Why voting on Article 50 should not be “heavy-hearted”

Jess Phillips MP just published an interesting piece describing her decision to vote yes to triggering Article 50. I admire her essay in certain respects: it describes an MP who takes her constituents’ views seriously, and who has given detailed consideration to the issue of how best to vote after the second reading of the bill. I think she may be right to point to disenfranchisement as a reason informing many Leave votes in the 2016 EU referendum, and to suggest that voter disenfranchisement needs to be addressed. And I applaud her declaration that she will not support a deal that makes her constituents poorer, that does not address the needs of EU citizens resident in the UK, or UK citizens resident in EU nations, or which leaves the UK paying WTO tariffs.

However, despite these merits of her essay, there are some fundamental problems with her position that need to be addressed.

First, Phillips claims that if she voted against (i) the majority result in her constituency, and (ii) against the expressed wishes of the many Leave voting constituents who contacted her to ask her to vote no, she would be ignoring the result. Even though she describes the referendum, rather elegantly if tragically, as a “rare moment of agency to speak up” for her constituents, the force of (i) can be set aside: the job of an MP is to act in the interest of the nation as a whole, with a special duty to constituents. If Phillips really does not believe Brexit is in anyone’s best interests, as she indicates, then she should have voted against triggering Article 50 before now, and she should vote no in future. Her claim for (ii) might seem more compelling at first glance: she contrasts the “hundreds and hundreds” of Leave voting constituents who have written to her about the issue with contact from about ten Remain voting ones, and suggests that given the weight of opinion falling to the Leave side, she feels it is vital for her not to ignore the Leavers’ views. The problem is that while she attends to those who speak up to her, she doesn’t attend to those who were denied a vote (whose interests she also claims to care for), or to those who voted but did not contact her on top of their voting. In voting yes to triggering Article 50 on the second reading of the bill, she prioritizes constituents over the the nation as a whole, and she prioritizes some constituents over others. Because the European Union Referendum Act 2015 did not replace representative democracy with direct democracy, none of the contact from her constituents ultimately determines her vote as an MP in a way that leaves her without any choice on the issue. Like all MPs, she can listen to all of her constituents while acting in what she believes to be the interest of the nation as a whole — the “clamour” of competing opinions to which she says she is subject by virtue of her position as an MP should not be permitted to drown out this fundamental truth. Nothing about her duties as an MP to nation or constituents means she must vote against the national interest no matter what — her duty is precisely the opposite and she should take reassurance from that.

Second, she suggests that criticism by supposedly false analogy (e.g. if she wouldn’t vote to bring back hanging or to ban abortion if lots of constituents urged her to do so, then by analogy, she shouldn’t vote yes to triggering Article 50) misses the fundamentals of the debate. I’d agree that the debate on Brexit is sufficiently complex that it is difficult to make an appropriate analogy to it and to base criticism of decision-making about Brexit on that. However, these kinds of claims do contain a kernel of insight: if Phillips has good reason to believe that a proposal is not in the interest of the nation as a whole, then she should not vote in favour of that proposal. She points out that some of her colleagues are voting the other way, and she claims that their decisions are worthy of “praise and support”; but in so doing, she tacitly admits that voting no to triggering Article 50 does not necessarily mean ignoring the result of the referendum, given that the 2015 Act did not replace representative with direct democracy. If voting no necessarily involved ignoring the result, then she would not, I suspect, claim it is defensible to praise and support the actions of those who voted and will vote no to triggering Article 50, as this would be praising and supporting a problematic action. But in a representative system and in the case of a non-binding referendum, voting no simply isn’t the same as ignoring a result — it’s deeply misleading to suggest these two things are equivalent.

Third, Phillips claims that her vote won’t make a difference anyway, because the government have a majority and the Labour Party have a number of “actual Brexiteers”. The claim that her vote won’t make a difference is false. In a vote of this nature and constitutional significance, every vote makes a difference, ethical and practical. This is especially the case as we look ahead to committee discussions and the third reading of the bill on February 6–8: MPs need to see that those who do not think the May government is doing what is necessary to protect the rights, freedoms, and securities of the people in pursing Brexit will speak up, and that they will also vote in accordance with this belief. The public also needs to see this, if they are ever to find a purpose to even having MPs in our current system of representative democracy again, in the wake of the referendum and the political events that have followed it. Moreover, according to Phillips, every MP has had to make their decision alone given “the complete vacuum of political leadership in the UK today.” I find this claim somewhat disingenuous. While I appreciate the situation is not easy for anyone, Phillips, and other MPs, are leaders, elected to make these decisions. If her concern is really about Party leadership or lack thereof, she should keep in mind that just as there is no meaningful choice to be made between the Party and the interest of the nation as a whole in this matter given its enormous constitutional implications — the national interest must come first — so too is there no real need, in the end, to defer to a Party leader for authorization to vote as she thinks best. She has the duty to act — in this case, vote — in the interest of the nation as a whole. Either she believes Brexit is in the interest of the nation as a whole, or she does not. If she does not, then she should not vote in support of triggering Article 50.

The title and tenor of her essay suggests that Phillips voted yes on Article 50 with a heavy heart. Yet taking on the burden of heavy-heartedness was, I think, ultimately unnecessary for her. There is no democratic failure on her part if she challenges the possibility of Brexit or the May government’s urging of the nation towards Brexit, now or in the future. If Phillips is convinced, as her heavy heart leads me to suspect she is, that Brexit is not in the interests of the nation as a whole and is not in her constituents’ interests, then she should vote no to triggering Article 50 on the third reading — with, hopefully, a lighter heart.