Democracy or Brexit, or neither, or both?

Barry Campbell (no relation, as far as I know) was a Liberal Pary of Canada MP (1993-97) and is now president of Campbell Strategies in Toronto. He writes, in the Globe and Mail, that “Until Brexit, English parliamentary crises have followed a standard script. From the Magna Carta in 1215 through the 17th century Civil Wars and the 1688 Glorious Revolution, eight centuries of bloodshed curtailed the prerogatives of the Crown and established the supremacy of Parliament … [but] … We are now witnessing a chaotic battle royale that has pitted Parliament against the will of the people (as expressed in the Brexit referendum). This is a battle for supremacy between two hitherto unlikely protagonists.

A referendum is one of the purest forms of democracy. If you can frame a simple question with a simple choice answer then the people get to decide:

  • Québec stays in Canada or becomes a sovereign state? Oui or Non?
  • Democrat, Republican or Independent? Pick just one.
  • Britain in the EU or Out? Remain or Out?

Of course, as we are seeing right now in Canada, the propaganda designed to influence our choices may be anywhere on the spectrum from helpful, albeit unpleasant truths to lies that many people actually want to believe because they confirm their existing biases; but basically the question, for most Canadian in October will be: shall I vote for my local Conservative, Green, Independent, Liberal or NDP candidate or for the candidate of a fringe party? We will have 338 separate referenda and the results of them all will tell the Governor-General how to choose a government for the next few years.

Mr Campbell says that “This is a very modern struggle straight out of the maw of populism. The outcome may change forever how the parliamentary form of government functions throughout the world, including in Canada … [because] … While perhaps a tonic for threatened (declining) majorities, referendums are anathema to the parliamentary system. With referendums on every issue, there would be no need for politicians. (Cue the applause from libertarians and nihilists.) … [but, he asserts] … More seriously, direct democracy is not a good way to run a diverse, geographically vast country … [because] … What works in a small, Swiss canton does not work when you must consider who lives on the other side of the mountain. Majority rule leaves little space for minority views or minority rights. Such concerns are trivial in a small, homogeneous Swiss redoubt. Those who long for a simpler time (when their societies were unidimensional) … [that might include those intending to vote for Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada (PPC) in October] … see a certain beauty in the continued (majority) privilege that referendums may ensure.” But, yet, the US Presidential elections are a fairly simple referendum, and so are each of our 338 individual riding level elections. We (I at least) might want to hope that most Canadians would cast their ballots after considering the platforms on which their local candidate is running, that local candidate’s character and reputation and the character, reputation and record of the leaders of the various parties, but I know that in many, Many, MANY, cases the vote swill be a simple response to a simple question:


But, Barry Campbell says “The British Parliament is coming to grips with the challenge of respecting the Brexit vote. The narrow majority who voted to leave Europe should expect no less. The MPs who make up Parliament represent a larger peoplehood and believe that they have broader responsibilities. The crisis in London raises fundamental questions about who rules and in whose interest … [and, he reminds us that] … After the 1995 Quebec referendum nearly broke Canada, the country’s constitutional scholars grappled with the question of how a Parliament should accommodate a referendum result. Canada’s answer, expressed in the sensibly named Clarity Act, was to ignore hard procedural questions and focus instead on a requirement that a mere majority could not split the country. This would set the bar so high that a future Parliament would never face a narrow majority on a narrow question driving the country off a cliff … [but] … Britain had no such fail-safe in place when it threw itself down the Brexit hole … [and] … The Canadian solution, however, sidestepped the nice question lurking behind the beguiling “the people rule” mantra; namely, which people are we talking about?

Not everyone will agree that the Clarity Act is a real “fail-safe” nor even that it is sensibly named, but it is, at least, a measure against which referenda results can be measured for constitutional acceptability.

The gyrations of the British Parliament should not surprise,” Mr Campbell opines, because “People who voted for Brexit (however ill-advised a referendum was; however imprecise the question; however hyperbolic the rhetoric may have been) believe they are entitled to have their vote respected …[but, of course] … The people who elected MPs to Parliament are equally entitled to have their representatives act in the national interest. These two expectations are incompatible.” His thesis harks all the way back to Edmund Burke, in 1774, when he said, to the electors of Bristol, that “it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Put most simply Burke said that “I really want to vote as you might wish on each and every issue but I have been elected, by you, to use my good judgment about the whole of the issues at hand in order to serve the best interests of my constituents and my country.” That’s one of the reasons we have political parties that offer detailed platforms with specific promises to do certain things, like …

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 06.38.06

 … and:

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 06.42.03

But Barry Campbell wants to look beyond just the issue of whether or not party platforms and leaders’ promises actually mean anything. He says that there are some “thorny questions“:

  • Does Parliament have a broad and general mandate to represent all the people of the land?
  • How can a government respect a referendum result and also account for the responsibilities of Parliament to the country? and
  • If general responsibilities of a Parliament are to be superseded when some people express their views directly on certain questions from time to time, what then is the point of Parliament?

He says that the answer his third question, for populists and libertarians, is likely to be that “There is none.” Donald Trump, for example, doesn’t think he needs the constraints of a Congress, the Courts and independent bodies like the Federal Reserve. He believes that he was elected, fair and square, and for four years, at least, his word ought to be law. My guess is that Boris Johnson and Justin Trudeau have similar views. Prime Minister Trudeau wanted a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalan; he still cannot understand how or why it might have been wrong for him and his staff to pressure the Attorney General of Canada to interfere with an ongoing legal prosecution. After all, he wanted it and he’s prime minister so it should happen, right?

And Barry Campbell adds, and I agree fully, that “A minority Parliament only adds complication onto complication giving rise to another level of questions about who speaks for Parliament.

Mr Campbell concludes, and again I agree, that: “For 800 years, the Crown was no bystander in debates such as this. Observing the spectacle at Westminster, one almost laments the lack of an active role for the British monarch to help save the people from themselves or to buck up Parliament … [because] … The stakes are high for parliamentary government everywhere. Make no mistake, there is a race on by populists to subvert liberal democracy and its respect for minorities. It is unclear whether it will be the guardian institutions of the American republic or the venerable British parliamentary system that will succumb first … [and] … For countries with a parliamentary system of government, the British House of Commons has always been the Mother of Parliaments. It is now the canary in the coal mine. If Britain evolves into a populist polity with a rump Parliament that merely rubber stamps whatever comes up, the people may have traded one tyranny for another.

My fear is that the populist surge, which began, I think, in the 1960s, is now running at nearly full bore, and that includes here in Canada. Both Maxime Bernier and Justin Trudeau are appealing, as does Donald Trump, to our fears not through “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land” which will be touched “by the better angels of our nature.” (Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1861.)

I believe that our (Westminster) system of parliamentary government will prove robust enough to survive the nonsense that David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and the “cross-party MPs” who voted for a bill requiring Boris Johnson to ask for an extension to the UK’s departure date to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, have inflicted and are inflicting on it.

I believe our system of responsible government is stronger and better ~ more democratic ~ than is the US system of balanced representative government.

I believe that the unwritten British Constitution is stronger than any of its codified confrères, including America’s and Canada’s and that it will rise to the challenge that could see a sitting prime minister threatened with jail for breaking the law.

But, broadly and generally, I agree with Barry Campbell that we should not resort to referenda to deal with big issues like separation from either a political or a free trade union. The Brexit question should have been central to a British general election campaign. If David Cameron really wanted EU reform then he should have run a British election campaign on a big, overarching theme of “A better EU or we’re out.” If Jason Kenney really wants to reform equalization in Canada then he should go to the people of Alberta with a campaign that says “Empower me to demand a new equalization system or Alberta will go it alone.” If Justin Trudeau really believes that climate change is an existential threat to life on earth then he should run, in 2019, on a campaign that says “For the sake of our planet, I’m going to stop you from using oil, including Alberta’s oil, by making it too expensive.” But I also understand, I think, why Prime Minister Cameron didn’t and why Premier Kenney and Prime Minister Trudeau will not do those things. The populist urge to ask a simple question is too strong.

I don’t know how the Brexit imbroglio is going to end … but I suspect that none of Boris Johnson, Jeremey Corbyn or the Queen does either.

The British people voted, for better or worse, to leave the EU. It is the duty of parliament to do what is best for Britain. Are those two compatible? What if they are not? Do the people decide, or is parliament sovereign? Who decides that? Ultimately it may be a 93-year-old great grandmother who must square that circle.


Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

One thought on “Democracy or Brexit, or neither, or both?

  1. One can be a Brexiteer and a democrat or populist and a liberal and respect parliament without feeling the need to suppress minorities.

    All that is requested and required is that parliament fairly represent the views of population. One might have thought that the Houses of Commons would have been a suitable venue for that. We have a Senate available for discussions of national requirements.

    But that would presuppose that the Senate (and the Lords) were actively engaged and the Commons represented a different entity than did the Upper houses.

    But neither is true. Both houses are owned by parties that are bought and paid for by external influences – whether it be the Confederation of British Industry, SNC-Lavalin, the TUC, Momentum or the paying members of the Conservative Party or the Square Mile of Montreal.

    And to suggest that a “populist” leader also has to be authoritarian in inclination is false. There have been many popular democrats around the world that achieved high office.

    Your health, Ted.

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