Necessity forces politicians into unwelcome positions. In 1939 Neville Chamberlain had to recognize the failure of the policy of Appeasement which he had doggedly pursued. Hitler could not be appeased. So when Germany moved against Poland, Chamberlain moved against Hitler, delivered an ultimatum and, when it was rejected, declared the war he had tried to avoid. Few British politicians have been more honest and more respected than Sir Robert Peel; none performed more U-turns when the facts changed: on Catholic Emancipation, on Parliamentary Reform, on the Corn Laws.
Theresa May was on the Remain side in the Brexit referendum. So was her First Secretary of State, Damian Green. So was her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. All bowed to Necessity as they perceived it, as expressed in the Referendum. So, like Chamberlain and Peel, they committed themselves to a measure they had previously rejected. Chamberlain and Peel , it may be said, were persuaded by the facts to become true believers in courses they had previously been against. Mrs May, on becoming Prime Minister, declared she would respect the will of the People and manage our departure from the European Union. Yet there is a difference between her position and Chamberlain’s and Peel’s. They made their own decisions according to their own judgement. Mrs May is acting on instructions from the 52 per cent who voted Leave.
We have come a long way from the position set out by Edmund Burke in his Letter to the Electors of Bristol in which he declared that he owed them his judgement, not his obedience. It is a journey which has taken us from Representative Democracy to Democracy by Plebiscite. In that journey, the opinions of the 48 per cent who formed the minority are to count for nothing.
What would Burke, so long regarded as the voice of intelligent Tory philosophy, have had to say about the course on which, obedient to the 52 per cent, we have embarked?
“The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science , not to be taught ‘a priori’. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which is in the first instance prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning…”
So far, you may say, Burke makes the case for the Brexiteers, and does so more honestly and persuasively than Messrs Johnson, Davis, Fox and Gove – and indeed Mr Farage also –have done. Brexit may be “in the first instance prejudicial” to the immediate interests of the Country and Nation; yet “excellent in its remoter operation”. After suffering will come recovery. One might have more respect for them if they had spoken in this manner.
However, he continues: “the reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements , have often shameful and lamentable conclusions.” Certainly the scheme for Brexit was very plausibly presented in the Referendum campaign, and we were promised a very pleasant commencement, even an easy one when we had taken back control.
At this point, or rather during that campaign, Burke would have counselled caution.
“In states there are often obscure and even latent causes, things which appear at first of very little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend.”
Such “things of very little moment” went unremarked in June 2016.
“The science of government being therefore so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree, for ages, the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.”
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Well, of course, it may be said that the edifice from which the Brexiteers will extract us hasn’t lasted for “ages” (though we have been members of the EEC and then the EU since the likes of Johnson and Fox were schoolboys) and it may be argued – has indeed been declared – that “it has not answered in any tolerable degree the common purposes of society”, but, then. we are entitled to ask whether they do indeed have “models and patterns of approved utility” before their eyes. To which question some, observing their apparent confusion, would say “apparently not”.
Burke, being of a Tory temperament, would surely be troubled by the evident absence of that “infinite caution” he thought necessary to the “science of government”. He would be troubled and amazed by the willingness of politicians like Mrs May to surrender their own judgement, and their failure to recognize what he believed to be an essential duty of government.
“Society,” he wrote, “requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves; and not, in the exercise of their function , subject to that will and to those passion which it is its duty to bridle and subdue..”
In saying this Burke is making the case for aristocratic – or, as we should not say, elitist – government, and this is anathema to plebiscitary democracy which requires those in office to surrender their judgement to the General Will as expressed by the majority in a referendum.
So we find ourselves engaged on a course of action which the Prime Minister, a number of her Cabinet colleagues and perhaps a majority of the MPs who follow her, would not have chosen if free to exercise their judgement , but which they must pursue because they are acting under instructions which they either think it wrong to disregard or dare not question.
Meanwhile those who are eager for Brexit and appear to welcome this in even the most extreme or “hardest” form have not presented us with a model or pattern of its “approved utility”. In vulgar terms , they assure us “it will be all right on the night”.
Brexit in some form will happen. The decision appears to be irreversible, and irreversible for a cogent reason: that the politicians, having abandoned their duty to exercise their own judgement –a duty which is enjoined on them by the theory and historical practice of representative democracy – dare not thwart what they understand to be the Will of the People and bring their passions into subjection.
Mrs May became Prime Minister for an honourable reason : the Queen’s Government must be carried on. It may be also that she is, honourably again, attempting to secure a compromise: a soft Brexit which will enable us to retain many of the advantages of membership of the EU while freeing us of some of the unwelcome burdens. Such a compromise might well be in the national interest, but it will not satisfy the nationalist zealots. She cannot however draw back because even to hint at doing so would inflame the passions of those who believed that “Leave means Leave”. Yet to satisfy these passions and make the clean break – taking the “No Deal” option – will leave the 48 percent who voted Remain variously dismayed, aggrieved and angry. The truth is that there is no General Will. No outcome will please everybody. Every outcome will be felt as a betrayal by millions.
We cannot go back to where we were before the politicians supinely chose not to abide by the principles of representative democracy and surrendered their judgement to the people who had elected them to exercise that judgement. So we are in a mess, confusion worse confounded. The best we can hope for is a very British fudge, a Brexit that satisfies nobody, but one that fools most of the people long enough to allow passions to subside.