Theresa May clearly thinks Brexit is a bad idea. But she and other politicians mistakenly think their job is to follow the people rather than lead them.
In her LBC interview this week, the prime minister refused to say how she’d vote if there was another referendum. She is too honest to pretend that she has changed her mind. But she thinks it her democratic duty to deliver what the people voted for last year.
May has perhaps persuaded herself that this is the principled course because it is also the path of least resistance. It accords with the views of the elite anti-EU ideologues in her party and the Brexiters in the Conservative constituency organisations. And it is screamed at her daily by the virulently pro-Brexit press who proclaim the “will of the people”.
She has taken the same position as a former Australian PM who is supposed to have said: “The people have spoken, and I must follow, for I am their leader.”
The UK is still, just, a representative parliamentary democracy. We have been playing with fire by indulging in national plebiscites without any clear framework to limit their potential damage – e.g. by setting the bar for constitutional change at higher than 50%; or by banning questions which amount to asking “Do you want change or no change?” without specifying the options for change.
“Time for a change” is often the tide that brings in new governments. No problem with that. But it is a very bad basis upon which to alter fundamental constitutional arrangements.
The biggest problem with our recent fondness for plebiscites is that we have no settled basis upon which to resolve the conflict if popular opinion as expressed in a referendum clashes with parliamentary opinion.
Edmund Burke, the political philosopher much loved by many Tories, had no doubt as to the proper resolution. He famously told the electors of Bristol that “your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgement, and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.
Our present Parliament has been too weak to uphold that approach. In the Conservative party, Remainer MPs have been whipped into supporting a policy with which they disagree. In the Labour party, Remainer MPs are muzzled by a leader who has always been ideologically opposed to the EU and by a Momentum movement with the bit between its teeth.
So we have a solid majority in Parliament which believes Brexit to be against the national interest and which has the power to avert the unfolding catastrophe, but which can find no way to express itself.
National salvation requires more MPs to have the courage to put their country ahead of their own interests or the demands of their party whips. As public opinion shifts, as it surely will, this should become easier. It might even begin to look politic. That day cannot come soon enough for a country in torment.