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25 February 2019updated 04 Oct 2023 10:23am

Why Brexit distorts the will of the people

There are personalists and there are populists. Brexit is a disaster for the former. 

By Philip Pettit

Government will always be with us. Government will always be coercive. And among the laws that government enforces, some will always be unwelcome to a particular person or group.

Democracy is meant to help reconcile us to these hard facts by giving power to the people. But there are two distinct ways of construing democracy that have different strategies for enabling “the people” to exercise power.

One notion of democracy is focused on people as a collective agent: the people. The other account sees people as a collection of persons: people, without the article. One is “populist” in spirit; the other has a “personalist” character.

The difference between these conceptions emerges in the distinct ways they view referendums and their distinct strategies for dealing with Brexit. In order to tease out these differences, it is worth looking first at how they gauge the success of a democracy, as well as the different political institutions they support.

The populist test for a successful democracy is whether or not the collective people are in control. Can the majority, or those the majority elect, get their way without being unnecessarily frustrated by elites or minorities, lobbies or bureaucracies, courts or tribunals, or international treaties?

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The personalist test is whether or not individuals who do not favour particular laws have some genuine cause for resentment. Will they have reason to see government policy as the product of an alien will that stacks things against them? Or will they be able to treat these policies as the outcome of a fair decision-making process in which they figure as equals? In short, will they see a government’s decision as a matter of tough-luck if it goes against their wishes?

The populist test focuses on whether the collective people are properly in charge. The personalist test prioritises the question of how individuals are entitled to think of the government choices under which they live: are these decisions responsive to everyone, or are they made through a process that marginalises some peoples’ influence?

The tests underpin different democratic mantras. The populist test invariably appeals to the need for government to implement the will of the people, whereas the personalist test appeals to the idea that government choices are justified on the basis of transparent and responsive decision-making procedures.

Although these tests mark the difference between empowering the majority and making government equally responsive to all, the two models of democracy have much in common.

They each rely on a written or unwritten constitutional framework for decision-making that can only be changed in certain ways, perhaps by referendum. They each support a constitutionally dictated model of periodically electing representative authorities. And they each permit voters to determine or influence legislation, perhaps, again, through a referendum.

Under both models there are a range of unelected authorities, appointed by the elected but with a degree of independence from them. These typically include the courts at various levels, auditing and inspectorial agencies, electoral commissions and central banks, bureaus of statistics and economic data, commissions for equal opportunities and human rights, and so on.

Under both models, finally, there are likely to be laws establishing freedom of information, freedom of speech and association, and a free press and other media. Such laws are defensible on a range of grounds and are required for elections to be open and fair.

Yet convergences between “populist” and “personalist” models of democracy obscure some deep differences. There are at least three ways in which these models come apart.

Constitutions determine how governments operate, but they also seek to protect vulnerable individuals or groups. The first difference between the two models is the weight they ascribe to these disparate functions. The populist model sees the constitution primarily in operational terms, as setting the rules by which government runs. The personalist model, in contrast, assigns equal significance to the protective role; for it aims to ensure people’s equality as individual persons in relation to the power of the state.

The second difference between the models is in the importance they grant to unelected authorities. The populist model sees such authorities as justified, if justified at all, by pragmatic considerations concerning efficiency or with assuring people that their power is not compromised by any clique. The personalist model focuses on how independent bodies are limited by accepted constraints; it treats them as part of a system of checks and balances designed to ensure that government serves all its citizens well.

The third difference between the models is in the role they assign to free speech and association. The populist model gives a democratic role to those freedoms insofar as they are required for open and fair elections. The personalist alternative argues that they are also essential for holding the government to account between elections by enabling individuals to take government to court or by allowing people to expose government to challenges in the media and on the streets.

Where the populist model takes democracy to operate via the single channel of election to office, the personalist alternative emphasises the importance of three channels. First, the electoral channel, which is needed guard against dynastic control. Second, the checks-and-balances channel which forces those elected to power to operate within a network of unelected authorities who operate under constitutional constraints. And third, the contestatory channel that enables ordinary citizens and civic bodies to hold up those in power, elected and unelected, to public scrutiny. For personalists, the significance of the second and third channels is underlined by the way they are systematically attacked in autocratic democracies.

With that said, each model of democracy can allow for referendums, both for purposes of altering the constitution and for legislating about issues on which the elected authorities are divided. But given the distinct tests by which they gauge the success of a democracy as well as the disparate political institutions they support, they are bound to view referendums very differently.

The populist model has no reservations over majoritarian referendums in either the constitutional or legislative case, since majority voting is the salient way in which the collective people can act. If democracy means giving the collective people control over government, then any reason to resort to a referendum will be a reason to let the preference of the majority prevail.

The personalist model may recognise the need to resort to referendums to resolve constitutional discontent or legislative stalemate, but it will hesitate over some worrying aspects of decision by referendum. Any such decision may reduce the protections currently available to certain vulnerable sectors. It may be prompted by short-term anxieties that make for long-term damage. It may jeopardise the lives of citisens who planned around the status quo. If it introduces a major change, it may be a source of unforeseen consequences.

These concerns mean the personalist model will look for various safeguards. The referendum might be preceded by an assembly where representative citizens debate the issue and announce their recommendation. It might have to generate super-majoritarian support (say, 60 per cent) for a radical change. It might be divided into a first referendum and, if it recommends change, a second after a period of reflection. And it might have to satisfy special constraints, such as being supported in a majority of regions and by an overall majority of people.

To clearly grasp the difference between the populist and personalist views of referendums, consider the Brexit case. Should parliament have allowed an unqualified majority referendum to determine whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union? Perhaps for those who espouse the populist model of democracy. But not for those who value democracy on a personalist basis—as I do myself.

The Brexit referendum touches on all the personalist’s concerns. The decision taken is likely to prove deleterious, even among those who rallied in support. It was stoked by what may prove to be temporary, exaggerated anxieties about immigration. The life-plans of many, particularly the young, were premised on a continuing access to the EU that Brexit foreclosed. It has already generated unforeseen consequences. And now the Brexit decision, cast as the “will of the people”, is hailed by defenders, including the Prime Minister, as if it were forever incontestable.

Even if the Brexit outcome gains acceptance in the long run, it should not have been reached by such a majoritarian process. No end could justify this means.

Philip Pettit is L.S. Rockefeller University professor of human values at Princeton University and distinguished professor of philosophy at the Australian National University. He is the author of On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy and Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is assistant professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics and the co-editor of Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Heidegger on Technology. He tweets @ajwendland.

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