A banner above a crowd of two million at the People’s Vote demonstration in Westminster on Saturday 23 March 2019
This post is written mainly for friends abroad who ask what is happening to the UK, but the idea of “the will of the people” affects us all.
Theresa May, Prime Minister (for the moment) of the UK, has repeatedly claimed that Britain is leaving the European Union (the process known as Brexit) because this is the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum, which she is pledged to deliver.
The phrase “the will of the people” has accrued complex meaning. To some, it represents a promise which, if broken, will destroy democracy in the UK. The government promised to implement the decision of the majority in the referendum, and people will lose all faith in the political process if this doesn’t happen.
This view disregards the fact that, legally, the referendum was advisory. It required Parliamentary ratification. Ironically, one of the demands of those who campaigned to leave was to restore parliamentary sovereignty (which they claimed had been lost through membership of the EU). Parliament should have reflected on the result of the referendum. Even at the time, there were several cogent reasons to doubt the wisdom of the majority in this case.
One reason was that it was such a small majority of voters, and a distinct minority of the electorate. 17,410,742 people (51.89%) voted to leave. 16,141,241(48.11%) voted to remain. The turnout was 72.21%. Thus the majority comprised just 34.73% of the electorate. In matters of governance, the size of a majority matters. Democracy requires the consent of the governed, and, if a sizeable number disagree with a policy that affects everybody, there will be trouble.
Another reason that was apparent from the start was that people had to decide on the basis of incomplete and, in some cases, misleading information. The best-known example of the latter was the claim that the National Health Service could benefit by £350 million a week if money that was currently sent to Brussels was retained by the United Kingdom.
It became evident early on that many people were deciding not on the basis of a rational analysis of the economic and social benefits and detriments of leaving Europe but on the basis of inchoate feeling. This feeling was, and remains, the most difficult aspect of Brexit. The impulse to leave is fuelled by a feeling that life in Britain used to better for the British. It is a UK version of Donald Trump’s populist call “Make America great again” (including its racist connotations, as in the examples below: the Leave campaign emphasised the issue of immigration). It is fuelled by the social and economic deprivation and inequality contingent on the housing, employment and education policies of recent decades.
And so a process that was prompted by a party political strategy has ignited a cauldron of conflicting ideologies and potential violence. In all this, the phrase “the will of the people” has been repeated ad nauseam to justify the implementation of Brexit, whatever the cost. As I write, I hear on the radio that plans are being made to use part of the M20 motorway as a holding area for the hundreds or thousands of goods vehicles that will be delayed if the border controls are re-established. And it is evident that no coherent plans exist to ensure the continuation of food and medical supply chains and the just-in-time transportation of vehicle and electronic parts to and fro Europe in the process of manufacture.
At this eleventh hour, we need to change our minds, and reconsider what we mean by ‘the will of the people’. The first thing to be said is that the phrase has a dishonourable place in the history of fascism. Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous propaganda film of the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg is titled Triumph of the Will. The “will”, here, is the power of a mass movement. The associations of “the will of the people” with Nazism resurfaced in November 2016, when the Daily Mail published a headline and associated article about the three judges who had ruled that the UK Government would require the consent of Parliament to give notice of Brexit. The headline and story chillingly echoed those published in a German newspaper of 1933.
Here, the “the people” are represented as an oppressed multitude whose authentic “will” is denied by established power. Again, Trump draws on the same structure of feeling in his campaign rhetoric, inciting the audience against those who, he implies, are not on their side.
In a parliamentary democracy, the will of the people can be expressed in broadly two ways: directly, by such means as a referendum or petition; or indirectly, via Parliament, which is elected by the people. Today (Tuesday 26 March) it appears that Parliament will take hold of the Brexit process. There is a faint hope that it will enact the delegated will of the people by considering all the circumstances and making a wise decision. And there is the possibility of a second referendum. Thirdly, and most intriguingly, a recent petition (on a government website) to revoke Article 50 (which gave notice of the UK’s leaving) and stay in the European Union is gathering signatures at an exponential rate. This may yet prove a game changer. As my daughter said: “Who needs a referendum when you’ve got the internet?”
The will of the people – or of many people (police estimated 2 million) — was strikingly expressed in a People’s Vote rally in and around Parliament Square on Saturday, 23 March. I went with my daughter, who climbed on a traffic light to escape the swirl of the crowd and take photographs.
For a structural analysis of the issues and a view on the unrest that is likely to follow Brexit, see this: https://www.quora.com/Will-there-be-riots-if-Brexit-does-not-happen/answer/Richard-Lyon-41?ch=10&share=fdbcb7e5&srid=u41Ur