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7 February 2017updated 08 Sep 2021 7:42am

This ’will of the people’ talk must stop – we need a better democracy than that

The Brexit vote has revealed serious fractures in our unwritten constitution. 

By James McDougall


The Article 50 Bill is set to be voted through parliament, amended or not. Then Britain’s secession from the European Union will begin. So will the removal of citizens’ rights that withdrawal will entail. Parliament’s vote will give proper legal force to the advisory referendum result, which had the moral legitimacy of a popular vote but no legally binding authority. Conservative and Labour MPs are told that they must respect “the will of the people” enshrined in the Leave vote.

This refrain, repeated from the Daily Mail to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, is an obviously tendentious interpretation of the referendum result. That showed that the will of the British electorate (let alone Britain’s people) was divided almost down the middle. Nonetheless, Leave won, Remain lost. “When I woke up and heard we’d gone Brexit”, a focus group voter told pollster Deborah Mattinson, “I felt like England had won the World Cup.”

As in football, one team had triumphed and the losers just have to get over it. As Prime Minister Theresa May put it: “One of the reasons that Britain’s democracy has been such a success for so many years … is that the strength of our identity as one nation … means that when a vote has been held we all respect the result.”

But democracy is not like football. Democracy, in most democratic societies, is a process of informed debate. Conflicts are mediated, divergent views reconciled as far as possible. A consensus is reached that takes account of differing views in the general interest. And in most votes, the defeated party respects the result because they expect to stand again. UKIP leader Nigel Farage made it clear, when he thought Leave would lose, that he had no intention of accepting the result and getting over it. That attitude was perfectly democratic.

The two main parties’ agreement to fix the national will in a vote, which almost all politicians saw as “the wrong result”, is welcomed by Leave voters as a victory for “direct” democracy. But beyond patriotic euphoria or the desire for a very British getting-on-with-things, this really reveals something deeper. It reveals the extent to which Britain’s complacent self-image as a mature democracy has always been something of a fiction. The politics of Brexit lay bare how shallow democratic political culture in Britain really is.

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The illusion of sovereignty

British political history is not one of deep-rooted democracy. The British people have never been sovereign. Sovereignty, from belonging to the monarch, was gradually institutionalised in the Crown-in-Parliament, meaning that the Queen’s (or King’s) lawmaking authority was delegated to elected representatives of the people. Voting rights to select those representatives were slowly extended, over almost 100 years, to minor property owners, then workers, then women. A degree of social mobility through mass education and university expansion after World War II meant that some less well-off people were able to join the governing elite.

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But that never made Britain’s people sovereign – a basic historical reality that newspaper editors and party leaders have been strangely embarrassed to admit since last June. Instead, it allowed Britain’s basically archaic social system to preserve itself through the revolutionary upheaval of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The extension of rights didn’t change the fact that great power still rested with aristocrats and “the better sort” of the newly rich middle class. They kept privileged access to influence and could expect deference from everyone else. They could adopt democracy while preserving order.

This also produced weaknesses. Britain has never had a generalised, mass political culture of informed, engaged citizenship. It has had a Westminster-centred political class, and a deep social and cultural divide between rulers and ruled. The strength of “the establishment” has meant that British politicians have more usually acted like stewards of an old family firm than like representatives of ordinary people. Those ordinary people have been expected to do what they’re told – and have sometimes been bullied into doing it.

The referendum campaigns put this shallowness of democratic culture on full display. The former prime minister, David Cameron, thought, recklessly, that he could use a referendum to solve a problem of party discipline. The Remain campaign was dismissed as bosses’ scare-mongering and undermined by the resentment directed against “experts”. Leave had no real program to offer but won on the emotive appeal of slogans about taking control, mobilising calls to the dignity of English patriotism alongside race-to-the-bottom xenophobia.

So the delight of the Leave voter who felt like the underdog who’d won the World Cup, is understandable. As is the discomfiture of politicians suddenly required to enact a policy which only the most delusional among them support, and which almost all responsible assessments judge to be against the national interest.

But rather than respecting a democratic decision, identifying the Leave victory with “the will of the people” has become a means of silencing democratic debate. Understanding of democracy in Britain, it seems, amounts to little more than the exasperated refrain of Leave voters’ Facebook posts: “You lost, get over it.” Like the Trump voters who tell the millions now resisting the new president’s assault on rights and liberties to “accept democracy” because “he won”, such attitudes favour not democracy but a dangerous, manipulative authoritarianism.

Brexit probably won’t be as calamitous as Trump’s “Brexit plus plus” presidency. But it has revealed the historic weaknesses and vulnerabilities, not the strength, of British democracy. After Brexit, Britain will need something better than this.

James McDougall is associate professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.