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6 March 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 10:13am

Stop saying “the will of the people” like the people can never be wrong

People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis.

By Jonn Elledge

Here is a brief and incomplete list of matters on which I have changed my mind. Whether Britain should join the Euro. Whether the Blair government could be described as left-wing. Whether Jeremy Corbyn could plausibly become prime minister. Whether avocado tastes nice.

On each of those matters, there was a time when I very confidently held one position, but now I very confidently hold another. I’d love to tell myself that I’d once been wrong, and was now right – that age had brought wisdom as well as the late onset-hangovers and inexplicable back pain.

But having seen the vast numbers of topics on which the generation above me are, as a class, demonstrably wrong these days, I can no longer convince myself that age brings any such thing. Perhaps I was right the first time. Perhaps there is no right.

At any rate: I changed my mind. People do it all the time, and so do entire societies. Forty years ago, support for gay rights marked you out as an extremist, just as much as opposing them does today. Not much more than a century ago, the mainstream consensus was that votes for women was bad, but that conquering other countries and plundering their resources was good. Even further back, full on human bondage was seen as a pretty fine kind of idea. Times change, and opinions, thankfully, change with them.

So: people can be wrong. Even large numbers of people, even entire countries, and just because a lot of people hold a view that doesn’t make it right. As that modern philosopher Super Hans once said, “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis: you can’t trust people.” Even now, I understand, Michael McIntyre is very popular.

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Given all that, can we please, please, please, please, please stop it with these ridiculous assertions that the will of the people is in some way inviolable? That the result of a referendum not only has to be implemented but can never even be questioned? That because the people have spoken – once – their word is somehow final?

It would be hypocritical of me, after all the stuff at the top of this thing, to act like I’m definitely right in my belief that Brexit will be a complete and inevitable clusterfuck. I think it will be, but for all our sakes I genuinely hope that I am wrong, and given I’ve been wrong on so many other things in my time, it must at least be possible that I am.

But by the same token: the other side might be wrong, too. And the fact there were slightly more of them in June 2016 does not magically make them right. Nor does the fact the people have not obviously changed their mind so far mean they might not do so in future.

You’re not really meant to put this quite so baldly, are you? Even in the more Remain-y bits of politics, you’re not meant to suggest that the electorate might have screwed up. You can say they were misguided. You can say they were lied to. You can say that, while they were experiencing very real concerns™, their chosen course of action will nonetheless make things worse.

But what no one in the public sphere seems willing to do is to say, simply, that the electorate were wrong. That they made a stupid decision, which is going to make us all poorer and less secure. That they, to coin a phrase, fucked it.

Politicians have good reasons for not saying these things: they have to face the voters. But one of the great things about being a professional loudmouth is that I don’t have to do any such thing, so here goes:

I don’t care that 52 per cent of the British electorate voted for Brexit. I don’t care that there were more of them than there are of us. They’re wrong. Leaving the European Union is a bloody stupid idea. It’ll reduce our trade, weaken our economy, hurt the depressed parts of the country most, severely damage relations with our neighbours, put the entire existence of the union at risk, reduce our ability to shape our own destiny, make it harder for us to travel in Europe, and make our mobile phone bills higher when we do. A government that implements Brexit, knowing full well that it will make us all poorer and less secure, as Theresa May clearly does, is a government that is going to get a Chamberlain-level rating in the history books.

I don’t care that it was the will of the people. That is not a meaningful statement. The will of the people can change. The will of the people can be wrong. The will of the people is fucking stupid.

I’ve been wrong about many things. I really, really hope I’m wrong about this one, too.

But I really don’t think that I am.

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