Thank you for your response to my previous letter on Brexit. I am bound to say I was disappointed by the irresponsibly frivolous tone you adopted when referring to the question of lime versus lemon in gin and tonic. I have no objection to your being facetious about Brexit but, as you know, I regard the safeguarding of the traditional slice of lemon in gin and tonic as an existential issue for civilization.
This is no laughing matter. It is years now since barmen who looked too young to be allowed into licensed premises began putting a slice of lime into the gin of patrons as immature-looking as themselves in chrome-plated wine bars, instead of the traditional slice of lemon. The flavour of lime is so strong it completely drowns the flavour of the gin, unlike lemon which complements it.
So invasive is the lime flavour that if a presumptuous barman momentarily puts a slice of lime in one’s glass, even if he is instantly instructed to replace it with lemon the noxious flavour still permeates the drink. I have no wish to live on a diet of lime juice, like the crew of Captain Bligh’s ‘Bounty’.
Mutiny on this issue has long been in the air. As you may remember, when I first blogged about this grievance in the Daily Telegraph in 2010, I uncovered a vast underground pool of resentment that immediately burgeoned into an insurgency. I have the impression it provoked marginally more passion than Brexit. I think I may, without immodesty, regard myself as the Nigel Farage of lime scepticism vis-à-vis gin and tonic. So I would thank you to treat the question with proper respect.
Having responded to the most important point addressed in your letter, I shall deal briefly with the minor matters you raised relating to Brexit. You express yourself as “horrified” by my “wild plan for a people’s revolution in which MPs become direct delegates ordered to implement the results of a blizzard of referenda on all manner of themes”. You later observe, correctly, that “in revolutions people tend to get hurt”.
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Those remarks, in certain respects, amount to a caricature of what I am proposing. Firstly, the representative-versus-delegate interpretations of the role of a member of Parliament derive from a much-abused principle advanced by Edmund Burke. In the context in which he was writing it made good sense that MPs, elected by a tiny constituency, should enjoy a degree of discretion. Since they were largely placemen seated by controlling patrons in rotten boroughs, that discretion was usually very limited.
Burke was not rejecting the notion that MPs should be heedful of public opinion, but rather urging independence of action rather than submission to the whims of patrons. MPs in his day represented a consensus of landed proprietors but that did not make them unrepresentative of the nation except on social issues such as the game laws since the ruling class shared a patriotic view on national issues with the lower orders, at least until the French Revolution and often even after that.
In recent times the Burkean “representative” principle has been bastardized by expenses-gobbling Sir Bufton into a claim to the right to be aggressively unrepresentative of his constituents and the wider public. This first became blatant in 1965 when Parliament abolished capital punishment in the teeth of public opinion, aggravated in 1968 when Enoch Powell’s speech revealed huge public opposition to mass immigration, which was subsequently enforced by increasingly Draconian legislation restricting freedom of expression.
Not until after the Brexit referendum, however, did parliamentarians, along with the civil service, the judiciary, the mainstream media and other elements of the establishment, emerge unambiguously as not only contemptuous of the electorate but actually prepared to frustrate its clearly expressed will on a single constitutional issue. There can be no question of the electorate submitting to such entitlement-based hegemony, otherwise this country would become demonstrably an oligarchic dictatorship.
Fortunately, British constitutional history provides a remedy. Britain has little experience of revolutions – the shameful events of 1688 were an establishment-led coup d’état, in no sense a “revolution”. For a genuine revolution one has to look to 1832 and the Great Reform Act. Though the events that brought about that enlargement of the circle of power were not entirely bloodless, compared to any equivalent continental revolution the casualties were negligible.
Today we need a new Reform Act on the precedent of those already on the statute book. Its objective should be to remove unaccountable power from the political class and complicit elites. Its text should be drafted before the next general election and any party that refused to include it in its manifesto be regarded as unelectable, any candidate who refused a written guarantee to enact it be deselected.
It should mandate a complete and clean Brexit if that has not already been accomplished by the next election. It should include a clause equivalent to the US constitution’s First Amendment, forbidding for all time any restrictions on free speech. It should mandate referenda on issues of major importance, whose results would be binding so that never again can the political class block the electoral will as it has tried to do over Brexit.
If you want to call that a revolution, I would agree with you, even though it is a peculiarly British one that does not involve heads on pikes or the storming of palaces. British history is a chronicle, over many centuries, of ruling elites giving place to a new dispensation via constitutional change.
We now need such a transformative moment. The current establishment has proved itself unfit to govern, so it must follow feudalism, absolute monarchy, restricted suffrage, etc into desuetude. As a safeguard to the new dispensation, its ultimate guarantor would be the monarch, so it would not be a very revolutionary revolution.
It is time to end that self-interested, much-hyped canard “the sovereignty of Parliament”. Parliament seized power by force, it has no higher legitimacy for its sovereignty than historical brute strength. Now it is effete and despised and must be brought under control. Regular plebiscites do not imply “a blizzard of referenda”, as you suggest. They work well in Hungary where a government that has secured a super-majority in three consecutive general elections does not neglect to consult the public for a reaffirmed mandate on important issues – which is precisely why it secures super-majorities.
The resurgence of governance by electoral rather than elitist will in eastern Europe is denounced by governments such as Britain and Germany, where unpopular leaders like Theresa May and Angela Merkel, deprived of any majority, cling on to power by their fingernails. The comparison speaks for itself.
You make the point that I am a social conservative – anybody who is not socially conservative is not a conservative at all – and might not like what “voters under 50, particularly women” might mandate MPs to do. Fortunately, it is no part of my proposal to restrict the ballot to women under 50.
There are other questions more directly related to Brexit I should address, but that is for another day. Meanwhile, time for a gin and tonic (you know the recipe), I think.