Delegate or Trustee?

The recent outcry over SNP Leadership candidates’ personal beliefs has highlighted a fundamental question about the very nature of our representative democracy.

That question is separate from controversial views themselves, whether that’s Kate Forbes on gay marriage, Humza Yousef on his Hate Crime Bill or Ash Regan on a de facto referendum

Are our representatives our delegates or our trustees? 

The main difference between delegate and trustee representation is the extent to which trustees prioritise their own judgement over their constituents’ views. Delegates act as the voice of the people they represent. On any particular issue, they will vote how they feel best represents the views of their constituents: even if that does not match their personal view. Trustees, however, feel that they have been put in place to make decisions on behalf of their constituents based on their judgement: even if that means voting against how their constituents wish. 

“There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” Alexandre Ledru-Rollin (apocryphal) 

Theoretically, the outcomes of a perfect delegate system are closer to that of a direct democracy, such as in ancient Athens, where every citizen could vote on every issue.

Delegates act as the voice of their constituents, advocating for their beliefs and values in government and are expected to follow the guidance of their constituents. In this system, the ultimate power lies with the people. The theory is that democracy is rule by the people, and policy decisions are a more direct and democratic representation of the people’s will, so the people’s interests are better reflected. There are many disadvantages, though: It lessens the influence of expertise on decisions. Delegates must overlook their own direct knowledge, or ignore expert advice, to prioritise their constituents’ views, even if it contradicts their personal beliefs, morality or even, for examples such as climate change, scientific fact. 

Delegates also have a vulnerability to special interests. They are more susceptible to the pressure of any special interest groups, such as religions, that have a large influence over their constituents or who are particularly loud or vocal. 

There’s also the question of subjectively deciding who their constituents are. 

Kate Forbes, for example, has a highland constituency but is looking to be the first leader of the SNP and then First Minister. Whose views should she represent as a delegate, all the voters in her constituency? Just the SNP voters in her constituency? All SNP members? All SNP voters in Scotland, or all Scots? There’s a case that could be made for any of them, but many of them will be in conflict. 

“The people when rightly and fully trusted will return the trust.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

Trustees have the freedom to make decisions that they believe are in the people’s best interest, even if it goes against their constituents’ views. 

Trustees can prioritise their judgement, take expert opinions and bring experience over their constituents’ opinions and aim to make decisions based on what they believe is best for the community.

Permission to be unpopular 

Scottish commentator Duncan Hothersall argues for representatives to have more of a trustee role: 

“The role of our elected representative has never been, and should never be, to give voice to the prejudices of the people. They are elected to represent their best interests. Politicians who merely ape public opinion will achieve little, and eventually they will be seen through.” 

Trustees have more flexibility to consider the nuances and complexities of the issues they face. This permits them to make unpopular decisions with the long term in mind. Trustees can consider the community’s long-term interests even if they may not be immediately popular with the constituents.

However, because trustee representatives don’t reflect the views of their constituents, this can lead to a feeling of disconnect and disengagement among voters. Even feelings of betrayal, “That’s not what we voted you in for!” 

And, of course, trustees are vulnerable to bias. Trustees will undoubtedly be influenced by their own biases or religious beliefs, which can affect their decisions.

Chief Mammy Kens Best 

Scottish politics has been malformed by the constitutional issue. So how do these interpretations help us understand what is happening? 

First, a significant minority of Scottish voters trusted Nicola Sturgeon to act as their trustee. Thanks to the questionable presidential practice started by Alex Salmond, Nicola’s name was on everyone’s ballot paper. For many, it didn’t seem to matter so much who their nominal ‘representative’ was. Why worry about the opinions of the minions when they’ll do as chief mammy tells them? 

“The problem with trust is that if it is broken, then all acts committed by the perpetrator come under the purview of suspicion.” – Ravi Subramanian

However, what has become clear is that when that trust in Nicola Sturgeon slipped – on matters such as gender reform and the de facto referendum plan – many suddenly wanted Nicola Sturgeon to start acting like a delegate… Having ruled as a trustee for so long, that may have been a move she was just unable to make. 

As some SNP members are only now finding out, when a party relies on one single issue to bind them – such as the SNP depending on the pro-independence vote – it means their representatives can have many other views. And while they may have been willing to have Nicola as a trustee, that may not now extend to these other candidates whose own personal views has had little exposure or influence up to now.

When one issue has been blown out of proportion to seem fundamental and ‘above everything else,’ then there is a spotlight on it. Candidates’ personalities, beliefs and competencies are shaded. When what is done in the dark is then brought to light, this can then be shocking to the single-issue voters who have for too long carelessly delegated their trust. 

It’s complicated 

In truth, democracy is messy. We’ve looked before at how there is no such thing as a perfectly fair voting system. There is no perfect delegate system where a representative can take the pulse of public opinion accurately and act on it – and where we like our politicians to be consistent, public opinion can turn on a dime. We may soon have the technology for more people to vote on more issues in real time, but if they aren’t any better informed or capable, that’s a path to chaotic dystopia. 

Similarly, there’s no way that a trustee can always act without their own bias and prejudice or be sure of always taking the best expert advice. And there will always be bad-faith politicians who can’t be trusted: Populists, as a rule, will act like trustees while pretending to be delegates. That’s why they are so often authoritarian while still claiming to be the voice of the people. 

And – not all decisions and policies are the same. Some have broad support, some majority support, and some plurality support. What is a politician to do in that instance? Should a politician be bound to act as a delegate under direction for any policy that appeared in their manifesto but free to act as a trustee in any ad hoc votes? 

The problem is we need and expect our representatives to act as both Delegates and trustees. 

Democracy is fragile, and politicians are not to be trusted. With sometimes four or five years between votes, it’s hard for us to hold them to account – and as we saw in cases like Derek MacKay, they can hang on for several well-paid years after losing public trust. Democracy is rule by the people. They are our representatives – they work for us and should do as we tell them. They should take our views into account more than theirs when we inform them with petitions, with public consultations, and we should be able to recall them when they do not. 

We need our representatives to be delegates. 

Modern life is complicated, and we can’t be fully informed and fully capable of making informed decisions on every aspect of policy ourselves. Politicians can have expertise in their department and access to the latest and best information – along with the time and motivation to make a considered opinion. Just as most of us treat our Doctors as trustees with our healthcare decisions, to some extent must do the same in other areas. It is critical for protecting minority rights that politicians can act against the tyranny of the majority. It is critical for the long-term benefit of the people that they can take decisions against our short-term interests. We also need politicians to be able to make unpopular and maybe even misunderstood decisions, whether that’s in the public interest over a pandemic or an intelligence threat.

We need our representatives to be trustees. 

What is to be done? 

What can we do? Vote for politicians whose stated policies are the least distant from our own views, trust them to make decisions, but hold them to account when we aren’t satisfied with the outcome. And politicians must share responsibility themselves – because when they are in an awkward position that they believe in democracy but also believe the majority public opinion is wrong, they then have a responsibility to educate their voters. 

Of course, if the politicians are unable to do so – such as a decade of nationalists have failed to convince a majority of Scots to take a leap in the dark – then just having a level of trust is not a carte blanche to ignore the settled will. 


Published by Bingo Demagogue

Twitter - @BingoDemagogue

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