Some Tories appear to have been captured by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He is sometimes bracketed with Montesquieu and Voltaire as a political philosopher of the Enlightenment. That is an error. There was little of the Enlightenment about Rousseau. He expounded a doctrine which has been much misunderstood: “the General Will”. Radical democrats and revolutionaries seized on the idea. They thought that it was a way of mobilising a democratic multitude against reactionary and oppressive regimes. So it sometimes was. But it was also a route to majority tyranny. If a majority claimed to speak in the name of the people’s General Will, the implication was that anyone who disagreed with them had no political legitimacy. This enabled a temporary or indeed self-styled majority to preserve its own power. When communists and fascists claimed to be speaking in the name of the people, those who queried their assertions lost all political rights and generally ended up dead or in concentration camps.
Yet important Tories are now sounding like Rousseau-ists. In the context of Brexit, Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who really should know better, has been talking about the “settled will” of the British people, which the House of Lords must obey. That phrase has an unfortunate pedigree. It was used by supporters of Scottish devolution to dismiss their opponents’ arguments. Alas, the devolutionists had a point. A majority of Scottish voters did seem to have made up their minds, for better or for worse, or for worse still. But it would be absurd to claim that a four per cent majority in a single referendum represents a settled will. It merely represents a four percent majority on one day.
This is not to argue that it could or should be disregarded. There are only three conceivable circumstances in which the Referendum result could be reversed or modified. The first is a malign one: an economic crisis in the UK. No-one should wish that on his country. The next two are benign, because they might enable us to create a new, much looser, relationship with Europe which should be acceptable to almost everyone. A victory for Marine Le Pen would throw Europe into consternation and kick over the card table. As it was being reassembled, we ought to be able to snaffle a couple of additional aces. The final one, related, is a crisis in the Euro-zone. That could and probably would lead to the implosion of the EU. In such circumstances, It might be possible for us to negotiate an la carte free-trade arrangement, a cross between the Hanseatic League and the more acceptable aspects of the Common Market.
But there is a lot of ruin in a European Union. It may well have Rasputin’s capability to go on living when all reason would suggest that it ought to be dead. As it is always wiser to prepare for the worst-case outcome, we ought to work on the assumption that there will be at least two years of hard pounding on the road to Brexit. We hope to celebrate our opponents’ discomfiture.We must not take it for granted.
This does not mean that all dissent ought to be stifled, especially in Parliament. MPs are perfectly entitled to invoke Burke, reminding their constituents that they are representatives, not delegates. As such, they have the right to judgment and conscience. These days, far too many MPs seem to believe that they are a walking opinion poll. Their constituents think this, and they must be right. We need more MPs who are happy to say: “Although a majority of my constituents appear to think this, they are wrong, as I hope to persuade them. If I fail, they may choose to sack me: that is their prerogative. But I will not change my mind.” An MP who did speak in such terms might be pleasantly surprised by the respect it earned him, especially if he were from Yorkshire. “He’s a cussed bugger, right enough – but he’s our cussed bugger.”
That said, constituents are not always wrong, In the pubs all across the land, there is a deal of common sense. The bottom of wisdom in the Dog and Duck is often preferable to the smart-assery of the metropolis. A good MP will listen to both and be beholden to neither. Ultimately, it is his call. By the banks of the Thames (liquid history) or in Westminster Hall (history as architecture, ghosts as history) the most obscure backbench MP should be aware of a high destiny. Of course, politics is a team game. Of course, he does not want to provoke endless conflict in the constituency. But great men have died and great wars have been fought to preserve his right to speak his mind within those hallowed walls. Here, a mild paraphrase of Eliot, history is now and Britain. It is his task to help the “now” to be worthy of Britain.
In recent years, which must be a matter of acute distress to anyone who loves this country, the House of Commons has suffered a severe loss of prestige, often unfairly. But that will not be rectified by cowering or truckling. A judicious reassertion of independence is the only route to recovery. MPs who feel strongly about one of the greatest issues in peace-time politics should express those strong feelings.
A fortiori, the same is true of the Lords. Why does the House of Lords exist? Because it has the vital role of standing above the excitements which periodically inflame the lower Chamber, and the populace. It has long since lost its primacy. These days, it can do little more than force the government to think again. This is something which all governments are reluctant to do, and which they all ought to do far more often than they acknowledge, so the Lords has a useful role. Beyond that, the Upper House could only defy the government if three conditions were met. The end of the parliament was approaching; the government was desperately unpopular; on the specific issue, public opinion was on their Lordships’ side.
None of that is true of the Brexit debate. But on specific issues, such as the rights of EU citizens after Brexit, the Lords is perfectly entitled to express its views and vote accordingly. This is alarming some Tories, including Dominic Raab, a clever man who also ought to know better. He has come close to threatening the Lords with abolition. As he must know, that is a meaningless threat. In current circumstances, so is reform. Does he really want a constitutional crisis to be added to the stresses of Brexit? He must surely know that the Liberals in particular think that they have nothing to fear from Lords’ reform. In a House of 500 elected by PR; they reckon that they could win twenty percent of the vote, which would give them one hundred peers – exactly what they now have.
So why is Mr Raab falling below the level of his intelligence? I would offer two explanations. First, a lot of Brexiteers still cannot believe that they have won. They are constantly on the search for plots against them. They fear that if they relax their vigilance, some Guy Fawkes Remainer will blow them up. Second, this is exacerbated by Tony Blair. Poor Mr Blair. He does not seem to realise that he has suffered a fall without precedent in British political history: from electoral mastery to toxic waste in less than a decade. Of course, Mr Blair could still be of considerable use to the Remainers and the Labour party – at a stroke. All he needs to do is announce his conversion to Brexit and his wish to join UKIP, which is so strong that he is setting off to campaign for Mr Nuttall in Stoke.
Mr Blair’s utter lack of political self-knowledge is blinding him to two truths which ought to be self-evident. First, that as soon as he espouses a cause, he will damage it. Second, that he ought to be grateful to the Brexiteers. They are the only people who still take him seriously.
Let us hope that over the next few days, a high standard of debate will encourage everyone to take the House of Lords seriously. If there are temporary rebuffs, Brexiteers should stay calm. That ought not to be too hard. After all, and barring the collapse of the British economy, they have won.