Barry Campbell is a former member of Parliament (Canada) and president of Campbell Strategies in Toronto.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
More seriously, direct democracy is not a good way to run a diverse, geographically vast country. 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) see a certain beauty in the continued (majority) privilege that referendums may ensure.
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.
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. Britain had no such fail-safe in place when it threw itself down the Brexit hole.
The Canadian solution, however, sidestepped the nice question lurking behind the beguiling “the people rule” mantra; namely, which people are we talking about?
The gyrations of the British Parliament should not surprise. 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. The people who elected MPs to Parliament are equally entitled to have their representatives act in the national interest. These two expectations are incompatible.
Thorny questions arise: Does Parliament have a broad and general mandate to represent all the people of the land? There is probably general agreement on this.
How can a government respect a referendum result and also account for the responsibilities of Parliament to the country?
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? “There is none,” populists and libertarians may joyfully answer.
A minority Parliament only adds complication onto complication giving rise to another level of questions about who speaks for Parliament.
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.
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.
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.
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