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Questioning the will of the people

‘The will of the people’ has become a popular item in the current political vocabulary since the 2016 referendum so it merits serious consideration. The concept was first coined in the 18th century by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Discours sur l’economie politique.

The will of the people is about political legitimacy but he meant more than the will of the majority, which is how it is currently being interpreted. Rousseau’s concept of the general will was intended to protect individuals and minorities from the tyranny of the majority. He was shrewd enough to recognise human selfishness can lead sectional interests oppressing minorities. He wrote in 1789 and the French Revolution confirmed his concerns.

So how relevant is Rousseau’s concept today? Theresa May understands ‘the will of the people’ to mean that the Government must negotiate the UK’s exit from the European Union which we joined in 1973. This was legitimised by the 1975 referendum in which 67% voted for and 32% against. In the 2016 referendum 52% voted to leave and 48% to remain. The pro-leave campaigners argue that democracy demands that the will of the people is to leave the EU. When both the High Court and Supreme Court insisted that Parliament must approve the triggering of Article 50 to initiate the leaving procedure, they were abused in the press as ‘enemies of the people’. Anyone campaigning for the UK to remain in a customs union is similarly dismissed as a ‘traitor’.

The contrary view is that referenda do not fit well with our system of indirect democracy. This locates sovereignty in ‘the Queen in Parliament’. We elect MPs to make laws and policies and if we are dissatisfied with their conduct we vote them out of office at the next election. Thus Edward Heath’s Conservatives were elected in 1970 and voted out in 1974. In contrast the Conservatives were elected and re-elected for 18 years between 1979 and 1997 and Labour were in office for the next 13 years until 2010. Asking the people to decide in a referendum does not fit well with this normal process. This was especially so because a majority of MPs did not support Brexit.

Some question whether most voters fully understood the implications of voting to leave the EU. Did they, for example, underestimate the challenge of replacing tariff free access to the EU single market with other trade deals? Did they recognise the volume of legislation required to incorporate 40 years’ worth of EU legislation into UK law, to keep the important rights and liberties involved? Did they comprehend the implications of leaving the 40 plus agencies such as Europol, EURATOM and the European Medicines Agency, each of which play a valuable background role in our lives? Did they recognise the implications of Brexit for the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic? Fifthly, did they consider the financial costs of leaving the EU?

Equally, one has to ask ‘Remainers’ how serious they were about the democratic deficit in the EU and its failure to practice subsidiarity, which was one of the EU’s founding principles. Do they really share Jean Claude Juncker’s vision of a United States of Europe?

Those uneasy about the referendum result being indicative of the ‘will of the people’ question the integrity of the information given to the voters. They point to the ‘fake news’ published in the social media and the false claims made on that red bus. They also express concern about a minority of Brexiteers who expressed xenophobic reasons for leaving the EU. There is also polling evidence that some have changed their mind over the last two years and there is no longer a majority for Brexit.

All this suggests that claims about ‘the will of the people’ need to be handled very carefully. The risk in not doing so is to deepen divisions in society, damage our democratic traditions and create a tyranny of the majority – albeit a very uncertain majority. The Christian virtue of grace is much needed on both sides of the divide.

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