Atlantic Views by Joanne Matheson

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A political misunderstanding?

It was recently pointed out to me that ‘an MP is elected to represent his/her constituents’ interests. Surely it would be a democratic betrayal for an elected MP to vote against the very people that elected him?’

Edmund Burke (MP 1776-1794) is generally quoted as the first person to have outlined the hierarchy of an MP’s responsibilities, reiterated by Winston Churchill in the 1950s: ‘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.’

Many people seem to be under the impression that an MP’s foremost responsibility is to represent the views of their constituents, but as outlined completely unambiguously above, this isn’t actually the case.

So if, for example, our elected MP genuinely considered that the best possible outcome for Great Britain as a whole was for us to leave the EU, then that is the way he would be expected to vote.

Ian Blackford [MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber] has made it abundantly clear that he does not support the UK leaving the EU, and there is little doubt that the fact that a majority of voters in Scotland wanted us to remain has added weight to his argument.

But with all due respect to our MP, repeated assertions of ‘betraying the will of the Scottish people’, merely reinforces the general misunderstanding.

Mr Blackford is constitutionally required to put the interests of the UK (Great Britain) as a whole, over and above the interests of one part of that group, albeit that they are the people who elected him.

An MP’s first responsibility is not to represent what he considers to be the opinion of his constituents, but to do what he or she thinks is in the best interests of the UK population as a whole.

As an elected MP to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, his obligation is to 66 million, not just the five million in Scotland or his 50,000 constituents.

One could argue that this is wrong and that MPs should put the views of their constituents first, but Edmund Burke outlined why this is not desirable: ‘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.’

In other words, MPs are expected to work together for the good of the whole, rather than argue with each other to try and get the best possible outcome for their own constituents, at the possible expense of everyone else.

This is clearly simplifying the situation, perhaps overly so. There is a great deal of academic discussion about how MPs undertake their role, and the weight they place on their differing pressures and responsibilities.

And there is so much more that could be said on this subject, not least the fact that we are effectively telling our MPs that we trust them to know what is best for us, better than we do!

We have a conflict here, between what seems to be a rational expectation and what is actually required of an MP, for very good reasons.

We are told that society is more politically aware and engaged than ever before, but I can’t help wondering whether a lack of understanding of this critical distinction is in part responsible for our current disillusionment with our politicians.