It was late, and a friend and I were left to talk Brexit. He’s a keen and convinced Tory Brexiteer MP but to stay friends we have tended to steer off the topic. This, however, felt like a moment to talk.
The conversation taught me nothing about Brexit, something about him, and a lot about myself and the strain of Conservatism I now realise I’m part of — and which is part of me. Oddly, then, this column is not really about Brexit, but about trusting the people. I don’t. Never have and never will. Our conversation forced me to confront the fact.
My friend knows well enough why I’m a Remainer, but guessed correctly that I’ve puzzled about why he isn’t. I had not quite expected what I heard. He understands business and finance and is good at facts and figures, so I’d supposed his wish for a ‘clean’ Brexit would be all about the economic advantages. He’s a firm believer in individual choice, too, so I had supposed he would dwell on the need to ‘take back control’.
No doubt he holds to these strands of the Leave argument — but talking to me he hardly mentioned the practical benefits of Brexit. No, there was something else that seemed to drive his anxiety that we leave the EU. Otherwise, he said: ‘I just worry about our democracy, respect for our constitution and the effect that a betrayal of the 2016 referendum result would have on the people who voted for me and our party last year.’
He returned to this repeatedly, and I saw that he was sincere. As a democrat, and a Conservative who owed his position in Parliament to a little piece of England that he came from, that he knew, that knew him, and whose electors’ minds and feelings he had come to understand over the years, my friend felt with a quiet passion that he must not break his word to them, must not slither away from undertakings that had been given.
He felt the same about the electorate nationally, the British people’s trust in the Conservative party, and their confidence in politics itself. He felt, in short, conscious of an unseen bond between parliament and people, and fearful of the wider consequences should it be broken.
I did not say much, because I could see he meant it; and what he meant was not really the kind of assertion one can confound with counter-argument or counter-assertion. It was about weighing things and, the scales being within his own breast, the way the scales tipped was for him just a fact, and undeniable.
But for me they tip differently; and for me too that is a fact, and undeniable. I lay in bed that night thinking about this; and my conclusions follow. As I’m not running for office I shall not pull punches.
Tories like me, and I think we used to be in the majority, see good governance as an effort to live with democracy rather than to an effort to live by democracy. It is why we were so chary about referendums in the first place. We are wary of the populace and instinctively hostile to the instincts of the mob. We see the popular will as a sometimes dangerous thing, to be handled, guided, and on key occasions (and subtly) thwarted.
We know, however, that the people’s will cannot be overlooked. We see it as a corrective to the over-mighty and a warning to those who govern not to lose touch with popular feeling. But at the idea that the people should dictate the policies of government on a daily basis, we shudder.
Our kind of Conservatism is either in temporary abeyance, or going permanently out of fashion — I do not know which. Its decline since the middle of the 20th century has been so gradual as to mask its extent over time. At the beginning of that century it was possible for Arthur Balfour to remark: ‘I have the greatest respect for the Conservative party conference, but I would no more consult it on a matter of high policy than I would my valet’ without this being thought anything but wit; today its utterance would end a political career.
When I first went into politics, initially as a researcher, in 1977, it was commonplace among us Tories to see and describe ‘the will of the people’ not as our mentor but as a rock to be navigated. Capital punishment and judicial flogging were very popular with the public. The hanging debate at party conferences was an annual nightmare for our leading spokesmen, but I never heard it suggested, even by colleagues who supported the return of these punishments, that we should bring them back because the people wanted it.
As for colleagues opposed to both, our challenge was to find ways of ducking the issue. Once I became an MP, I did so by voting for the principle and against the practice. This subversion of democracy (in Theresa May’s phrase) caused me embarrassment, but not a second’s guilt. Sod democracy: hanging was wrong.
In the late 1970s, we Tories were painfully aware that popular feeling opposed any confrontation with the trade unions, but we believed this would prove necessary. Our response was, so far as possible, to tiptoe round the issue during the 1979 general election. We succeeded. Among ourselves we talked cheerfully about subterfuge. The Britain of 1979 and 1983 most emphatically did not vote for a massive confrontation with the coal miners. We made sure the electorate was never asked.
Even today, of course, politicians can and sometimes must dodge the popular will, and they know it. But who now dares say these things? And what today we do but no longer dare say we do, tomorrow we may not dare do. Tory paternalism is in long, slow retreat. People like me will stay where we are, increasingly exposed as our friends melt back. But what the heck.