Talking Politics

Senedd, home of the National Assembly for Wales


That has been the world’s reaction to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum began as a fight for power within the Conservative party, which is currently in government.

A political party is not a celebration, by the way. The word “party” has more than one meaning.

While those who voted for Brexit may indeed be celebrating, people who wanted the UK to stay in the EU now feel sad or anxious.

Whatever you think about the referendum result, it is important to remember that, like the referendum on independence for Scotland, it did make ordinary people talk about a political issue.

Most of them found it difficult to decide how to vote. They thought and talked about their decision much more than British voters usually do before an election. Having a referendum gave direct power to voters instead of asking them to choose a representative who would make decisions on their behalf.

Some people feel that we should change to a system like that in Switzerland, where local referendums are held to decide many issues. Others would prefer their elected representatives to decide things. After all, they have all the information and have the time to consider the pros and cons. That is what we pay them for.

But, on this occasion, we had to decide for ourselves, even though the issues were so complex that none of the politicians seemed to understand them.

It is worth remembering that in Britain, while we choose representatives every four years [Members of Parliament (MPs) in Westminster, Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and Assembly Members (AMs) in Wales and Northern Ireland], we also have access to those representatives between elections. We can write to them, contact them by telephone, email or Twitter, visit them in Parliament or in our local area or constituency, either by appointment or by simply turning up unannounced.

Until now, we have also elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). and have been able to visit them or contact them to express our opinions, ask questions about parliamentary and government decisions, or request data.

Most people use this kind of contact or meeting to get help from their representative on a personal matter, such as housing or health, when the normal system has gone wrong in some way. Others hope to influence the views of their representative or even the government, perhaps by drawing an issue to their attention or by giving them information. In this way, British citizens can have a direct effect on the decisions both Parliament and government make.

Each representative has a duty to listen to their constituents’ views and to act on their behalf where necessary. Many of those constituents will have voted for a different candidate, or a different party, but they still have the right to contact the elected representative for the constituency they live in. We might feel that we are wasting our time talking to a politician who will have to “toe the party line”, or follow their party leader’s instructions, especially if we disagree with that party’s policies. Nevertheless, everybody is human, and sometimes people with very different political views will find that they share common ground on certain issues, such as the environment.

MPs who feel strongly about a particular issue are pleased when they are contacted by members of the public. When they stand up to speak in Parliament, they will say “I have received 56 letters from my constituents asking for planning permission to be refused”, for example.

Speaking up is what British democracy is all about. The system is far from perfect but we do have a right to voice our opinion. If we do not use this voice, we have only ourselves to blame. 28% of the electorate did not vote on Thursday. Living in Wales, I have the right to approach my MP, my local AM and any of my four regional AMs as well as my four MEPs . Most UK citizens do not use this right.

As a suffragette, my great-aunt chained herself to the railings of Downing Street so that I, as a woman in the 21st century, would have a vote. Jo Cox died performing her duty as a constituency MP. In my view, I have an obligation to participate in democracy. We may seem powerless but words have power. When there are differences of opinion, it is all the more important to talk to each other. When everyone else is silent, sometimes you need to speak out.

Speak. Communicate.



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