Rescuing parliamentary democracy

The Supreme Court confirmed what all students of Constitutional law knew, that Parliament is sovereign, not the people, and the Government is accountable to Parliament. What does that mean in practice? In relation to the immediate issue of the UK leaving the EU it need not make much difference.

The referendum was in each of the major parties’ 2015 manifestos and a majority of MPs voted for the Referendum Bill. A majority also voted in December to respect the wishes of the 52% of the electorate who voted for Brexit. Theresa May will present a White Paper  setting out the Government’s priorities in their negotiations and a short Bill will be laid before Parliament this week.

The majority of voters wanted us to leave the EU but no details of the terms of our leaving were included in the referendum. Opinions as to what the best deal the Government can negotiate will differ and our sovereign Parliament is constitutionally entitled to the last word on those details. Brexiteers disgruntled about the Supreme Court ruling should remember that one of their arguments for leaving the EU was to restore sovereignty to the UK Parliament.

That said, the referendum exposed an unhealthy gulf between MPs and the people they represent. Few anticipated the likely outcome of the referendum last June and the majority of MPs who backed Remain were out of touch with the anti-EU thinking in their constituencies. Even if they follow Edmund Burke’s premise that they are elected to represent their constituents’ interests not their opinions, most of them failed to express what that means in relation to EU membership in the referendum campaigns. Respect for politicians is low and the verbal abuse towards MPs has caused a third of women MPs to consider not standing in the next election. The murder of Jo Cox added to their fears. These are not signs of a healthy democracy

A properly functioning representative democracy requires MPs and their constituents to understand each other better than they currently do. MPs surgeries play a part in this provided they do not lead to violence. Christian MP Stephen Timms was stabbed by a constituent in his surgery in 2010. Civics classes in schools could help to prepare future voters to grasp why voting is a privilege that should be valued and used but more seems to be needed today to close the gulf between MPs and the voters. The media can help if editors eschew the rabid tone many of them adopted during and after the referendum campaigns. One even described Monday’s Supreme Court judgement as “a bad day for democracy”. Both sides of an issue need to be presented fairly and accurately to enable voters to grasp the common good and not just their own interests and opinions and in most of the tabloids this didn’t happen.

The Christian community has a part to play in rescuing parliamentary democracy. Those who say religion and politics should be kept apart forget that Jesus taught “Give to Caesar what is Caesars’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21), St Peter wrote “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted amongst men” (I Peter 2:13), and St Paul urged us to pray for those in authority (1Timothy 2:1). Within the Christian worldview we do this not as insignificant subjects but as bearers of God’s image and ambassadors for Christ in our broken world.

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