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.

y4uptmevtwejqi6xegzmtw.jpg

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.

brexit-bus

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.

fullsizeoutput_14ef

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?”

Screenshot 2019-03-25 22.59.18

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.

b4ZmUCVORmyoEa7oTCf7Wg

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

Advertisements

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.

Grenfell-outside.jpg

 

Open letter to Thangam Debbonaire

Thangam_Debbonaire_resignation_letter

27 June 2016

Dear Thangam,

I am very disappointed to read that you have resigned as Shadow Minister for Arts and Culture.

This morning, I was considering whether to travel to London to stand with supporters of Jeremy Corbyn outside Parliament while the PLP discuss the leadership this evening. I tried to find some information about supportive events in Bristol, but could find nothing on the web. Perhaps your resignation is one reason why.

One of the reasons Jeremy was elected leader of the party is that he does not dissimulate.   It is difficult for any thinking person to be wholeheartedly in favour of the EU.   It is especially difficult for the leader of a party that has a long tradition of scepticism towards the EU and that contains a vocal group that argues cogently that leaving the EU is necessary to combat the neoliberal agenda.

The concern about Jeremy’s leadership that has been expressed by you and several of your colleagues focuses on his alleged failure to ignite the Europhiliac passions of the working class communities that voted for Brexit. I don’t know how anyone could have been expected to do this. I trust you don’t imagine that Labour could be led by a left-wing version of Nigel Farage. We know where the cult of personality has led Labour in recent decades.

As you say, we need a strong, unified and effective Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn has the support of thousands of party members. I don’t think this true of any of the leaders of the other parties and it is a great pity that the PLP are not fully behind him at this critical time.   I shall travel to London this afternoon.

Yours sincerely,

John Hodgson

 

I don’t want my country back

 

A Lidl surprise.  This happened shortly after I had read Michael Rosen’s recent blog poem that deals with the idea that the ‘working class’ and ‘migrants’ are different groups and that the latter have to be kicked out so that the former can ‘get their country back’.

Discount Stores Aldi And Lidl Increase Their Popularity

Ahead of me in the checkout queue today was a 30-something white Polish (I think) man with a boy aged perhaps nine or ten. The boy was much darker skinned but I assumed they were father and son from the very un-English way way they embraced each other while conversing in a bantering manner. I thought they were speaking Polish but then heard the father say: “It’s up to you.” They were interweaving their home language with English. Meanwhile, the Eastern European checkout operator dealt with her young daughter, who was hanging around the till, by hugging her and speaking to her in English. This was a living moment of cultural integration: hopefully our future.