The vote to leave the European Union in June 2016 created a constitutional crisis in the United Kingdom; it looks like it will take years if not decades to sort out. The government of the day presented the public with a referendum, not on something they wanted to go ahead with but felt they needed an extra layer of democratic legitimacy to bring forth, but rather because they wanted people to explicitly reject the proposal. When this did not happen, the government of the moment effectively folded and we had a new government of sorts, led by someone who had campaigned for the opposite result. This set the tone for what has followed since: politicians following what they think the public wants, however bad an idea they think that happens to be. Relativism has become the new norm.
How many speeches have we heard in the Commons over the last year and a half along the lines of, “I think Brexit will be a disaster but I’m voting for it to happen anyhow”? Too many to start trying to catalogue for the sake of this article, that is for certain. It is happening away from Brexit as well; it has leaked into all of British politics. Emily Thornberry, when asked to name one successful socialist country on Question Time this week, gave the retort that what the current Labour leadership really wants is something akin to Sweden. Anyone who has ever paid any real attention to the careers of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell can tell you that the amount of time and energy they have spent singing the praises of the Nordic model is pretty much nil. Instead, compare speeches each of them have made about Norway to the vast amount of meetings around Venezuela and Cuba they have hosted or attended and you can see what either man thinks is an ideal society. But you can get away with this sort of thing nowadays, when almost every politician of any political persuasion speaks out of their behind most of the time.
Some might say this is just politics as usual, but it isn’t. And I don’t really blame the politicians overwhelming for this either: the referendum left them in a bad place and they are just trying to adjust, at least for the most part. There has always been a balance required of an MP between doing what one’s constituents want and what they feel is the right thing for their constituents – but that has now swung so far the other way as to be untenable, at least for the long term. Because here’s the thing: while ignoring the will of the people won’t work, by the same token the public will not thank politicians for doing something that they explicitly asked for that turns out to be a disaster. That’s how democracy works: the people demand their will be adhered to, but if it goes wrong they are not apt to blame themselves, but rather the politicians who carried it out. “I was just following orders” never, ever works in a representative democracy.