The Will of the People
by Albert Weale, Polity Press, 121pp, £9.99
“This book was written in a hurry” are the opening lines here; they hardly inspire confidence. When the preface then refers entirely, and in negative terms, to Brexit, railing against anti-parliamentarian populism and the Daily Mail, the heart sinks even further. Do we really need more invective against “stupid, racist” Brexiteers?
The reader need not worry. The Will of the People is a calm, lucid and only sometimes irritating discourse, ultimately calling for a second referendum, on account of “the will of the people” not actually existing. On the surface, this is obviously true. Forty-eight per cent of British voters opted to stay in the EU. Weale, a professor of political theory at University College London, reminds us that not since 1935 has the UK returned to government a party with more than 50 per cent of the vote.
The “will of the people” is also hard to define, owing to time and space. If the polls are correct, the majority of Britons would vote to stay in the European Union if asked again. Thus the will of the people is forever unstable and impossible to pin down. It also depends on your perspective. Two years ago, was someone in Edinburgh living in a country where the will of the people was to leave the EU? It depends whether you regard him as living in the United Kingdom or in Scotland.
It’s true that “the will of the people” is nonsense. But Weale is being too literal-minded. The phrase is obviously used figuratively to mean “the majority of the people”.
What Weale actually objects to is the term being used to browbeat Remainers into silence to stave off a second referendum. He argues that “remoaning” is legitimate: “You must oppose a majority decision if you believe that serious damage to the common good would result from implementing that decision,” he writes.
The key word here is “belief”. A belief could be wrong. It can’t be verified or falsified because it is subjective, and because no one knows for certain the future consequences of a present-day decision. On the other hand, referendum results stand as cold, hard facts.