the UK’s constitution evolves as the Conservatives outline in their manifesto or does the Government hold a referendum to allow “the will of the people” to give them a mandate? Or, will the current Government simply claim that they already have a mandate from ‘the people’ and use their large majority to, first, limit the powers of Parliament to challenge the executive intent and actions of Government and then, push on with constitutional ‘evolution’?
It is going to be fascinating to see whether the UK remains a representative democracy or the Government assumes that it has a mandate to implement “the will of the people” from a general election that was intended to elect representatives of all of the people. It will be interesting to see whether the people want the responsibilities of their representatives to be changed and whether they will consider there is any point voting for MPs who will only be able to represent their best interests if they want what the Government tells them they can have. When one of their manifesto pledges is to “make sure that every vote counts the same”, it is a contradiction that they plan changes which will ensure that not all representatives will be equal. At least one benefit would come from Parliament’s role being weakened, there should be no need for referendum’s in the future. Considering how much political disruption was caused by the last one that’s a good thing but, how will “the will of the people” be determined next time it is needed?