In recent days and weeks, the Prime Minister has repeatedly demanded that MPs “put the country first” and “act in the national interest” rather than pursuing party political interests. In principle, it’s an entirely reasonable expectation; the problem is that it doesn’t equate directly with supporting her deal in the way that she demands. For what it’s worth, I believe that the overwhelming majority of MPs (there are a few, of course, who put their own personal interests first) are trying to do what they think is ‘right’ for their constituents and the country as a whole, it’s just that they define what is ‘right’ in different ways. Some also, of course, define ‘country’ in a different way than May – it does not necessarily follow that what’s good for England is good for Scotland or Wales.
What May actually thinks about anything is a mystery even to those closest to her (and perhaps also to herself), but her words suggest that she thinks that the national interest is served by honouring the result of the 2016 referendum, since doing otherwise damages (further) people’s faith in the UK’s system of democracy. In a limited sense, I’d agree; telling people that you’re giving them the decision and then ignoring the result is indeed damaging, and I can see that the ‘national interest’ is served by implementing the result. But it is surely also ‘in the national interest’ that the government does not wreck the economy or take decisions which lead to shortages of food or medicines. It is surely not ‘in the national interest’ to destroy jobs and opportunities, especially for our young people. And it is surely not ‘in the national interest’ to reduce standards of environmental and employment protection. Determining where the balance lies between those different factors is always going to be a matter of opinion, not fact; and opinions will differ. Holding a different opinion on such a complex issue is not at all the same thing as acting against the national interest, as the PM seems to be claiming.
Demanding that people act ‘in the national interest’ is just rhetoric; the real question is who defines where that interest lies and on what criteria. It is far from being the simple question as which she presents it. There’s another aspect as well – she claims to be defining it in terms of ‘honouring democracy’, but what history teaches us is that individual leaders of governments who claim that they, and they alone, are the arbiters of what constitutes the national interests aren’t usually over-interested in democracy. Claiming the unique right of definition and attacking all those who disagree as enemies of the people are the hallmarks of dictatorship, not democracy.