Get Out And Vote

“The English people thinks it is free. It is greatly mistaken. It is free only during the election of Members of Parliament. As soon as they are elected, it is enslaved, it is nothing. The use it makes of its freedom during the brief moments it has it fully warrants its losing it…” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contact (1761), III.15.

YouGov has a poll (conducted I don’t know how) which claims that 83% of people think this statement (the first part of it, anyway) applies very well or fairly well to the UK. That’s quite interesting, because if 83% of people agree with the thought that the population to which they belong in general possesses a false belief, that on its own would be evidence to suggest that in fact they didn’t. (A bit like the poll that found that 90% of French people thought they were more of more than average intelligence. Well, that’s a bit different. But it’s still a good stat.) But it seems to me that when the bulk of the UK population and Jean-Jacques Rousseau find something to agree on, then we really ought to pay attention.

The broader point that Rousseau’s helping to make, of course, is that although it might be one of the pillars of our so-called constitutional so-called order, parliamentary sovereignty is bullshit. (He didn’t use that word, though it’s a perfectly respectable technical term these days, but that’s not the sense in which I’m using it.) Sovereignty resides in the people, powers can be delegated to government institutions, including parliaments, by the people, but nothing can ever take away a people’s sovereign right to determine its own politics, to determine its own future. Sovereignty can never be “transferred” — from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Interim Government of Iraq, say — because sovereignty always and everywhere resides in people, not in institutions, and no monarch, no parliament, no government, no occupying power, no political party, no social class, even, can ever reasonably stake a claim to sovereignty. That’s not how it works.

Of course politics requires institutions, and practices of sovereignty require institutionalisation, and democratically-elected parliaments may be a pretty good way of institutionalising the ideals of republican self-government. (They usually are, being quite a bit better than most of the alternatives occasionally on offer.) But there’s a lot more to politics and to democracy and to sovereignty than the election and composition of parliament — and so while everyone should get out and vote today, that’s not to say they should stay in for the next four to five years, and quietly accept the rule of whatever political lords and masters get elected to Parliament today.

Because they aren’t our lords and masters, and that’s not how democracy works.

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