On the will of the people; or, the right to change one’s mind

IMG_0672 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.

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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.

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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.

The referendum wasn’t prompted by any democratic impulse to meet and resolve such difficulties. David Cameron, Prime Minister in 2015, wanted to assuage the resentment of the right wing of the Conservative party that had for decades sought separation from Europe.  The rise of UKIP (the small but extremely right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party) threatened him with the potential loss of votes, party members, and the loyalty of his parliamentary colleagues. As some of the placards at the recent Westminster demonstration stated, the result has been an Eton mess.

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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.germany1933people-judges-jpg_large

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?”

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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.

People filled every inch of space. The photos cover a 200 metre crawl from Trafalgar Square to near Parliament Square, where we gave up and turned round to move equally slowly towards Embankment underground station. Here announcers threatened closure because of the crush. The atmosphere was both good-humoured and deadly serious. The will of the people is evident in the pictures.

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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

Grenfell shows the way to (or from) Brexit

The Grenfell Tower fire in London is the most disruptive event in our national life for a very long time.  It illustrates graphically what has gone wrong over recent decades: the entirely avoidable loss of life resulted directly from a managerial culture that did not regard the tower’s inhabitants as equal human beings in a wider community.  Being poor, working-class, in many cases immigrants, they could not attract the attention of officials in the richest borough in the UK.  Hundreds of people were lodged in a 24-storey tower block without fire alarms or sprinklers.  For years, they petitioned, phoned, blogged and used any other means to protest the obvious danger in which they were living.  Their complaints about the cold environment of their old draughty flats were assuaged by the application of low quality cladding that, when the inevitable happened, fanned the fury of the fire.

The anger they are now expressing, while infinitely more furious, resembles the emotion expressed by the many people in forgotten parts of the country who voted to leave Europe in last year’s referendum.  The most common reason for their vote was to “take back control”.  By a projection skilfully encouraged by the politicians and activists in the Leave campaign, immigration was blamed for poverty, unemployment, poor living conditions and a general sense of exclusion from the life and wealth of the UK.  “Brussels” became the scapegoat for unnecessary, supranational regulation that was allegedly holding back British enterprise and restricting employment opportunities. On 7 April 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote a letter to all government ministers on “cutting red tape”.   One paragraph reads:

Our starting point is that regulation should go or its aim achieved in a different, non- government way, unless there is a clear and good justification for the government being involved. And even when there is a good case for this we must sweep away unnecessary bureaucracy and complexity, and gold-plating of EU directives, and challenge overzealous administration and enforcement.

Elsewhere, the document states: “Of course we need proper standards, for example in areas like fire safety and food safety.”  But the tone and line of the argument is that government — which presumably includes local as well as national government — should take less responsibility for regulation.   Further, the glib injunction to “sweep away” bureaucracy, and to end the “gold-plating of EU directives”, indicates that the writer has not actually taken account of the responsibility of government authorities in framing and enforcing appropriate regulations.  It is this mindset that has resulted in the Grenfell fire.

The one good thing that could come out of this national disaster would be a sober rethinking of what we are doing as a country and where we are going.  It is becoming clear to everybody (except a few ideologues) that the British political system,  based for centuries (as Leave campaigners constantly reminded us) on the sovereignty of Parliament, should never have made radical changes to international economic policy on the basis of a referendum.  The Grenfell fire makes clear where the problems of the UK lie.  A future government should address these, and base international economic policy on a clear vision of the need for greater equality and better communication in our national life. In a word — to use the word condemned by Margaret Thatcher — we need to rediscover community, both national and international.

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November moon

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The moon comes up trumps

on fourteenth November, determined to outshine

the golden hair of political aspirants.   Man, dress’d in brief authority,

performs fantastic tricks; will May set sail from Europe

on fearful course of political expediency?

Urbane discourse becomes the trolls of social media,

Faraging in their own back yard. And yet the moon

controls the ebb and flow of human fate,

And when the new world order’s long since gone

she will arise to light the ember’d earth.

Dangerous times

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The will of the people is currently invoked in both the UK and the US.  But  only 17 million people (32% of the population) actively voted for Brexit.   Trump’s following is a minority of the US population, and heavily skewed on racial, class and gender lines.

As history shows, “the will of the people” comes easily to the lips of those with an anti-democratic agenda.   As Adorno and colleagues in the Frankfurt School argued after the rise of Nazism, the simple remedies of Fascism have a particular appeal to those who lack power.  Michael Rosen conveys ironically the apparently benign aspect of fascism:

Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you…

But fascism taps into eternal tribalism and hatred.   As Adam Gopnik says, the rise of Donald Trump is not merely a “people’s war” or a movement of the dispossessed.   Trump has no sympathy for the dispossessed.  In his presidential candidacy announcement, Trump announced: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”   As Henry Giroux argues, Trump’s endless racist, hate-filled and misogynistic remarks are viewed by the mainstream media as indiscrete and colourful rather than as symptomatic of the tribal resentment and hostility on which he relies in his bid for power.

Max Joseph writes:

Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric, blatant chauvinism, mean bullying, and open admiration of authoritarian rulers are more than just hints of what’s to come if he is elected … I have become obsessed with opposing Trump because, throughout my short-ish life, I’ve asked myself why no one stopped Hitler on his way up.

Fascism, as Michael Rosen concludes, doesn’t walk in saying:
“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
 The sovereignty of a democratic parliament and the rule of law are bulwarks against an unthinkable future.
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That the number of our Members be unlimited

NPG D8548; Thomas Hardy after Unknown artist

“That the number of our Members be unlimited.”  This was the first rule of the London Corresponding Society, formed in January 1792 to debate the necessity of parliamentary reform. The main test of membership was agreement that “the welfare of these kingdoms requires that every adult person, in possession of his reason, and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament”.  Within six months, the Society claimed more than 2000 members. In 1794, Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker, the founder of the Society, was arrested with 11 other members; he was committed to the Tower and later to Newgate.  When he was acquitted on a charge of high treason, the London crowd went wild with delight and dragged him in triumph through the streets.  But by the end of the decade the London Corresponding Society had been outlawed. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man was banned; meetings were prohibited; and Hardy was running a shoe shop near Covent Garden.

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E.P.Thompson, from whom I take the above account, suggests that the London Corresponding Society should be thought of as “popular radical” organisation rather than as “working-class”.  At one end, it reached out to the coffee houses, taverns and dissenting churches of Piccadilly, Fleet Street and the Strand; at the other, it touched the older working-class communities of Wapping, Spitalfields and Southwark. Its first organiser lived in Piccadilly, but its secretary was a working man, there was a low weekly subscription, and meetings were both a social occasion and a centre of political activity.  Most importantly, there was the democratic determination embodied in the leading rule: “That the number of our members be unlimited.”

Thompson comments that to throw open the doors to propaganda and agitation in this “unlimited” way implied a new notion of democracy, which cast aside ancient inhibitions and trusted to self-activating and self-organising processes among the common people.  The comparison with the currently burgeoning Labour Party membership is striking.   It may be, as Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, has recently claimed, that a number of revolutionary socialists have found a home in Momentum, the group that supports a popular movement to sustain Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.  But the sheer number of members makes clear that this is a genuinely radical movement. The meetings of Momentum that I have attended in Bristol have been social as well as political, and characterised by a collaborative enthusiasm for genuine change. The efforts of the National Executive Council of the Parliamentary Labour Party to disenfranchise 130,000 recently joined members will only fuel this afflatus.

The hopes and aims of this popular movement, at the beginning of the 21st century, are not quite the same as those of the London Corresponding Society and other similar societies (such as those in Sheffield, Derby and Manchester) that arose at the beginning of the 19th century.  The desire is not for parliamentary reform per se but for attention to structural social inequalities that have been exacerbated by globalisation.  Many of those who voted to leave the EU have said that they wanted to “get their country back”.  They were expressing a natural wish for ownership and control.  Unfortunately, Brexit itself will not achieve this.   Only last week the death was reported of the sixth Duke of Westminster, whose property holdings spread across the world are worth £13 billion but will not be liable to inheritance tax.

Corbyn is clearly an egalitarian who desires social justice, and the great majority of his supporters share his belief in the possibility of a better world.  Thomas Hardy and the London Corresponding Society failed in the short-term, but they initiated a radical social movement that, in a different context, is currently enjoying a renaissance.

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15 times when Jeremy Corbyn was on the right side of history

Leadership – what are the qualities we want from a political leader? The capacity to make the right moral and political choices seems a good start …

The World Turned Upside Down

jezza aparted1. Apartheid: Jeremy was a staunch opponent of the Apartheid regime and a supporter of Nelson Mandela and the ANC. He was even arrested for protesting outside the South African embassy in 1984.
2. Chile: Jeremy was an opponent of the brutal dictator Pinochet (an ally of the British government under Thatcher) and was a leading campaigner in the quest to bring him to justice. In 1998 Pinochet was arrested in London.
3. LGBT rights: As noted in Pink News, Jeremy was an early champion of LGBT rights. At a time when the Tories decried supporting LGBT rights as ‘loony left’, Jeremy voted against section 28 which sought to demonise same-sex relationships.
4. The Miners’ Strike: Jeremy went against the Labour leadership and fully supported the miners in their effort to prevent the total destruction of their industry and communities. Cabinet papers released last year prove that the NUM…

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Scenes from Parliament Square, 27 June 2016

Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn (10,000 according to a police estimate) gathered on Parliament Square yesterday evening (27 June) to demonstrate that Corbyn is at present the only plausible leader of the Labour Party.

Many Labour politicians don’t seem to understand that the grassroots of the Labour party want a genuinely socialist programme to deal with the issues that precipitated Brexit.

If the Parliamentary Labour Party can provide another leader who will provide a genuine alternative to the politics of division and austerity, bring her/him on.   If not, they must unite under Jeremy Corbyn and fight a general election to reject Brexit and preserve the United Kingdom.