Why MPs have a duty to resist online petitions

Parliaments exist to inject hesitation and circumspection into the legislative process

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

What should be the response of politicians to mass emailings and Twitter storms? The question is an urgent one, especially for Conservative MPs, given the general truth that mass petitions, in which complex issues are simplified to ‘for or against’ and emotion given a head start over reasoned argument, tend to come from the left. I was astonished to learn that a Tory MP decided his vote on the proposed Hunting Bill would depend on opinion polls in his local newspaper. In the event the Bill was withdrawn, largely, if Nicola Sturgeon is to be believed, as a result of online petitioning.

Progressive causes such as the campaign against hunting have a familiar profile: the powerless against the powerful, victims against oppressors, the clean utopia against the murky reality. Such causes make an email campaign look innocent: numbers, the campaign insinuates, are all that we — the powerless, the victims, the oppressed — have got.

The lesson of history, that mass movements threaten freedom, is a lesson that will never be learned. This is why we have parliaments, with their complex procedures, committees and reviews. Parliaments exist to inject hesitation and circumspection into the legislative process. And when we think about it we all agree this is a good thing. We all agree that the common good, rather than mass sentiment, should be the source of law, and that the common good may be hard to discover and obscured by crowd emotions.

However, tempted by a ‘one-click’ response to a complex question, people can be persuaded to add their voice to campaigns designed to bypass argument in the interest of a foregone conclusion. Invariably the conclusion has the beauty and simplicity of a final solution to some problem that affects us all.

The dangers here were apparent to the framers of the US constitution. They recognised that reason must triumph over passion whenever enthusiasm threatens to take control. The amendments to the constitution were therefore designed to protect minorities and dissenters, to prevent the emergence of factions and to ensure that those with the capacity to intimidate their fellow citizens would not have the advantage. Without such provisions, they thought, conflict could at any time sweep away reasoned government and the rule of law.

Conservative MPs should also take note of the great speech given by Edmund Burke to the electors of Bristol, in which he distinguished representation from delegation. The MP represents the interests of his constituents, not their opinions. And he represents those interests through a process designed to issue in laws that contribute to the wise government of us all. The representative does not sit on the benches of Parliament in order to jump up at every opportunity and repeat what the voters told him to say. He might well decide that the voters are ill-informed or moved by some passion that should, in their own interests, be overruled or discounted.

We can all see that this is so just as soon as we imagine mass campaigns being mounted for causes repugnant to us. Do we think that our representatives should be influenced by a Twitter storm advocating the expulsion of the Jews? Do we think that issues like the death penalty, the treatment of refugees, or the decision to send troops to Syria should be decided by a mass vote of internet addicts? We vote people into office because we feel confident in entrusting them with decisions that we have neither the expertise nor the capacity to make for ourselves, but which are nevertheless fundamental to our collective wellbeing.

The effort to understand what this involves, and what institutions would best serve the cause of representative government, occupied John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville. Both of them sounded warnings against the ‘tyranny of the majority’, pointing out that minorities must be protected by a wall of rights if they are not to be persecuted in the name of democracy. Both believed that bills before the legislature must pass through a ‘committee stage’, as in the Westminster parliament and the Washington congress. When sitting in committee, members should be encouraged to consider the issue for its own sake, and with a view to reconciling the many interests that have a stake in the legislation. Members have a duty to ignore pressures from outside, and to consult those with the relevant expertise.

It would be a foolish MP who decided to ignore public opinion. But public opinion is not a monopoly of those who strive their utmost to mobilise it. The silent, the hesitant and the deferential have opinions too, and, as the last election showed, there may be a lot more of them than there are of the vociferous crowds who capture the attention of the media. Moreover, public opinion in a democracy is not a matter of the preparedness to say yes or no to some simplified question posed on a website. It is the result of a process.

What the people think is not necessarily given on the spur of the moment, or prior to deliberation. Public opinion emerges from the broad currents of argument and reflection among people who are ready at any moment to defer to the facts and to acknowledge the right of others to disagree with them. It is precisely through such institutions as Parliament that public opinion finds its voice, and to think that petitions on the internet are a reliable guide to what the people think is to make a profound mistake about human nature. We are not creatures of the moment; we do not necessarily know what our own interests are, but depend upon advice and discussion.

It is, of course, hard for the Conservative party to insist that its new intake pass a philosophical literacy test before joining the list of candidates. Nevertheless it ought not to be too much to ask that every aspiring MP read what Burke had to say about the office of a legislator. And it is surely right for every parliamentarian to know why Mill thought that the protection of minorities is more important for the proper functioning of democracy than the ability to transcribe vociferous opinions into law.

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  • Gebhard Von Blucher

    Roger Scruton, my hero.

  • Damaris Tighe

    Twitter has revived the Mob. Ask Professor Tim Hunt.

    • blandings

      I cannot understand why anyone takes much notice of a twitter mob though.
      In the good old days a London mob might burn down ones London town house – inconvenient. But a twitter mob has an attack of the vapours – well, so what?

      • Damaris Tighe

        Something to do with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Now that being fed, clothed & free from disease is a given for the twittering classes they can turn their attention to more emotional needs such as feelings of belonging, self-righteousness & warm fuzzies in general.

        • blandings

          You make it sound like a bad thing!

          • Damaris Tighe

            Not bad, but when existential things are sorted people tend to look for anything, however daft, to give their lives meaning. Mobs reinforce this – help people think they belong to something greater than themselves, & with twitter they can achieve it – I was going to say without lifting a finger!

          • blandings

            I guess after my existential needs were sorted I just got kinda lazy.

          • Damaris Tighe

            I wasted a heck of a lot of money on every New Age fad that was going.

    • King Zog

      Mind you, their stock is at an all-time low.

  • Bill Ellson

    It is a pity that newspapers never take a closer look at the companies that run petition sites. Anybody who registers on a petition site is regularly solicited for donations, but the accounts of these companies show curiously low turnovers. Either the emails are incredibly inefficient, or the money is going elsewhere.

  • WFB56

    The first person who should have Burke on his reading list is the occupant of No. 10.

    • goodsoldier

      He hasn’t even finished Harry Potter yet–don’t pressure him!

  • Graham Thompson

    “Both of them sounded warnings against the ‘tyranny of the majority’,
    pointing out that minorities must be protected by a wall of rights if
    they are not to be persecuted in the name of democracy.”

    That sounds exactly like the sort of multi-culti liberal nonsense the Tory party is dedicated to abolishing.

  • King Zog

    “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your

    I believe that line from Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol was, at one time, quoted in the Conservative Party manual for prospective MPs. It should be reintroduced. Too many on the Conservative benches these days seem to think that their job is simply to be a weathervane.

    • davidofkent

      That is fine, of course, but from time to time our politicians sacrifice the opinions of a majority for the opinions of a vociferous minority. I don’t see how that fits in with Burke’s philosophy. I would say that the judgement is often wrong and that it would be better to listen to the wishes of the majority. It doesn’t take much thought to come up with a couple of fairly recent ‘decisions’.

      • King Zog

        An MP shouldn’t be the unthinking mouthpiece of any group, whether majority or minority. Although sadly indeed they all-too-often are.

    • right1_left1

      If the judgement of the representative is inconsistant with the opinion of the majority who placed him in a position of influence then I say the electorate selected the wrong man.
      Tell me what Burke had to say about that ?
      Edmund was writing in far more patrician times when would I be wrong in saying large swathes of the electorate had no say in choosing a representative.
      Still dont hehehehehe.

      The primary system of elections in the USA attempts to address that little difficulty.

      The UK remains cross eyed with historically skewed arrogant complacency.
      The 13th century Magna Carta and its importance to free men at the time.
      The unfree lived in sqalid conditions which only slowly began to improve say about 1880 and which betterment accelerated post 1945.

      • King Zog

        The full text of the speech can be found here: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch13s7.html

        I think the point is that a representative (an MP in this case) will unlikely to be (or ought not to be) at odds with the majority opinion in most cases, but that occasionally such a conflict will indeed arise. As Burke says, government and
        legislation are matters of reason and judgment. An MP isn’t just a “delegate”. If the excercise of reason, judgement and conscience leaves the conclusion at odds with the raw opinion of the mass of constituents this shouldn’t surprise us, since most voters have neither the time nor inclination to give consideration to the often very weighty, complex and protracted issues that come before Parliament.

  • Elperro Havuelto

    As much as I agree with the sentiment of this article the problem is politicians create policies to win votes rather than benefit society, so if the voting public don’t see or feel that they inject hesitation and circumspection for our greater good but to instead further their personal career or the longevity of their party it breeds discontent which fuels protests.

  • Seth_the_pig_farmer

    Clear, concise and beautifully written. As ever.

  • J K

    Hi Roger – would you also agree they have a duty to resist lobbyists for corporations? Particularly ones that may offer MPs executive positions on their boards after they retire, or even while they are still sitting MPs? Aren’t the agents of big business – lobbyists who are paid, professional and fulltime – far more powerful and potentially dangeour than a few amateurs lodging petitions? How far down your throat can you squeeze a big swinging dick?

    • ohforheavensake

      This makes the point I was going to raise rather more pithily.

  • right1_left1

    This article is concerned with whether mass opinion should influence legislators and refers to twitter storms.

    Online petitions as far as I know can force parliament to discuss certain issues.
    I see nowt qrong with that.

    Leaving aside the issue of immigration and our opinion formers attitudes I remember when street/football hooliganism and in particualr burglaries reached epidemic proportions with very little response from our legislators.
    Was that correct ?

    Heysal was a turning point there as I recall

    Re appreciation of issue complexity:; that can result in so much prolix discussion that little effective is done until the problem gets so bad the legislators eventually do what the masses wanted in the first place.
    My Heysal comment demonstraes this to perfection.

  • goodsoldier

    Roger Scruton is correct if only our politicians were truly well-educated, thoughtful, honest and philosophical. He doesn’t seem to realize that our ‘elite’ do not represent us but themselves and the EU and care only about power and fame. He is being too polite and reverential to MPs who don’t even know who Burke or Mill are, who don’t want to know.

    ‘Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.’
    H. L. Mencken

  • Aberrant_Apostrophe

    Quite right. Politicians should ignore the demands of the Twittering classes. They should concentrate on listening to, and taking back-handers from, lobbyists from corporate and other vested-interest groups instead.

    Edit: Good to see from JK’s post that’s I’m not alone in my opinion.

  • SamC

    Mr Scruton ignores the fact that the Countryside Alliance organised their own email campaign aimed at MPs, calling for the Hunting Act to be amended. Their campaign generated far fewer ‘signatures’ than the supporters of the Hunting Act. If it had been the other way round, the Countryside Alliance would be baying for MPs to heed the views of the people. In fact, the Countryside Alliance criticises anyone who is against fox hunting as uninformed, which is clearly ridiculous. I would urge Mr Scruton to not make the same mistake.

  • ArtieHarris

    “We vote people into office because we feel confident in entrusting them
    with decisions that we have neither the expertise nor the capacity to
    make for ourselves,”

    Not really.

    In practice, we don’t have much choice when it comes to who to vote for.

  • GraveDave

    It’s so sad. Those poor Tories, why does everyone keep calling them nasty?

  • Fraser Bailey

    ‘We vote people into office because we feel confident in entrusting them
    with decisions that we have neither the expertise nor the capacity to
    make for ourselves, but which are nevertheless fundamental to our
    collective wellbeing.’

    Well that’s nonsense for a start. Outside of SNP voters I don’t think anybody at the last election believed they were voting for anybody in whom they had any confidence, and many of us simply ceased to vote a long time ago because we cannot see anybody in whom we have any confidence or trust.

  • john halton

    Roger Scruton, the latest Spectator croupier, plumbs new depths, with flags of convenience flying everywhere.

  • sebastian2

    Burke also said :”The temper of the people amongst whom he presides ought therefore to be the first study of a statesman.”

    The people’s temper has been grossly overlooked or neglected, so it seems, by every political party save one. And that one champs at the bit outside Parliament, not lounges contentedly it.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Spot on: “..reason must triumph over passion whenever enthusiasm threatens to take control”
    And the hunting of foxes, or the culling of excess badgers, do indeed offer prime examples of mob rule, crude pressure applied to MPs, and a shameful degree of compliance among those MPs – most of whom are of course urban themselves and know as little about wildlife or the countryside as their excitable constituents who pester (nearly wrote “badger”) them about such trivia.
    Sadly we’ve suffered for a long time from an inferior political class lacking guts, character, patriotism and the balls to do & say the right things.

  • Julian Kaye

    The problem we perceive as an electorate, is that politicians having being elected renege on just about every item in the manifesto. Usually to benefit the minority at the expense of the majority. Do I believe anyone actually listens to these petitions. The answer would be only if it came with an envelope of cash.
    If you are of the blue persuasion you cry the unions control the Labour party. And do everything you can to stop it. If you are on the red team, you see how much the Tories are dependant on money from the business community.
    Perhaps the latter is because the numbers that are paid up conservatives are dwindling year upon year. As the cuts actually affect them too!

  • Atanas Krussteff

    Absolutely correct. The legal position of any MP is called non imperative mandate – a mandate not bound by the fluctuations or surges of public opinion. The MP is chosen to decide, not to be a loudspeaker of a certain group post factum.

  • Patrick G Cox

    While I would agree nthat a ‘Twitter Storm’ is hardly the way to decide policy, online petitions are just about the only way most of us can make Parliament aware of an issue we might feel strongly about. For many of us the ‘one man; one vote’ system is a nonsense. It does NOT result in a representative Parliament, or even a well qualified membership of it. Throw in the lobbyists, the networkers and the ‘special interests’ and Parliament ceases to be in any way ‘representative’ of the elctorate’s views.

    The ‘mobs’ which so exercised the thinking of Burke et al tended to be carrying sharp or blunt instruments and burning torches or ropes with which to string up unpopular governments. That is not necessarily the case with those who sign online petitions, or even some of the ‘Twitterati’. Yes, the Committee scrutiny is supposed to even out the potential for unfairness, but it often simply complicates otherwise straightforward matters and builds in all manner of scope for lawyers to make fortunes debating, or for the guilty to walk free because of a conflict. In recent years some 80% of the Statute Book has been replaced in a torrent of badly written legislation. Much of it replaced existing law that was clear and unequivocal – had it been properly applied by those entrusted with its enforcement and understood by the same Parliament and its officials that the author of this article is suggesting knows better than the ‘mob’.

    A large part of the problem, and a major reason people do resort to petitions, is that all too often the beneficiaries of any new legislation are those with close links to that institution. Consider the ‘value for money’ programme Parliament endorsed. Who has benefited most? Not the taxpayer, but those on the Treasury’s list of ‘Preferred Bidders’ who land the most lucrative contracts by means of a truncated ‘bidding’ system that sometimes seems to be more a case of ‘Buggins Turn’ than a selection of the most qualified. A second part of the problem is the nature of the beast itself. Westminster, and its Executive arm, the Civil Service, live entirely in the ‘London Bubble’. When they look out of the window, they think they are looking at the whole nation and that everywhere in the UK is just like London. Thus transport policies, arts funding, clean air legislation, etc., etc., is all based on what is necessary for London. No thought is given to those who do not have buses at five minute intervals, Tube trains, etc., within a few minutes walk.

    Governing a modern democracy is an extremely complex business. Unfortunately, Parliament and their unelected senior civil servants give every appearance of existing only to look after the interests of their own and their paymasters in commerce, industry (such as is left), the Trade Unions and other ‘power’ groups. As I said at the outset, the current ‘one man; one vote’ system is NOT representative, nor is it fair, and it certainly does not ensure we have the best or the most qualified sitting in the House.

  • Retired Nurse

    The use of media companies by an organisation run by struck off Drs who refer people to Dignitas for money, and who sent literally hundreds of of thousands of emails from google accounts to MPs in support of assisted suicide should be inspected more closely. These polls allow commercial lobbying to be passed off as ‘public opinion’ , and public consent to be manufactured (as Chomsky observes).
    The same tactics that are being used by ‘DignityInDying’ were used by the Dutch government shortly before they privatised their healthcare system 12 years ago to cut costs. It was in the days before IP addresses could be checked, and all you needed to get an issue debated in the Dutch parliament was a 20K petition. Healthcare insurers love assisted suicide, as it saves them a great deal of money (especially on cancer treatments), and you can talk a huge number of patients into it at the point of diagnosis.
    Joffe (the bills originator) owns Hambro and several other companies – we are importing the Dutch models of healthcare and social care, thanks to Norman Lamb and the LIbDems.

    I cannot think of any other bill that has persistently been pushed through the Lords so many times, when a mere 20 people a year have even wanted to go to Dignitas, and none have needed to.
    More Cabinet Ministers have wanted their todgers nailed to a plank of wood by rent boys than have wanted assistance in a suicide attempt , but I dont recall anything near as massive a lobbying attempt to change the law there. The entire campaign smacks of lobbying frankly – an office in Oxford street was used to ‘collate’ the signatures so the IP addresses would all be the same …these MPs should be made aware that doesnt prove they are from ‘real ‘ people.

  • Bene Pendentes

    Self defeating argument: approximately speaking, I interpret this as meaning that MPs should use their intelligence (don’t laugh) and integrity (no, really, don’t laugh) rather than blindly obeying particular rules (such as always debating topics when petitions reach a certain size) but then it suggests a new rule of always resisting online petitions.