‘The Will of the People’ is a phrase with a slightly sinister ring to it. We expect to hear it from the likes of Vladimir Putin and Tayyipp Erdoğan but not from a British prime minister. It seems to be the soundbite of the moment. Government ministers are, with gay abandon, trotting out an expression we usually associate with demagogues and dictators.
Not only is this the language of autocrats, it is, in the context of the EU referendum, utter nonsense. Let’s look at what we know about the vote. On 23 June 2016, 52 percent of those who voted, 37.4 percent of the electorate, said that they wanted to leave the EU. That’s it. We know nothing more. We don’t know what they wanted instead or when they wanted it to happen. We also don’t know what those people who didn’t vote wanted, although as Adrian Low says, most were probably in favour of remaining in the EU.
But that was then. We have even less of a clue now because things have moved on. Some people will have changed their minds and a lot more may do so over the coming months and years. People have a tendency to do that. In 2003, a majority supported the invasion of Iraq. If the government had called a referendum on it we would probably have voted for war. Nowadays, most people think the invasion was a bad idea and you can’t move for people who say they marched against it. As YouGov found, most people now claim to have been against the war.
Though it has been controversial for over a decade, the invasion was actually popular at the time. In 2003, YouGov conducted 21 polls from March to December asking British people whether they thought the decision by the US and the UK to go to war was right or wrong, and on average 54% said it was right.
But more than 10 years of opposition is a long time, and many people now remember things differently. Now only 37% of the public say they believed military action against Saddam Hussein was right at the time, instead of the 54% recorded at the time.
The Will of the People has a habit of changing and of re-writing its own history.
But it’s not just the minds that change, the make up of the electorate changes too. Already, since 23 June, some of the people who voted have died and others have turned eighteen. By 31 March next year, the deadline the government has set to trigger Article 50, the electorate will contain around half a million new voters and a slightly smaller number of adults will have died. By 2019, those numbers will be roughly 2 million apiece. Given what we know about the age profile of the referendum vote, most of those dying will be Leave voters and most of the new voters will favour Remain. As the majority for Leave was only 1.2 million, it is highly probable, therefore, that by the time we leave the EU most people will be against doing so. The People are a different people now and they will be a very different people by the end of the decade. And their Will is likely to be different too. This perhaps explains the shrill and hysterical demands for the immediate triggering of Article 50. People tend to get very aggressive when they know that the demographic tide is running against them.
Of course, we elect governments based on snapshot of public opinion but general elections differ from referendums in two important respects. Firstly, those who have lost are still represented in Parliament. British governments, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, are mindful of the fact that a majority doesn’t confer the right to do absolutely as they please. The Opposition, the House of Lords, by-elections and the occasional backbench rebellion usually curb a government’s excess. Secondly, most of what a government does can usually be undone in the next parliament so, if the Will of the People changes, then so can the measures enacted in their name. There a few decisions, like going to war, which can’t be undone, which is why such things are usually put to a parliamentary vote.
Leaving the EU is an irreversible decision. It is almost impossible to envisage a scenario where the UK might re-join once it has left. Yet we are about to make this decision based on an interpretation of a snapshot of public opinion. A word that has been sadly missing from the debate about Brexit is stewardship. Politicians and public servants have a duty to balance the needs of current voters with those of future generations. Many of those who voted Leave will not live to see the long-term impact of their vote but it will affect younger people for decades to come. Like going to war, the consequences of leaving the EU will be far-reaching.
As Thomas Sampson warns, triggering Article 50 without clarity on the UK’s position and what happens if we fail to reach a deal would be extremely foolhardy. If ever something is worthy of proper scrutiny and the insurance against recklessness that Parliament provides, this is surely it. Shouting down the appeal for a parliamentary vote on Article 50 by invoking a fictitious Will of the People is the sort of thing you would expect from governments that hold ostentatious parades and lock up journalists. Suggesting that opponents have no right to be in Parliament is particularly shabby.
The government has no idea what the Will of the People is, let alone how it might change during the next few years. Short of having a referendum at each stage of the negotiating process, the only way to ensure that the interests of all the people are fairly represented in the Brexit process is through our tried-and-tested parliamentary system. It might not be perfect but it’s the best we have. So please, let’s leave Will of the People to the puffed up autocrats elsewhere and get back to sane and responsible representative government. We need it now more than ever.