Why Brexit might not happenRoundup
Laura Beers teaches history at American University. She is author of "Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Internationalist.”
Ignoring the will of the people is a British tradition.
... To appreciate why the referendum mandate might not actually translate into Britain’s leaving Europe as planned, one needs to take into account the British political system’s historically fraught relationship with direct democracy.
Britain and the United States have democratic forms of government. But while the U.S. political system accords significant weight to the direct voice of its citizens in decision-making processes, the British system does not. British members of Parliament view their role as representing the interests of their constituents in Parliament, not acting on voters’ expressed opinions. This is one reason referendums and ballot initiatives, while common in parts of the United States, are extremely rare in Britain.
The distrust of direct democracy runs deep in British history. As the Whig statesman Edmund Burke famously declared during the 1774 election campaign, an MP’s will “ought not to be subservient to” that of his (or her) constituents. He saw “mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for,” as dangerous and “a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.”
These sentiments continued to reverberate over the next two centuries. The referendum has been used only rarely, and then as a political tool, not a celebration of direct democracy. In 1973, Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community without recourse to a referendum, and few questioned the government’s right to take that decision on behalf of the country.
And yet debates between pro- and anti-European forces persisted within both main political parties. During the 1974 election campaign, pro-European Labour leader Harold Wilson managed to unite his party by promising that, if elected, Labour would seek to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership and then subject the revised terms to a referendum. While Wilson promised to abide by the result of the referendum, he was not genuinely interested in taking cues on foreign policy from the man in the street. Rather, he made a calculated gamble that the pro-European forces in both political parties would be able to convince the public of the wisdom of their view, and that the public “mandate” would silence anti-European politicians on both sides.
Wilson’s maneuver was a success. The 1975 referendum resulted in a 2-to-1 vote in favor of remaining in the EEC, and those Labour left-wingers who had opposed membership were effectively silenced. ...
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