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Parliament Debates EU Referendum

21st January 2012

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that ‘the English people is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved’. 

Sadly this is as true now as it was in 1762 as shown by the recent debate in the House of Commons regarding plans to hold a referendum on our country’s membership of the EU. The plans were opposed by a majority of 483 votes to 111.

On the face of it this would seem to be a legitimate exercise of legislative function; a proposal being debated by our elected representatives and consequently rejected by a large majority, but that is not the reality of the situation. An undemocratic undercurrent plagued the debate on that day, perpetuated by the executive and certain MPs.
The Conservative Party issued a three-line whip; strict instructions to vote against the referendum, a surprising order considering the Conservatives were strongly committed to a referendum on Lisbon in the last parliament. If a referendum was justified when the Lisbon Treaty was going to change our relationship with the EU, why is it not justified now when our relationship has changed without a referendum? The policy of the two other main parties was also to vote against the referendum.

The debate was bolstered by a petition signed by more than 100,000 calling for a referendum on the EU, and polls have shown clear public support for it. The word ‘democracy’ comes from the Greek word for ‘people’, but by issuing strict orders to vote against a referendum David Cameron is ignoring the clear will of the people, and expecting elected representatives to turn their backs on the wishes of their electors. This was well expressed by Andrew Brigden, who received many letters from constituents urging him to support the referendum, whereas he had one phone call asking him to vote against, from the Conservative whip’s office.

This is the executive completely undermining the democratic process, effectively strangling parliament into submitting to its will. It is perfectly understandable for the party leaders to take a position on the issue, but to force MPs to put party before their electors, especially when all three main parties have campaigned for some form of EU referendum recently is just an affront to democracy.

Even more shocking was seeing individual MPs opposing the referendum because they thought it would lead to the people voting to leave the EU. Any MP arguing in this way fundamentally misunderstands the nature of democracy and of referenda. These MPs are effectively admitting that they consider their position to be contrary to the position of the majority in the country.

Arguments about the pros and cons of EU membership had no place in this debate; they only become relevant during the campaigning stage before a referendum is held. It must be acknowledged that some MPs voted no for perfectly legitimate reasons, such as concerns that a referendum with one of three options to vote for could split the vote up in an unrepresentative way. These are the sort of issues that should have been raised in this debate.

This debate was a brilliant chance for parliament to restore the public’s faith in politics and the political system; a faith which has been badly damaged by the expenses scandal and the general feeling that politicians are disengaged from the people whom they were elected to serve. As Bill Cash put it, ‘this vote…is for democracy, for trust in politics and for the integrity of this House’, sadly it was a missed opportunityand thusthe people remains enslaved. 

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