“The people have spoken”

There’s much talk in Britain about sovereignty, about the “will of the people”, and “taking back control”.

Can the will of the people, as expressed in a referendum, be overturned by Parliament? Do we have any clear understanding of what sovereignty entails, and who the people might be, and who will gain control when we take it back?

For many of us, who we mean by “the people” is self-evident. The ordinary person in the street … the silent majority … anyone who isn’t part of the “establishment”, however that might be defined … the “somewheres” as opposed to “anywheres” in David Goodhart’s definition (see Goodhart’s “The Road to Somewhere”) … the readers of certain newspapers … the electorate.

There are many definitions, many ways in which ‘the people’ identify themselves. Putting the issue in an historical perspective may help.

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We think of Periclean Athens as the first experiment in democracy. It was short-lived and the definition of the people as stakeholders in society was in any event radically limited by notions of status, property ownership and patriarchy. The Roman republic was in theory government by the people, but effectively by a patrician class, only occasionally challenged by “champions of the people” such as the Gracchi brothers and Gaius Marius.

Insofar as power was vested in the people it was at the behest of, on the whim, of a ruling class. 1500 years later Hobbes, Locke and later Rousseau focused on consent – individuals giving consent to government. In the case if Hobbes, to a ruler who held power out of necessity, a necessary constraint given our brutish natures. In the case of John Locke, to constitutional government. Rousseau took the idea of consent a step further: sovereignty lies in a community of citizens co-existing on a free and equal basis within a republic, governed by laws which are founded on the general will of the citizens.

We’ve moved beyond the idea of a royal prerogative, or a divine right to rule, or a simple brute assertion of power. Hobbes focused on a power as necessary constraint, Locke and Rousseau on citizens giving their consent.  The practical expression of consent is engagement in the act of government. The Christian focus the uniqueness of the individual before God with all rights and obligations that implied found expression in a secular context.

Over the last three centuries those who count as individuals in a political sense, as enfranchised citizens, has greatly expanded. But our status as citizens, freely giving our consent, freely engaging in political life, has brought to the fore basic concepts of representative government which we are still wrestling with now – now as much as ever.

We may imagine that active citizenship will ultimately allow us, in the language of the utilitarians, to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But who dictates what happiness is? The individual, or the state? Is there any way in which the general will of the citizens can be expressed in a way to which all citizens and all interests can consent?

Happiness at the individual and community level are not the same thing, as John Stuart Mill made clear. One of Mill’s early essays, Bentham (1838), reflected his utilitarian background, arguing for ‘rationality, system, moral calculation’, and the other, Coleridge (1840), argued for ‘imagination, intuition, moral feeling’. That dichotomy survives today: how willing are we to subordinate our own imagination and liberties to the wider requirements of the state? (See Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea.)

We’re faced with a fundamental question: when we use the term, ‘the people’, who do we mean? In theory the people are individual citizens acting in aggregate. But what form should that take? The people are not the state, nor can the definition be narrowed down to a section of society, be it the working class, the middle class or the old propertied class. No single part of society has any majoritarian rights over another.

In the broadest terms, socialism has identified ‘the people’ with the working class: capitalism alienates and the working man, redefined as the people, will in a recognisably near future come into his own. But there’s a catch: some individual or group must arrogate the right to themselves to determine a socialist agenda, and there can be no guarantee that they or their successors will ever relinquish power.

The conservative mentality on the other hand looks to tradition and custom tied to the land and in more recent times to the paramountcy of the free market. Social experiments and transfers of political power to a wider population carry inherent risk.

Labour MP Lisa Nandy writes in the Journal of the RSA (Royal Society of Arts):

“Our charge is not simply to redistribute wealth but to restore power to those who rightfully own it and, in doing so, offer hope and security in a society that cares more, looks far into the future, is less closed and rigid and, as a consequence, is less closed and rigid.”

Nus Ghani, a Conservative MP, writes in the same issue:

“We need to demonstrate how we understand the country’s problems, what we think about the role of government in people’s lives and how we will use politics to solve everyday problems, using Parliament to ignite debate…”

For Nandy, the prime issue is to restore power to the people; for Ghani, it is how they, as Conservatives, can act as agents of change.

There is a third powerful tradition in British politics, broadly defined as liberal, which takes the individual citizen as its prime focus. It recognises the variety of individuals and aspirations that make up any society, and seeks to give them full expression, while taking into account all the conflicts of interest of daily life. It aims to maintain the distinction between individual citizens and the people as an aggregate, easily open to manipulation.

Francois Guizot, a historian and politician influenced by events in France in the post-Napoleonic period, warned of the dangers of manipulation. (Quotes here are from the excellent summary of Guizot’s ideas in Fawcett, cited above.) While our ideas may be coherent, people are not: we have to work with people as they are. We should treat with great caution any idea of the people as sovereign. ‘The only sovereigns in politics [are] law, justice and reason.’ The people shouldn’t have the final say: ‘public argument about decisions should never stop.’

At the same time, as a conservative liberal he argued for restricting the franchise to the propertied class, for which more radical liberals never forgave him. Likewise, John Stuart Mill, an early advocate of giving women the vote, argued for universal participation in government, but not yet – not until further social change had taken place.

Today we have an unrestricted franchise. Every individual, in theory, has an equal input and benefits from equal outputs. In practice we have an established and broadly liberal elite locking horns with a new and upstart moneyed elite which exerts wide influence through the popular media.

We may have the outward forms of elections and ballots but democracy is about more. Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and philosopher, insists in The Idea of Justice that democracy is “government by discussion”, a term which includes “political participation, dialogue and public interaction”. For Sen the terms “public reasoning” and “democracy” are interchangeable.

The term “the people” can all too easily be localised to an interest group, which may be an elite, a majority or a vociferous minority. It may ride on the back of short-term popularity and seek to make a temporary dominance permanent. In Britain’s 2016 Referendum on leaving the EU the “will of the people” was applied to a 51.9% majority, and that majority was treated as sacrosanct. Even Parliament hitherto seen as the sovereign power could not override it.

Guizot argued that the only sovereigns should be law, justice and reason. Parliament as law-maker has recently been challenged, so too justice: we’ve seen the UK Supreme Court attacked for upholding the rights of parliament by newspapers arguing for the supremacy of a referendum vote over both parliament and the legal system.

Law, justice – and reason. None of us has a monopoly of reason. Both sides of the referendum debate need to be reminded of that. But reason does require debate, continuous debate (“government by discussion” or “public reasoning” to use Sen’s terminology). While arguments can be overturned, the right to debate cannot. And debate is time-consuming, detailed analysis is a slow process, and short cuts are dangerous.

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