With particular reference to their role in referendums

A lot of people seem to have strange ideas about how our parliamentary democracy works, and in particular what MPs are supposed to be in Parliament to do. In recent months I’ve often heard accusations such as these:

“My constituency voted Remain, why is my MP voting for Brexit?”
“The referendum result was clear. MPs should not oppose the will of the people.”
“MPs opposing Brexit are traitors”
… and so on.

Types of democracy

Such ignorance is very concerning, and points to a huge gap in our education system. Sorry, guys, but that’s not how it works in this country. The UK is a Representative Democracy, and has been for hundreds of years. This is important to understand, and lies at the centre of how the UK works — but what does it mean?

Representative Democracy is in contrast to the alternative, a Direct Democracy. In Direct Democracy, the decision-making power lies ultimately with the whole population, usually through some sort of referendum voting. Ancient Athens worked that way, but only if you were a male citizen. In modern Europe, the only country that comes close to being a Direct Democracy is Switzerland — although even there, there are regional and national assemblies to handle day-to-day legislative matters. Their direct system means that laws passed by the legislative branch can be vetoed by the general public if put to a public vote.

So, if that’s what we’re not, then what are we? When we go to the country it is usually through General Elections, where we choose people to represent us as MPs. In modern Britain, most candidates are part of a political party, which produces a Manifesto with priorities and policies about many subjects. Independent candidates also produce manifestos setting out their ideas and priorities. It is likely that few voters will agree with all the policies of any of the manifestos. It’s possible that even the candidates will not unreservedly agree with everything in their party’s national manifesto. This means that voters are not voting for exact legislation, they are more choosing people or parties who broadly align with their own aims and philosophies. This is often characterised as ‘right’ or ‘left’, but for most people the issues are more complex; in the end, you hold your nose and pick the one you trust most, or distrust least.

So what is an MP’s job?

Voters choose MPs, and MPs turn up in Westminster. They are well paid, and expected to put in a full day’s work carrying out their duties. But what exactly are their duties?

Constituency work

Most people know about the constituency work that MPs do. When the system is failing you, you can write to your MP, or visit a ‘surgery’ for a face-to-face meeting. Although MPs very often don’t have any actual power to fix things, intervention by MPs is taken quite seriously by most parts of our system: the people running the NHS, social services, housing and so on, all tend to react when an MP gets involved.

But what about work in Westminster?

As is so often the case with our constitution, there is very little that is formally laid out as the job description. You may be surprised to learn that in fact the only official mandate is the Oath of Allegiance to the crown that every MP swears when they take their seat in parliament:

I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.

A form without religious reference is allowed for those who prefer it, and there are versions in Gaelic, Cornish and Welsh. See parliament.uk’s explanation for more information.

Of course there are many procedural rules and MPs can get into trouble if they transgress. The rules cover the correct way to refer to another member of the house whilst speaking in debate, deference to the speaker, and so on, but they don’t really help to explain what MPs are there to do. No wonder most people (and quite a few MPs, it often seems) are unsure about MPs’ roles and duties.

The earliest attempt to address this question was by the philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke, way back in 1774:

‘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 … Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.’

— Edmund Burke’s Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3 Nov. 1774.
[The emphasis is mine]

Burke is often quoted even today; I guess because what he said is still respected. However, he was talking in very different times, and Parliament was far less representative of the whole population than it is today, so some people use that to criticise Burke.

Winston Churchill had a go at an updated interpretation in the 1950s; he was writing in the context of a system which is pretty much the same as it is today (although I guess we’d prefer “his or her” when talking about MPs).

‘The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate. Burke’s famous declaration on this subject is well known. It is only in the third place that his duty to party organization or programme takes rank. All these three loyalties should be observed, but there in no doubt of the order in which they stand under any healthy manifestation of democracy.’

— Sir Winston Churchill on the Duties of a Member of Parliament.
Duties of a Member of Parliament, Parliamentary Affairs, Volume 8 (1954-55), p302

To my knowledge, no authoritative update has replaced this view. (Please feel free to educate me if you know better!) An important thing to note here is that an MP’s second duty is to “his constituents”. That means all constituents, not just those who voted for him or her, indeed not just those who are entitled to vote; anyone who is a “member of the area” of that MP’s constituency. If you are an MP for an area, it is your duty to make decisions which are “right and necessary” for the best interests of all in your bailiwick — provided of course that this is not in conflict with what is right and necessary for the country as a whole, which is your first and overriding priority.


In England, because of the supremacy of Parliament, referendums cannot normally be legally binding. The closest they can get to being binding is if the government pledges to respect the result. However, this gives rise to a strange anomaly: countries with binding referendums usually set quite tough criteria for constitutional change. Typically this may be a significant majority (60% or more) in favour of the change, and possibly a simple majority of all those eligible to vote, too. The reason for such hurdles are quite rational: a result near 50% is likely to be very unstable, affected by things like whether it rained on the day of the vote, or one-off events such as terror attacks. Important decisions should not be at the mercy of such perturbations. In the recent referendum on Brexit, for example, the 48:52 result from a turnout of only 37% of the electorate would most likely have failed to pass, on at least one of the criteria which would have been in place.

Countries with binding referendums also tend to be rather careful to spell out in exact detail the consequences of the proposed change. Typically this may include a document with contributions from both sides, it will certainly include a detailed paragraph for each option on the actual voting form. The absence of such paragraphs has left the way open for endless debates about what exactly people thought they were voting for. You would also expect the proposed change to be sponsored by the government (as happened in Turkey recently, for example). Cameron’s decision to ask permission to make a change he didn’t actually want to make is “unusual”, to say the least. Most commentators agree that his decision was driven by a need to settle internal Tory party disputes, rather than for the good of the country. This suggests that he was not acting as a responsible MP should; loyalty to party is supposed to be a lower priority than loyalty to the country and one’s constituency.

So what would have happened if Parliament had acted as it should in the case of the Brexit referendum? A near-balanced result should act as a wake-up call for parliamentarians of all parties that something is not right with the country. You would expect much serious debate as to what reasons drove people to choose the option they did, and proper consideration to the likely position of those who didn’t vote. You should not expect automatic implementation of a simple answer when the issue is complex. A previous post on this site has explored how Cameron could have taken this course after the result was announced, if he hadn’t resigned in a fit of pique on 24th June. All in all, this whole sorry business has been badly handled by a generation of MPs who rather seem to have lost the plot.

In conclusion

So, to summarise, MPs’ duties are generally considered to be (in order of priority):

  1. To be loyal to the Queen (which means to the UK, of course);
  2. To make decisions in the best interests of the UK;
  3. To look after the interests of everyone in their own constituency;
  4. To support the political party to which they belong.

If you think your MP is not doing this, by all means call them out, but please stop moaning about the “will of the people”, or “being a traitor” just because you don’t like the conclusions they come to; they do this stuff full-time, they probably understand the subtleties of the issue a lot better than you do. If you think they don’t, feel free to get rid of them at the next election!

Image Source: Robert Pittman, Flickr, Creative Commons
The Palace of Westminster. Night Shot. Nikon D3100. DSC_0581.