THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE
THIS IDEA MUST DIE:
“Democracy means following the will of the people”
Professor Albert Weale says that government should not be a slave to public opinion – even if that opinion was expressed in a referendum.
Interview Anastasia Hancock Illustrations James Lambert
The phrase ‘democracy’ covers a complex set of processes that come with a lot of theoretical baggage
The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best. Governments aren’t necessarily in a position to make a judgment better than the people themselves. And so, we have been persuaded that the decisions made by governing bodies should be informed by the ‘will of the people’.
This concept, the will of the people, is not real. The notion of it existing at all is highly dangerous. But with the UK population in turmoil amid the handling – or mishandling – of the Brexit referendum, it has been thrown into sharp focus.
If we accept that the will of the people is a vital cog in the great wheel of political democracy, then we have collectively seized on a complete myth. It became clear to me just how relevant this is currently following a High Court ruling in November 2016. The UK referendum had prompted the government to start the process of leaving the EU, but a case had been brought arguing that it first needed parliamentary approval. When the judges ruled in support, the public backlash was vitriolic, with the media widely bewailing the betrayal of the will of the people.
This is just plain wrong. First, considering the result of the Brexit referendum as reflective of the will of the people is a bad mistake. People need to realise that the idea of majority rule is much more complicated than it first seems. It’s dangerous to get carried away with the thought that there is one definition of majority. When there is a new decision to be made by the electorate, there follows a wide range of public opinion, and no outcome or party agenda will be supported by more than a minority. A large portion of the voting public will always end up dissatisfied.
Second, the court wasn’t deciding policy but whether the constitutional arrangement was being followed. Some Brexiteers like to say that the courts put themselves above the people. But that’s simply not true. The courts are acting as the guard-rails of democracy.
We’ve got to be clearheaded about what we understand by democracy. The trouble with the phrase is that it is far too simple to cover a very complex set of processes; it actually carries a lot of theoretical baggage. Society is made up of different viewpoints. Rather than thinking about a singular will, we ought to think of it as plural voices that operate in agreement and disagreement. The manufactured idea of the will of the people is actually used to suppress opposition. Governments are rooting their authority ostensibly in what people want, but it is being used to press forward against opposition and ignoring vast swaths of the population.
I disagree with theorists who attack the will of the people based on the assumption that they are ignorant or uninformed. The problem doesn’t lie in popular ignorance but in the fact that it’s virtually impossible to get a singular ordering of will. As soon as there is a choice between more than two simple alternatives there is often no clear answer to the question of what a majority favours.
People love to hark back to that ‘golden time’ in ancient Greece that was the birth of democracy in its purest form. This really is far from accurate. The maximum proportion of the population that could vote in ancient Greece, excluding slaves and so on, was about one in seven. That produces around 30,000 voters. The decision-making assembly was only large enough to hold around 6,000 people. The idea that all citizens were politically engaged in ancient Athens is a nostalgic story.
We still have town councils, of course, and they exist on a local scale today around the world. But they are not discussing the huge issues – whether we go to war, for example. And, in any case, politics is time-consuming. Only a few of us are politically active.
Crucially, the decisions we make and vote on can be reversed. Take the so-called ‘poll tax’ passed by Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. It was legitimate; there was due process and it was passed by a parliamentary majority. But when it became clear there was a serious opposition to it, they reversed it within a year. This idea that when the people have spoken there cannot be a volte-face is nonsense. An alternative could be a two-stage vote; a first vote on the principles, and a second if people accept the legislation. Which is arguably what should have happened with the Brexit vote.
In a well-functioning democracy, you have to accept that the government is somehow responsive. But this doesn’t mean it has to be a slave to public opinion. Somewhere in the middle, there has to be a conversation. We’ve forgotten to put a premium on fair-minded, open systems of debate.
Albert Weale’s latest book, The Will of the People: A Modern Myth, was published in September by Wiley.