Alex Massie

Sod the Public: We Need Representatives, Not Delegates

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I don't mean to pick on David Kerr, the SNP's candidate in the Glasgow North-East by-election, because, frankly, every single one of the candidates would say something like this:

"My commitment to the people of Glasgow North East is that I will always put them first. My priorities are their priorities."

Really? Personally, I'd prefer it if an MP (or even a prospective MP) put his or her judgement first. I want MPs who will "stand up" (and vote) for what they think right, not merely follow the party line or pander to the presumed self-interest of their constituents. I want parliamentarians prepared to tell their electorate to take a hike, not MPs that act as though they're suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. So I want them, on occasion, to treat the Whips' Office with just as much disdain as I hope they will treat their constituents' prejudices and preferences. I'd rather have men and women of independent mind "elected" from Rotten Boroughs than have Parliament be entirely subject to the whims and biases of the electorate. In other words, I want representatives, not delegates.

The accepted rules of politics, of course, demand that we think of these matters in a different fashion. The people must be respected and their views must be heard! Except, yes, we, the voters, will have our chance to render a verdict upon our MPs' performance in due course and we may rightly judge them on their performance and, frequently, find it wanting.

But if all we ask them to do is reflect the narrow interests and peculiar preferences of the mob then we may fairly ask what is the point of them in the first place?

So I have some sympathy with Chris Dillow's view:

But here’s the problem. Could it be that the choice between the Burkean and populist functions hasn’t been a deliberate one at all, but rather is a product of our age?

Put it this way. I know nothing about environmental, foreign or military affairs. I would be quite happy for decisions on these to be taken by people of integrity and intelligence, if only such could be found.  However, this attitude - though, I suspect, common 50 years ago - is increasingly rare. In our ego-driven culture, people not only hold ignorant views, but expect these views to be respected, listened to and acted upon. The Burkean MP has become an impossibility.

I hope he is wrong, but fret that he is not. As he says, if all we demand is that MPs follow the editorial line of the Daily Mail (or any other newspaper) then MPs might as well be paid minimum wage or chosen from the phone book by ballot.

The voters, writ large, are pretty good at making decisions. That is, it is more than 30 years since it elected the less-deserving party. But while the electorate may be good at getting the macro decisions right, it's not necessarily so good at plumping for the right option on the micro decisions. Indeed, some of the worst legislation in recent years has followed moments of media and populist hysteria. Voters' temporary priorities may not, indeed frequently will not, marry their long-term interests or even priorities. In other words, earnest efforts to reflect the popular will and "put the voters first" may actually end up frustrating that aim while also abdicating from the responsibilities inherent in being a proper parliamentarian.

This sounds sour, I know. But it's not meant to be. One of the reasons for electing MPs is that to deal with many of these issues is beyond the average person's ability or interest. That's not, by the way, a pejorative statement. It's a contracting out, not an abdication. One of the reason's for having a parliament in the first place is to alleviate what would otherwise be the burden of deciding some of these legislative matters for ourselves.

And as, surely, we may all recognise, the mere fact that a measure is popular is no guarantee that it is either wise or useful. Populism has its place but it's a limited place and there are times when an MP's duty surely diverges from either putting his constituents "first" or "sharing" their priorities.

Again, representatives not delegates. Otherwise we might as well just cut out the middle-men.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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