Who’s sovereign now?
Words matter. That’s why we keep mis-quoting them
I think we all know by now that Captain Kirk never actually said “Beam me up, Scotty”, Rick Blaine never said “Play it again, Sam” and Jimmy Cagney never said “You dirty rat”. They got quite close in each case, but it is now the misquotes that possess all the magic, not the words that were actually spoken.
It is not just in fiction that this happens. It is a sign of the very low esteem we have for politicians today that many people seriously believe a government minister, Michael Gove, could have been so stupid as to have “had enough of experts”. He was pilloried for that view in 2016 and the mockery has continued ever since, even though anyone who has taken the time to read or listen to what he actually said knows that Gove was actually fed up with a specific subcategory of experts who were “getting it consistently wrong.” If any such “experts” actually existed, shouldn’t we all have disparaged them. Instead, we disparaged the politician.
It is so often that way. When criticising politicians, accuracy is treated as an optional extra. Faultfinders find it so much more fun, it seems, to repeat a misquote if, by doing so, they can make the powerful look silly. Brexiteers, for example, were said to have advocated leaving the EU because they wanted “parliamentary sovereignty”. So, of course, it was held to be utter hypocrisy when those same politicians sought to ride roughshod over parliament once they had won the referendum.
Except that Brexiteers didn’t call for parliamentary sovereignty. You can check out the literature: it’s a total misquote. What Vote Leave called for was “the power to kick out the people who make our laws”, not more power for our lawmakers. (Like so many of Vote Leave’s mantras, it was a dodgy argument. Complaining, as they did, that UK citizens could not choose other countries’ MEPs is like the people of Devon complaining that they have no say over the choice of Cornwall’s MPs. Or the constituents of Bury North complaining that they have no vote in Bury South’s election.)
But, regardless of the argument they used, what Brexiteers wanted was national sovereignty: freedom for the UK to be able to determine its own way forward, unfettered by outside agencies. Parliamentary sovereignty is an entirely different matter. It is part of a debate over which of the UK’s institutions has the power to make those decisions.
We saw that particular debate played out, at some length, in the first of two cases taken to the Supreme Court by a concerned citizen, Gina Miller. She wanted Parliament to decide whether the UK should serve a notice of withdrawal from the EU. Against her was the longstanding UK constitutional principle that foreign affairs were the prerogative of the Government to decide, not Parliament.
But Ms Miller argued that this wasn’t just a matter of foreign affairs: leaving the EU would result in the removal of rights under a UK act of parliament, the European Communities Act 1972. As it happened, the second argument won. On this occasion, parliamentary sovereignty trumped the power of the Executive.
But, as we quickly discovered, parliamentary sovereignty doesn’t always do what it says on the tin. Despite the fact that a significant majority of MPs were firmly opposed to leaving the EU, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to go ahead with the withdrawal notice. Individual parliamentarians voted against their better judgement because they did not believe they should undermine the result of the referendum. So, in practice, if not in law, it was the people who proved to be sovereign, not parliament. It was, indeed, the power of the people to kick out those who make our laws that won out in the end. That’s democratic sovereignty for you.
If democracy is to function as it should, every one of us ought to be fed up with people – be they experts or anyone else – who quote politicians only to get it consistently wrong. But, sadly, it is too often the misquotes that shape how we perceive our representatives, not the words they actually speak.
Some might wish to publicise a few carefully-chosen misrepresentations on the grounds that “the end justifies the means”, as Machiavelli famously said. But it turns out that’s not remotely what Machiavelli actually said.
This analysis reached you free of charge. Share this thought with others and subscribe now to make sure you never miss any of my Irregular Thoughts.