Matthew Parris

Must ‘the will of the people’ always be respected?

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

I’ve always respected Alistair Darling and cannot imagine him saying anything ill-considered. But listening to him interviewed last Monday on the Today programme I heard him offer, as though it were obvious, an assumption so much less obvious than he appeared to recognise, that it set me thinking: not about the admirable former chancellor but about a real divide among civilised people that our age is perhaps insufficiently aware of.

The presenter, Nick Robinson, had asked Mr Darling if he supported a second (or ‘people’s’) referendum on Brexit. No, said Darling: ‘You ask people what they think and clearly you’ve got to live with it.’

Seconds later, still speaking about Brexit, he said: ‘We’ve made a profound mistake.’

Something about the conjunction of those two statements electrified me. A non-binding plebiscite has recently been held on a constitutional change that, if made, is likely to prove irreversible. An individual of great standing and experience believes the change would be a profound mistake. So do we now think his opinion that ‘clearly you’ve got to live with it’ is anything less than a bold and contestable claim?

Don’t suppose this is just Parris on his hobby-horse again, beginning a train of reasoning whose conclusion is that we should ignore the results of the Brexit referendum because Parris doesn’t like them. I have in fact reached no conclusion. But as we proceed you may sense, with me, that here is a vast question about democracy upon whose answer it’s doubtful avowed democrats agree.

If you think the electorate have made a mistake, which if it is carried through is irreversible and will harm them greatly, can you — should you — as a democrat try to head them off before the damage is done?

As a staunch Remainer, I can’t get out of my head a cartoon picture of lemmings stampeding towards a cliff’s edge, with one lemming saying to another: ‘Oh quit moaning: it’s the will of the people.’ But equally I can’t deny the force of Brexiters’ complaints about a second referendum: ‘So you just want to keep putting the question until the people give the right answer.’

The idea that the result of a popular vote, however unwise, must never be frustrated cannot be categorically true in all circumstances. But the statement that if we’re sufficiently sure the result is bad for our country then we should try to overturn it cannot always be true either. So let’s try a range of what-ifs, asking in each case which side we’d come down on when it came to the question of reversibility. I’ve selected only scenarios where there’s a good measure of irreversibility about the decision, because that must pile on the agony. We can repent of electing a Labour government and elect a Conservative one later; but leaving the EU is different.

Here are five what-ifs:

(1) The borough council puts to a local referendum its proposal to fell all the mature oaks along a street, and the vote goes the council’s way.

(2) Westminster puts to a national referendum a proposal to abolish all grammar schools, and wins.

(3) Ditto, but the proposal is to relinquish Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.

(4) During a wave of public hostility to immigration, a referendum is won to expel from Britain all immigrants of less than five years’ standing.

(5) It’s the 1930s, and the proposal to re-arm (stoutly opposed, as it was, by the Daily Mail and public opinion) is put to a national plebiscite, and vetoed.

I suppose almost everyone, gritting their teeth, would say the first decision (about the trees) must stand, if that’s what people want. I suppose very few, however, would think it unforgivably undemocratic to confound (or re-consult, at least) the people in the last case: re-armament.

Where along this scale do you, reader, begin to wobble? Though opposing the popular result in all five cases, I’d give the voters their way right up to (perhaps including) the vote to relinquish Trident. I wobble badly at (4) (expelling immigrants) but on balance would confound the electorate here. On five I’d be firmly in favour of calling a second, ‘people’s’, vote on appeasement, or even just ignoring the result while pleading changed circumstances.

But can any of you say, hand on heart, that the will of the people should be treated as sacrosanct in every case? If not, we must conclude that almost nobody actually thinks that nothing should stand between the people and their clearly expressed wish in a popular plebiscite. We simply have different levels of tolerance of the damage we think a wrong result could do.

Because, of course, Brexiters do not believe that Brexit will in fact do any damage — quite the reverse — it’s perfectly natural that the people’s will easily tips the scales for them, and they conclude that it’s illegitimate even to ask the voters a second time. And because Remainers (many of us) are very convinced of the great damage that Brexit will do, we find ourselves in the ‘confound the first referendum’ camp.

But these are differences in our opinions about the likelihood and severity of damage; they are not necessarily differences about the sanctity or otherwise of referendum results. As Nigel Farage has made clear, if the referendum had gone the other way then many Leavers would have called at once for another. And I suppose if it had gone my way, I’d be huffing and puffing self-righteously about the will of the people when Mr Farage refused to accept the result.

Mr Darling, however, hating but not wishing to overturn a result, attests to a more principled divide. Almost capriciously we have started resorting to referendums to get politicians off the hook, without acknowledging the divide. How final, for you, is the will of the people? ‘You ask people what they think,’ as Darling said, but how clearly, for you, do you ‘have to live with it’? There is less agreement on this than lip service might suggest.

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