The will of the people

Citizens of the United Kingdom have over the past year or two become accustomed to a particular assertion – that there is one thing beyond argument, because it is ‘the will of the people’; and that of course is Brexit. Let us not re-open all the EU debate for the moment, because that is not the intention of this blog post. Rather, I am interested in how our view of democracy is evolving.

Until 2016 the ‘will of the people’ would rarely have been a topic of discussion in Britain. Of course elections produce governments and all that, but I cannot recall any government ever brandishing its parliamentary majority and proclaiming that its manifesto promises were now ‘the will of the people’. Indeed doing so would be very questionable, since British governments are typically elected with the votes of a less-than-overwhelming proportion of the population. Elections are a process in which the people participate and by which parties or groups of politicians form governments, where they have managed to negotiate the system satisfactorily. It works, and has on the whole provided the UK with reasonable stability and security. But it would be hard to say that elections revealed the will of the people; governments so formed were just less incompatible with the will of the people than any other option.

A referendum is a different class of decision-making. In the UK in 2016 the people voted, and a majority decided on a particular course of action, with profound consequences of course. The people became the government on this issue, having been briefed, with outrageous contradictions in the briefings, by politicians and activists on both sides. And now even elected politicians must, if they are to avoid the unwelcome attentions of some tabloid newspapers, fall into line, no matter who elected them and what views their own voters might have on the issue.

So if the electorate can take this political decision, why not others; indeed why not every major decision? It is not a completely outlandish thought: Switzerland does something that comes pretty close. Many major decisions there are taken by the people in referendums: in 2016 there were nine such referendums, and in 2017 there were three. Of those twelve propositions put to the vote, five were adopted by the electorate, and the rest were rejected. So for example the people decided to smooth the way for third-generation immigrants, and to reconstruct a tunnel; and they rejected a revised corporate tax code.

Should the electorate be taking such direct decisions? On the whole, in our system of government we don’t think so. Then again, the UK does allow its citizens to make proposals for parliament, which parliament must debate if such proposals attract enough signatures. These petitions can be seen here. As you might expect, here you find numbers of people riding their favourite hobby-horses. Of course there’s a whole lot of stuff about Brexit (some of it quite zany). There are a few petitions about hunting. There are several which are, frankly, impenetrable. More to the point, none of these (the recent petitions about the state visit of Donald Trump being an exception to the rule) will ever make any difference, because they won’t attract the required number of signatures. Even those that are brought to parliament’s attention will not in the end lead to anything much.

I think European countries (except Switzerland) were right, in the first place, to establish representative democracies. We elect politicians, and we allow them to exercise judgement. Sometimes their judgement, by a significant majority, will not follow what we must assume is a majority popular view (capital punishment being a good example). But that is also good because while the majority must rule in a democracy, it must not always get its way; because if it did, it would be able to oppress minorities and endanger human rights, sometimes unwittingly. Let us not go that way. The will of the people should not always determine our frame of reference. Not least because popular opinion is fickle: opinion polls tell us that there is, apparently, a degree of buyer’s remorse regarding Brexit.

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6 Comments on “The will of the people”

  1. Vince Says:

    You have a few things going on here, some I’m not so certain about for when you extend the thought it involves an oligarchy.
    Mind you, on these islands, given less than 5% are involved actively in the political parties there’s not a whole hell of a lot of difference.

  2. Brooke01 Says:

    There were seven referendums in Switzerland in 2017 (they are held in batches three/four times per year) and 13 in 2016.

    You don’t address at all why direct democracy does actually seem to work pretty well in Switzerland…! Your claim about representative democracy being the right way to go isn’t substantiated.


    • Switzerland really is not a model for anywhere else. For all practical purposes, the Swiss cannot have a government with a policy agenda, as all (or many) decisions are subject to popular votes, which will often espouse contradictory notions. The Swiss have, for centuries, occupied a country that doesn’t have a policy agenda. It works for them, in a sort of way, but manifestly wouldn’t for the UK or almost any other country.

      Representative democracy has been the overwhelming choice of almost all democratic countries, so unless you are saying they (including the UK) have all failed, there is your substantiation.

      • Brooke01 Says:

        The obvious fact is that it really works extremely well for them: on all measures economic, social, educational, quality of life etc, Switzerland performs excellently. I think the question to be addressed is why direct democracy does work well in Switzerland, and why perhaps it could work better than is widely assumed in other places. Of course it leads to absurdities sometimes, but mostly it seems, over time, to lead to good and sensible outcomes.

        With regard to Brexit I would say that a culture of direct democracy (people have to inform themselves about the issues they vote on; a system exists to provide accurate information about the issues and pros and cons to all voters) would in all likelihood have made it difficult to propagate certain falsehoods and indeed quite likely have led to a Remain vote.

        Of course, Switzerland is/was not an empire (and therefore a unified policy agenda was/is not necessary, though of course neutrality very much serves as such in Swiss foreign policy…), and indeed the model of direct democracy probably makes empires much more difficult. I wonder, though, if not being an empire is a bad thing?! Also, in the domestic sphere, the unified policy agenda emerges through the compromises made between the main parties which must always share the seven seats of cabinet (a form of permanent power-sharing if you will). It’s their compromises which are then put to the will of the people, and as these compromises have been shaped by representative democracy, which approximates the will of the people already, they are mostly passed in the subsequent referenda. Pure representative democracies can lead to a tendency to row back on previously passed policies once the “other crowd” is back in power again.

        Ok, so representative democracies work quite well elsewhere; that doesn’t mean direct democracy *cannot* be a useful alternative democratic model to be considered on its own merits.


        • Switzerland, quite deliberately, does not function as an active country in the international community. It does not have a foreign policy. I once sat next to the Swiss foreign minister at a dinner, and he told me he could not ever make any policy statement unless it had been approved by all cantons (which never happens).

          For the Swiss, it works – but it is a completely unique kind of country. Referendums almost everywhere else have cause confusion and dissent. Well actually, they have in Switzerland as well, but they have found a way of living with that…

          • Brooke01 Says:

            Perhaps it’s interesting to consider why the Swiss system came to be: it was an alliance of separate statelets for their mutual benefit. Arguably, that is still what it is. Is that not what the EU is, at heart? And is that not why, also, the EU cannot articulate a forceful foreign policy?

            Direct democracy in Switzerland has led to the relationship with the EU that might be most beneficial for somewhere like the UK too.

            Also, if you think representative democracy is working well these days… Germany unable to form a government for now close to four months, the US well what can we say, Britain is a mess and seems likely to struggle to elect the large majority governments its system works best under in the medium-term… the crisis of popular confidence in the EU has not gone away, and perhaps some form of direct democracy could reinvigorate it.

            At least, I think these questions bear discussion.


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