Nicky Morgan’s U-turn lays bare a ‘misunderstanding’ of what a representative actually is

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November 17, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

There was a very odd U-turn the other day. Nicky Morgan, who was appointed Secretary of State for Education in July whilst retaining her brief as Equalities Minister, suddenly announced that she had “changed her mind” on gay marriage. Of course, this had nothing to do with an upcoming election and the absurdity of an equalities minister believing that some people’s access to the institution to marriage should be more equal to others. Oh no. This was just a change of mind.

Putting my reservations aside (in that if Nicky Morgan wants to believe Gay Marriage is wrong, she can believe it and shouldn’t be forced to change her mind for political reasons), her reasons for having voted against Gay Marriage in Parliament were interesting. They combine her own conscience, which, influenced by her openly stated Christian beliefs, told her marriage was between a man and a woman, but first and foremost her idea of what a constituency MP should do. What she said then, and what she repeated on the day that she said she had ‘changed her mind’ brings forth once again the question of how our representative democracy should work.

At the time of the vote, Morgan said that her constituency office had had more calls, visits and letters on the subject than any other issue before. She had had 285 letters to her against Gay Marriage, but 24 asking her to vote for it. Therefore she felt compelled as a representative of her constituency (which contains, remember, many thousands of inhabitants), to vote against the measure. She says that once she did so, a lot of people came forward to say that they had wanted her to vote for it but hadn’t contacted her about it, and she expressed regret that they hadn’t come forward earlier.

Really? Because that would have changed her mind would it? At the heart of this is the question of whether our MPs are ‘trustees’ or ‘delegates’. Under the delegate model of representation, you are told by your constituents how they feel and you vote that way. Morgan is essentially saying that that’s what she did. Of course, it helped that what she decided was their wishes fitted with her opinion, but there you go.

The other conception of the role of our representatives is the ‘trustee’ model, often called ‘Burkean representation’ after the political philosopher Edmund Burke, who talked about it in a speech to his potential constituents in 1774. The idea is that these ‘trustees’ have sufficient autonomy to deliberate and act in favor of the greater common good and national interest, even if it means going against the short-term interests of their own constituencies. Burke actually said that “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. … Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

This is especially so when the opinion is so stark an example of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as in this one. The majority of this country are not in same sex relationships. That majority is this able to ‘tyrannize’ a minority by, for instance, depriving them of equal access to, let’s say, marriage. The whole point of having a representative democracy is that the MP can provide protection to those minorities against tyranny from the majority, otherwise we might as well let the people vote on everything and not bother to elect MPs.

Nicky Morgan hid behind those 285 people, pretending it was a point of principle to do so. But it wasn’t a point of principle. She had her views, and she found it convenient that more letters to her shared those views. A representative needs to be brave and stand up to their constituents if they think they are wrong. Morgan didn’t think they were wrong, and I don’t believe she thinks so now. So the truly cowardly act in this case is to have ‘changed her mind’.

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One thought on “Nicky Morgan’s U-turn lays bare a ‘misunderstanding’ of what a representative actually is

  1. Disingenuous – or intellectually incoherent? Probably both. Nice to see some continuity with the previous holder of this office of state then.

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