Within minutes of the Supreme Court ruling that the Prime Minister’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful, the hard-core Brexiters predictably swung into action, brandishing their favourite slogan, the ‘Will of the People’. Leave.EU launched a digital campaign of personal attacks on individual Supreme Court judges, while the columnist and clergyman Giles Fraser posted on Twitter that ‘The establishment will do everything in its power to frustrate the will of the people. These are dark days indeed.’
Dark days, perhaps, but not in the sense Fraser means. It would seem that Boris Johnson and his puppet master Dominic Cummings are gambling that a sufficient number of voters will applaud him for cutting though red tape and pettifogging legalistic objections to ‘just get on with it’ and implement the ‘Will of the People’. Despite the judgment, they may well succeed. A Hansard Society survey recently found that 54 per cent of voters agreed with the statement, ‘Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules’.
We’ve seen it all before, of course, with the Daily Mail’s notorious 2016 front page that branded High Court judges as ‘enemies of the people’ after they ruled that the government needed the consent of Parliament to invoke Article 50. Since then, we have heard a great deal about the ‘Will of the People’.
I am deeply sceptical about the very existence of such a thing as ‘The People’, a homogenous mass with one will. This is the language of totalitarianism: of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong. Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer. When James Madison and his colleagues began the preamble to the US Constitution with the words “We the People’, they didn’t include the slaves on their Virginia plantations. They didn’t qualify as people.
If Brexit is the ‘will of the people’, what does that make those who oppose it? Unpeople?
But then the phrase ‘the people’ has always been exclusive. It means ‘people like us’. If Brexit is the ‘will of the people’, what does that make those who oppose it? Enemies of the People? Unpeople? Untermensch? Modern representative democracy is not the same as crude majoritarianism. The philosopher John Stuart Mill made this clear back in 1859, in On Liberty:
- The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power.
You cannot have a healthy society when almost half the electorate – or any sizeable minority – is effectively disenfranchised. That is why it was necessary to have a power-sharing agreement to end thirty years of bloody civil conflict in Northern Ireland, where a slim majority was able to overrule a large minority for decades. Modern democracy cannot be a matter of winner-takes-all. It depends on a complex system of checks and balances such as parliamentary procedure, an independent judiciary and the rule of law– the checks and balances that Johnson and his supporters deride as arcane, legalistic pettifogging.
It will come as a surprise to some to learn that the function of a representative democracy is not to enact the ‘will of the people’. That way totalitarianism lies. Its function is to reconcile the conflicting interests of as many people as possible. MPs are not delegates, mere mouthpieces for the views of their constituents, however ill-informed, prejudiced or contradictory.
MPs are representatives. Their job is to represent the interests of all their constituents, not just the majority
They are representatives, and their job is to represent the interests of all their constituents, not just the majority, not just the ones who voted for them, and certainly not just the most vociferous. Sometimes the interests of different groups may conflict, and then MPs must exercise their judgement as to how far the interests of one group may be satisfied without too much detriment to those of another.
That, on a much larger scale, is what is meant to happen on a national level. The results will not always be popular. They will not be exactly what anybody wants, but what most people are least unhappy with. No unicorns, no sunlit uplands, no utopia. Just the patient, tedious horse-trading that keeps society functioning tolerably well and prevents us from killing one another.
If the result of a referendum defined as advisory by the legislation that established it can be considered a mandate for anything, a narrow majority of less than 52 to 48 percent can only be a mandate for a middle course.
That may not be good for the blood pressure of the ‘just get on with it’ brigade, but sounding the car horn repeatedly doesn’t get the traffic moving. Life is complicated. Get used to it.
There is no such thing as ‘The People’; only people, in all their maddening, exhilarating diversity.