We the People
- April 26, 2019
There was a time when references to ‘the people’ or the ‘will of the people’ were a rarity in British politics, unless you went on leftist solidarity demos in solidarity with Nicaragua or El Salvador and knew enough Spanish to join in the stirring chant ‘El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido’ (the people, united, will never be defeated).
In the last three years however, ‘the will of the people’ has become a persistent refrain in our ongoing tragic national farce. It’s usually used by Brexiters in reference to the 2016 referendum result, and in order to question any attempt to transform that result into legislative and political reality.
Leave means Leave, they insist, because the will of the people have decreed it.
Even politicians who are not Leavers tend to genuflect before this mighty abstraction. They may not use the phrase ‘will of the people’. They may not describe judges and MPs as enemies of the people for supposedly going against that ‘will’, but their insistence on ‘respecting the result’ and their refusal to contemplate a second or confirmatory vote, suggests that they really believe that referendum was indeed a genuine expression of the popular will that cannot be revisited.
This is a pity, to say the least. Firstly, because it is really foolish to regard a flawed referendum soaked in dodgy money and social media manipulation with such reverence. Leave won the referendum by 51.9% to 48.1% on a turnout of 71.8%. 30 million people voted out of an electorate of 46,501,241. 3.6 million EU citizens with a direct interest in the outcome were not allowed to vote.
Scotland backed Remain by 62% to 38%, while 55.8% in Northern Ireland voted Remain and 44.2% Leave.
So that leaves a large section of the people of the UK that did not express its ‘will’ through the referendum. In addition, the referendum asked only whether the electorate wished to leave or remain in the European Union. Given the asymmetry between this very simple question and the very complex consequences of leaving – not to mention the variety of ways of leaving – it ought to be entirely logical and entirely democratic to revisit the result in a democratic sign off vote.
Yet again and again Brexiters have invoked the ‘will of the people’ as a rhetorical stick to beat anyone who suggests such a thing. And they have increasingly used it in an attempt to discredit parliament and present ‘politicians’ as an undemocratic ‘elite’ estranged from and even opposed to the ‘people.’
Far be it from me to suggest that the British parliamentary system is beyond reform or reproach, but we should really look askance at the quasi-insurrectionary rhetoric emanating from the likes of Farage and Arron Banks.
Historically, leftist political movements have often invoked ‘the people’ to confer moral force and legitimacy on the movements they have embraced or supported. Usually leftists have contrasted ‘the people’ with despotic and oppressive regimes, as was usually the case in Latin America.
At times such claims have been purely aspirational. The Russian terrorist group that killed Tsar Alexander II called itself Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will), even though it was not the will of anything at all except for a tiny sub-section of the liberal/leftwing Russian intelligentsia.
In rightwing politics, ‘the people’ can mean ‘ the common people’ as opposed to the ‘elite’ or ‘big government.’ Fascist governments once depicted the state as the highest embodiment of the will of the people.
‘The nation and the government in Germany are one thing. The will of the people is the will of the government and vice versa,’ declared Goebbels in a 1933 speech in Geneva. For Goebbels ‘ The modern structure of the German State is a higher form of democracy [ennobled democracy] in which, by virtue of the people’s mandate, the government is exercised authoritatively while there is no possibility for parliamentary interference, to obliterate and render ineffective the execution of the nation’s will.’
The idea that parliament ‘ interferes’ with the expression of the people’s will is very different from the opening reference to ‘We the People’ in the US constitution, which was intended to confer a moral legitimacy on the type of representative government designed by the founding fathers. For Thomas Jefferson ‘the will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.’
This sounds good in principle, but the problem is how this ‘will’ is defined and practiced in the business of government.
It’s one thing to claim that any government is the expression of the will of the people; but democratic governments are also faced with the possibility described by John Stuart Mill, in which:
The will of the people…practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority type people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.’
Most democracies recognise this danger, and take steps to prevent or at least mitigate it, for example by regular elections which allow different constituencies to assert their interests, and also by electing representatives who seek to prevent the outcome that Stuart Mill described.
The binary question in the 2016 referendum made such compromises difficult, if not impossible to achieve. Even if Remain had won by the same margin, the result would not have constituted the ‘will of the people’, but a slim victory that would have required some revisiting, as Farage himself insisted even before the result.
The complete unwillingness of Brexit’s principal architects to recognise the complexities and contradictions inherent in the result are leading UK democracy to a political place where it has never really been – in which populist ideologues are attempting to bully the country’s elected representatives into taking decisions that most MPs recognise are not in the national interest.
Brexiters are now blaming ‘politicians’ and ‘Westminster’ for their inability to produce an exit that is not harmful to the country, and they are using the ‘will of the people’ to browbeat nearly half the electorate into agreeing to their demands, without allowing any possibility to present whatever options parliament may agree on to a public vote.
Clearly they fear that the ‘will of the people’ may not be fixed in stone after all. They’re absolutely right, and however flawed our democracy may be, we really should ignore Farage, Goddard and the Poundland Jacobins who are now calling its legitimacy into question, and insist on a confirmatory referendum as the only possible way out of the nightmare they have plunged us all into.