Matthew Parris says the people are not to be trusted and MPs should ignore them

A few weeks ago in the Speccie Matthew Parris came right out and said that the government should ignore the people:

Oddly, then, this column is not really about Brexit, but about trusting the people. I don’t. Never have and never will…


Tories like me, and I think we used to be in the majority, see good governance as an effort to live with democracy rather than to an effort to live by democracy. It is why we were so chary about referendums in the first place. We are wary of the populace and instinctively hostile to the instincts of the mob. We see the popular will as a sometimes dangerous thing, to be handled, guided, and on key occasions (and subtly) thwarted.

The rest of the article is mostly an admission that he and his fellow Tories deliberately deceived the public on a daily basis:

at the idea that the people should dictate the policies of government on a daily basis, we shudder


in 1977, it was commonplace among us Tories to see and describe ‘the will of the people’ not as our mentor but as a rock to be navigated.

The analogy is telling. When you navigate around a rock you aren’t ‘engaging’ with it. You’re sailing on by and leaving it behind. You’re avoiding it, and having nothing to do with it. Once past you continue to your destination at the speed, and in the direction, you desire, and the rock can be safely ignored; it has no more influence on you.

So although Parris says that “the people’s will cannot be overlooked”, and “we see it as a corrective to the over-mighty and a warning to those who govern not to lose touch with popular feeling”, this analogy is basically an admission that Parris thinks that the ‘public will’ is to be generally ignored and ‘(subtly) thwarted’ (his own words). It isn’t something you let steer the ship. It’s the rock that threatens the ship.

There’s no great argument given by Parris for why it is right to ignore the popular will. The closest thing to an argument given is that the public used to be in favour of hanging, and as that is, in Parris’s mind at least, self-evidently wrong, then the public should not be trusted. He doesn’t show any understanding that the same logic will also lead to the conclusion that as most of the worst atrocities in history have happened as a result of governments, states and rulers deciding that they were right, we should never trust our rulers with decisions.

But let’s acknowledge that all of us may be tempted to feel and act like Parris in some situations. Suppose the majority wants to set up Gulag system where right-wingers will be imprisoned and worked to death. Wouldn’t you resist that? Sure. But just as hard cases make bad law, so do extreme situations make for bad general political principles. Parris isn’t talking about situations where the public wants something highly immoral, even evil. He’s happy for the public will to be routinely overriden, on most things, just because he’d prefer things to be done his way. That just isn’t democracy, and any system that allows that needs to be overhauled.

It’s one thing for the elected rulers to make the occasional decision to overrule something which the public desires but which is manifestly wrong, but you can’t be doing it all the time on every routine matter. That’s a society run by a ruling class, not the people. You certainly can’t override the popular will when it concerns whether we are to be ruled by a foreign oligarchy. How is wanting to leave a trading bloc that has overreached its powers akin to, say, killing the Jews? That’s exactly the sort of decision we should leave up to the public rather than the MPs and the Establishment, especially when so many of those people have massive conflicts of interest.

(Thanks to commentator Pcar for the sending me the text of Parris’s article.)

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7 thoughts on “Matthew Parris says the people are not to be trusted and MPs should ignore them

  1. The thing is he’s not 100% wrong. You can’t have the public involved in every small decision of government, it would be chaos. To govern is to choose and sometimes you have to choose things that if given a choice the public might not agree with. However these are usually administrative things. Things that can easily be changed by a change of government, tax rates, laws even.

    Brexit however is not an administrative thing. Its a fundamental change in the direction the country wants to take going forward. And that is why a referendum is a reasonable answer to deciding such issues – everyone is affected by the outcome, not just for the next 5 years of a Parliament, but potentially in perpetuity. So its only fair that instead of the 650 MPs getting to decide, in effect we all become MPs for a day and get to vote of a matter of such importance.

    This is why what Parliament is doing over Brexit is so wrong – they as MPs delegated their power (which of course derives from the voters anyway) back to all 45m of the electorate. And all our votes (on the matter of Brexit) were equal. My vote was the same as David Cameron’s. What the MPs are now doing is saying that their votes now count for more than the rest of the 45m.

    Which is totally wrong, and a denial of democracy.

  2. Remainer MPs even think some MPs’ votes should count more than others. Rees-Mogg’s vote shouldn’t count at all.

    If they had their way they’d let Junker and his EU buddies vote.

  3. I’ve been aware for some time that this is the core, founding, principle of the EU; as I always say, in the same way Communism was for the USSR and individual liberty for the US. And, as both you and Jim point out, it’s not inherently a bad thing.

    I think the project was entered into with good intentions, to prevent the rise of populist dictatorships (which, despite the panic about the likes of Trump, were a much more real threat when it was thought up in the 1920s than they are today) by erecting a cool-headed administrative dictatorship instead and taking dangerous decisions out of the hands of the people.

    The trouble is, you can’t just have a little bit of that kind of thing. Once you stop trusting the people, even when you agree with their decisions, any semblance of democracy (and I’m not a big fan of calling our system of electoral representation “democracy” in the first place, but it does at least contain some) simply flies out the window. You give them a “Parliament” with no real power in order to make them feel part of the process. You stage Council meetings to make it appear that there is debate. You ignore explicit decisions because they’re “wrong”. You set up a phoney Government department and negotiate behind its back without the Minister’s knowledge. You tell people to vote again until they give the right answer, while telling them that it’s all about giving them a say.

    As I say, I’ve been aware for a while that this is how Europhiles think. But it’s still a shock to be confronted with the cold, hard, reality of it. And the apparent lack of concern displayed by about half of the population.

  4. What we’re seeing is the consequence of years of infiltration into the Conservative ranks of squishy LibDem centrists. That’s what was always going to rip the party apart. Brexit has just brought it to a head.

  5. As I have watched this slow motion train crash unfold something has occured to me. That is that any remainer MPs that continued to campaign on the remain side after the result of the referendum was announced are by definition unfit for office. We are a democracy. When the referendum was announced the government gave a committment to abide by the result. This isn’t complicated, remainer MPs are a disgrace and are without excuse.

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