Under the pressure from the relentless pro-Brexit propagandists (which we view with some concern given the American Presidential election experience where literally hundreds of pro-Trump websites were set up by the Russians, and when countless anti-Clinton memes were generated from “invisible” overseas sites that might very well be funded by Putin as well, or by his big money backers in the extreme right in America, both of whom would love to weaken the EC) we have been giving some thought to the concept of a mandate in politics.
And it is simply this.
If a mandate is gained through what can clearly be shown to be a deliberate and oft-repeated lie – in other words, a deliberate con – is it actually a mandate at all? In a world where we blindly talk about “post truth” politics, is the concept of a mandate obsolete as well?
In deciding such a question, it is surely instructive to look at some of the other “estates” of the modern democratic society, and see how they deal with lying.
In the courts, for example, being caught lying brings with it swingeing penalties, even jail time.
In the media, uncovered lying can result in civil damages, or worse.
Yet suddenly we seem not only prepared to countenance a world where politicians are held to (much lower) standards, but where when their calumnies are discovered, no one seems to really care.
“Ah well, all politicians lie!” is the stock response, as in “You can’t trust any of them, so give it up.” As if this is somehow an adequate substitute for holding them to account and demanding they treat us with the minimal respect due to anyone whose support they are demanding, that is, to tell us the truth.
We are not naive. We know that all politicians have lied from time to time. But that is a world of difference from a situation where any attempt top tell the truth is overwhelmed by deliberate falsehoods, often promulgated through social media, which become part of the zeitgeist before any official denial or rebuttal can be issued.
The most egregious example of this in the UK during the Brexit campaign was the so-called Brexit bus, promising to return to the UK the funds that it devotes to the EU budget.
Only two things were wrong with this very prominent promise, which was repeated in tens of thousands (at least) of targeted leaflets issued in official-looking jargonese immediately prior to the Leave-Remain poll.
One, it was a barefaced lie. It virtually doubled the amount the UK donates to the European project.
Two, it was a barefaced lie. As conceded by arch-Brexit campaigner the very day after the Brexit vote, such a compact (to devote the money to the NHS instead) was unworkable, a fact confirmed by others like fellow Brexiteer Boris Johnson, and later the incoming Prime Minister, Mrs May.
If there is one sentence that explains the referendum result, though, it’s this one from the website of the Advertising Standards Agency. “For reasons of freedom of speech, we do not have remit over non-broadcast ads where the purpose of the ad is to persuade voters in a local, national or international electoral referendum.” In other words, political advertising is exempt from the regulation that would otherwise bar false claims and outrageous promises. You can’t claim that a herbal diet drink will make customers thinner, but you can claim that £350m a week will go to the NHS instead of the European Union.
The money was “an extrapolation . . . never total”, said Iain Duncan Smith on the BBC. It was merely part of a “series of possibilities of what you could do”.
Does that picture look like “a series of possibilities” or a simple, cast-iron commitment, to you?
More (slightly more nuanced) rubbish has been pouring out of the Brexit camp which has been trying to tell people that they can keep access to a single market without agreeing to the EU’s freedom of movement. That there is not the slightest possibility of such a deal being agreed to by Junkers, Merkel, Hollande and all the rest is clear and has been stated repeatedly by the Europeans – the impossibility of such an outcome is perfetly obvious to Blind Freddie. Yet the Brexiteers continue to repeat it, albeit increasingly desperately.
And what about the Turkey lie? The fact that staying in the EU means Britain will be flooded with Turkish migrants when that country accedes to the EU. Apart from the again certain fact that accession to the EU by Turkey looks increasingly like a pipe dream, and a decade or more off at the very earliest, on leaving the EU, we, of course, have no vote as to whether Turkey becomes part of it.
The very next day after the Brexit vote, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan told Newsnight that “taking back control” of immigration didn’t necessarily mean cutting it. That would come as something of a shock to millions who voted for Brexit egged on by spurious talk of “taking back control” of Britain’s borders, clear code for “cut immigration”. He also advocated joining the single market: meaning that if Turkey does join the EU, Britain will be obliged to accept freedom of movement for its citizens anyway.
When Britain leaves the EU, it will also lose automatic access to the scheme by which failed asylum-seekers are returned to the country in which they first claimed sanctuary.
All this monument of untruths is not lying on the scale of a few convenient fibs or quibbles over minor details, of being “economical with the truth”. There is a reason that calling someone a “liar” in the House of Commons is forbidden. It is that Members of the House are considered to have reached the pinnacle of social advancement, to be honourable people, dedicated to “doing the right thing”, on a par with judges, bishops, captains of industry, and others. To accept a British Parliament that is “post truth” is to throw away any semblance of what Britain and its parliament represent.
Brexiteers argue that the incredibly narrow advisory referendum win for Leave mandates the British Parliament to support “the will of the people”, and implement withdrawal from the EU post-haste. But leaving aside that this assertion is based on the highly morally dubious conduct of the Leave campaign – reason enough on its own to ignore it in our opinion – this argument fails to understand the British constitution in any way or shape at all. It is another entirely despicable lie that is intended to stick through being continually repeated.
Firstly, let us be crystal clear, the referendum was never, and never could be, legally binding on Parliament. In the British constitution, Parliament is sovereign. It is entirely up to a vote in Parliament as to whether any negotiation on Brexit should be agreed to. There is no way round this very obvious fact, recently confirmed by the High Court in a damningly unanimous decision.
“Ah!” cry the Brexiteers, “but Parliament is morally obliged to follow the will of the people! You are anti-democratic!”
Not so. If we are to debate on the basis of morality, let us consider (a) the vote was never legally binding – this is not an opinion, it is undisputed fact and presenting it as otherwise is another lie (b) the victory was secured by lying on a scale never seen before, (c) the outcome was very close, and in a previous speech Nigel Farage has argued that a 52-48 vote in favour of staying in the EU should trigger a second referendum – but not, perhaps, when the vote goes his way? – (d) in other democratic exercises such as elections there will be OTHER elections coming along down the line when a decision can be reversed, if desired – but that opportunity does not exist in this situation, hence the vital need for both Houses of Parliament to consider their next step with great care. As what looks like a “once and for all decision”, Parliament is morally obliged to consider the timing and terms of any Brexit extremely carefully. Quite apart from the also oft-measured and very obvious – if inconvenient – fact that the mood in Britain has now swung badly against the Leave camp.
Let us now, though, consider the single biggest argument in favour of Parliament retaining a perfect right to vote against the terms of Brexit, or of Brexit itself, if it so wishes.
One might have to be a member of the derided “intellectual liberal elite” to understand this incredibly simple point, but Parliament is sovereign, and in Britain at least, the Westminster system is that of a Representative democracy, not a Delegated one.
The difference being that our system allows – nay, demands – that our MPs vote according to their best deliberations, and not merely at the whim of how they perceive the electorate’s bidding, however that bidding is delivered to them.
For centuries, our MPs have been held to a higher standard.
As Edmund Burke put it back on the 1700s, in the “trustee model” of democracy, Burke argued that his behaviour in Parliament should be informed by his knowledge and experience, allowing him to serve the public interest above all. Of an MP he said that in giving “his unbiased 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, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion“.
Essentially, in the British model of democracy, a trustee considers an issue and, after hearing all sides of the debate, exercises their own judgment in making decisions about what should be done. He added, “You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament“. (Burke, 1774). Burke made these statements immediately after being elected in Bristol, and after his colleague had spoken in favour of coercive instructions being given to representatives.
J.S. Mill also championed this model. He stated that while all individuals have a right to be represented, not all political opinions are of equal value.
This is why, for example, Britain has no death penalty, despite it frequently receiving 80% or more support amongst the population. It is why homosexuality was de-criminalised long before the public would have voted for it, ditto the legalisation of abortion. In short, MPs think they know better. And sometimes, frankly, they do. Pointing this out enrages members of the public who cynically choose to denigrate all politicians. Nevertheless, it is true. This principle lies at the very heart of British democracy. If we discard it, we discard the entire box and dice.
It’s this simple: despite what rabble rousers and Brexit-bots sound off endlessly about, the referendum result does not have equal value to the will of Parliament. That is why MPs, of any party, are not obliged to slavishly follow the referendum result, and are, in fact, quite to contrary, obliged to consider the matter on its merit.
Opposing a blind Brexit with closer consideration is not, in any sense, anti-democratic. In fact, it is the epitome of British democracy.