An open letter to Chris Bryant MP
Edit 01/02/2017: I’m sure that this letter was nothing to do with it, but Chris Bryant voted to oppose Article 50 today. As a personal note, I’m very impressed with him for doing so.
I’ve read your Facebook post about what you’ll be doing in parliament about Article 50.
You mention that a few people had been asking you about this — I was one of them — on Twitter. I did it in a flippant way because — having read your robust defence of Representative Democracy — I was hoping for a rare moment of lucidity from a pro-EU MP at this time.
I was disappointed with your answer though, and more disappointed with the Facebook post.
You’re clear that leaving the EU will be a disaster for Britain, but then you say…
“I think it would be wrong for me expressly and deliberately to seek to thwart the will of the people of Britain and the Rhondda. Unless the government Bill has other manifest problems I expect to be able to vote for its going into committee at second reading.”
Then, after talking about how you will go into bat to protect what can be protected from the ‘hard Brexit’ option, you conclude…
“… I will support amendments to the government Bill to protect local jobs and maintain as much access to European markets as possible. If those amendments fail I will decide how to vote at third reading on the final Bill.”
There are two problems with this approach.
Firstly, if you think leaving the EU will be a disaster, you should be oppose it at every turn. The opinions of the people of Britain and the Rhondda are not factors that you should be taking into account here. In your New Statesman article (with reference to the death penalty) you said….
“The pollsters tell us this would be popular. Perhaps a majority of my constituents would vote for it in a referendum. But whatever the majority for the death penalty, I would never vote for it, as I have regularly made clear in general elections. If that is the dominant issue for a voter, then he or she should vote for another candidate…. That means that every vote in the Commons is in some sense a vote of conscience…”
I don’t want to come across as overly purist about this. I completely understand that, sometimes you have to make small strategic sacrifices for larger political game. I’m happy that there’s a moral defence for doing political deals with yourself on a few smaller issues, especially if you can make up political ground, win elections and do lots of good stuff as a result.
I get ‘politics’. Brexit is different though. It’s a vast constitutional change. We both know it will damage our national interests, will usher in a new age of nationalism and a political defeat for everything that we stand for. Pandering to this numbskull ‘enemies of the people’ campaign of bullying means that you are justifying a transformation of decades of the UK’s economic and foreign policy on the basis of one very close ballot.
Doing so negates every other democratic process that has happened in our adult lifetime.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime case. If, in opposing it, Labour ends up being trashed, even that would be an acceptable price to pay. Clarity today will help you oppose it more effectively in the future. If you vote for something that you don’t believe in because it’s popular, you will be behaving like a delegate and not a representative.
To be clear, if this means you lose your seat subsequently, that’s your problem — not ours. I can speak for practically everyone who agrees with both of us on this subject in saying we’d sooner see you fighting Brexit than preserving Rhondda for Labour. If you decide to be just a dictaphone or a stenographer to public opinion, you will be failing to do your job. You will be drawing a salary fraudulently.
This brings me to my second point. You may be overestimating the political risks of being straightforwardly principled here. I don’t think anyone needs to be a brilliant textual analyst to find the real intent in your plan. You seem to be saying “I will avoid the charge of disrespecting the referendum vote, but I will also take any less politically-damaging opportunity to thwart it at the right time.”
There are plenty of good justifications for not being bound by the referendum. Leaving aside the democratic problems with plebiscites, it was hugely irresponsible of parliament to call such a vote before Brexit was even defined. We still don’t know enough to have a meaningful popular vote on the subject and no MP should feel bound by the result.
Treating last June’s ballot as sacrosanct is not just a moral mistake; it’s also a political one. Your UKIP opponents have already typeset the leaflets calling you a ‘remoaner’ and an ‘enemy of the people’ no matter what you do over the next few weeks.
On the other hand, if you have the courage to look your constituents in the eye and say “I hear your opinion but my job is to use my judgement about what is best for the country, and that is what I’m going to do” the ones that haven’t already written you off will respect it. You can be sure that it will be a much easier sell in 2020 once everyone is going into their fourth year of this bullshit and the gloss has worn off this ersatz version of ‘taking back control’.
They will see principle and honesty — an exception to the caricature of the spineless dissembling politician that they think they see everywhere at the moment — particularly with the political class plainly at odds with popular sentiment.
We’re in this mess because MPs have spent decades ducking their responsibility to unite in defence of Representative Democracy and a bit of clarity from an MP who clearly understands this issue would go a long way.
With best wishes