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

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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On Political Leadership

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Possibly the most striking and chilling phrase to come out of the Chilcot report on the circumstances of the decision to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is Tony Blair’s assurance to George Bush in July 2002: “I will be with you, whatever.”  As the Independent comments, these are like the words of a lover promising to be faithful till death us do part.  They suggest a level of emotion and relationship not often admitted between national leaders. They also indicate how the emotional needs and responses of one person might precipitate the death of thousands.

One of the best-known concepts that came out of the work of Adorno, Horkheimer and other members of the Frankfurt Group in the 1930s and 1940s, when they were trying to explain the catastrophe of Nazism, was the “authoritarian personality”. Although their work, including this concept, has been much critiqued subsequently, the Frankfurt school’s overall project of linking psychological characteristics with social movements offered original, holistic and connected thinking about the interplay of personality and power.

Adorno and Horkheimer explained the attraction of Fascism in terms of its providing psychic satisfactions for both leaders and followers. Put simply, leaders gained a sense of power by commanding a mass following, while followers gained a sense of security from their obedience. But the key concept was that these characteristics – of dominance and subservience – existed in everybody and were mobilised by particular social conditions. Hitler came to power as a result of the hopelessness engendered by the economic collapse of the early 1930s. The Nazi movement allowed the “masses” (as Hitler repeatedly called them in his autobiography Mein Kampf) to gain confidence from the direction of a “strong” leader, and also provided many opportunities for officers to exercise their own cruelty and dominance, most obviously over the despised “other”, Jewish people.

When Tony Blair pledged himself to George Bush, he was gaining both security and power.  He was stepping onto the world stage of military intervention as the companion of a man whose country had (as Blair has said in his recent statement) 95% of the assets required to go to war in Iraq.  He followed Bush, but, as the Chilcot report reveals, he was not merely pulled along by events.  In the UK, he pursued his desire for power single-mindedly, manipulating both his Cabinet and Parliament and, through his performance as a charismatic speaker and with the support of much of the media, the people also. It was only when the deception involved in going to war and the disastrous consequences of the enterprise became clear that the charisma of Blair faded.

Today, the day after the publication of the Chilcot report, the current leader of the Labour Party is criticised in the media for not using the Chilcot revelations to launch a swingeing attack on Blair. He is also, of course, more widely criticised for his supposed incapacity to unite the Labour Party and secure sufficient votes to defeat the current government in the next election.  Jeremy Corbyn is a very different person from Tony Blair. In March 2003, he demonstrated outside Parliament with 2 million others to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq.  He addressed the crowd competently, but, then as now, the inspiration that he gives his many followers derives from what he says rather than from the way he says it.  He is constantly criticised in the press and by members of the Parliamentary Labour Party for lacking the capacity for leadership – although the Labour Party now has more members, many of whom have joined because of Corbyn’s unwavering socialist principles, than ever before. In part, at least, this supposed incapacity for leadership derives from his refusal to personalise politics in the way that is common in most political discourse.

Perhaps Corbyn will not succeed in attracting sufficient voters in a general election to unseat the current government, split and chaotic though it is. But he is modelling a new kind of politics and a new kind of leadership where authenticity and principle replace charisma and deceit.  It would be good to think that people might follow him because of his policies and values rather than for the irrational motives of the authoritarian personality.