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Contract With the People

Douglas Carswell’s victory in the Clacton by-election will be welcomed by all for whom British parliamentary democracy matters. Mr Carswell resigned as a Conservative MP in August to join the UK Independence Party. When he won almost 60 per cent of the vote, he told his constituents ‘I resigned from parliament to face this election because I answer first, foremost and last to you. You are my boss. I will not let you down.’

Many voters across the political spectrum know they can count on Carswell not to let the country down. Many MPs (and peers) can also count on him, because he believes in parliament and won’t let that great institution down.

Carswell’s contract with the voters is mirrored by another which binds some of the country’s most respected MPs, their contract with Parliament and the country. It is on a threefold commitment that Britain’s political system became a mass democracy, characterised by liberty under the law. MPs elected to govern are bound to the electorate, parliament and the country. In Britain these bonds have been stronger than sectional party interest.

Yes, they can lead to difficult decisions. They did for Carswell, who left the party to which he had belonged for over twenty years That difficulty was faced and met by other MPs throughout the previous century, so that they too could serve the interests of the voters and the country, not merely sectional party interest.

Winston Churchill stood and won the Lancashire seat of Oldham as a Conservative candidate in 1900. Once in parliament as an MP he switched to the Liberal Party in 1904 to support free trade over the Tory protectionism, joining the Conservatives when offered the Chancellorship of the Exchequer by Stanley Baldwin in 1923. Baldwin himself continued to go beyond his party to educate the democracy he inherited after World War One, when European systems were failing. He believed parliamentary decency, fairness and the obligation to give the underdog a fair crack of the whip mattered. And he disagreed with his own front and backbenchers, refusing to reap party advantage over Labour, most notably by not opposing Labour’s trade union levy. He thought that the fledgling party should have the chance to take power and build its parliamentary standing and its funds.

Douglas Carswell has won a seat at Westminster for a party that commands 14 per cent of the national vote, according to today’s poll of polls. All who believe in Britain’s parliamentary tradition and what it stands for will draw heart. All the more so because he broke with his party on one of the great questions for democracy in Britain. What form should Britain’s relations with the EU take or who should exercise what power? That question matters all the more because, unless it is resolved, British democracy will die. Carswell’s victory suggests the voters do know best: unless MPs can honour their obligation to voters, they cannot uphold the honour of Parliament, or for that matter the interests of their country.

*Sheila Lawlor is director of Politeia.

Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor is Politeia’s Founder and Director of Research. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy.

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