A dangerous absurdity: ‘The will of the people’

A dangerous absurdity:  ‘The will of the people’
Professor Stuart Rees

To justify exiting Europe, the Brexit voters keep repeating that they are merely following 'the will of the people', a reference to the 52 % vote in that referendum. In history and in many countries, such ‘will' has ushered in fascist regimes and dangerous egocentric dictators and led to decades of tyranny and world wars. In the case of Britain's Brexit, the will of the people referendum looks in retrospect like a giant con. 

Key campaigners for Brexit, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, made a host of false claims about the dangers of continued EU membership and promises which they knew they could not keep. Farage insisted that Britain would be swamped by migrants if the British voted to remain in Europe. Johnson claimed that millions of pounds would be returned to the National Health Service if Britain no longer had to pay its dues to the EU.

Both men promoted fear, used the race card, tried to revive visions of the British Empire glory days, and spoke of a new autonomy to be sustained by trade agreements with countries such as Australia. 

The increasing evidence that the current bully boys of international politics, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, wanted to contribute to the breakup of human rights-based Europe is another reason for arguing that the historic referendum vote should be challenged. Russian interference and funding for the Brexit campaign raises more questions about the authenticity of the outcome.

If the will of the people has been based on lies, fear, foreign interference and promotion of a future based on worn out fantasies, it can and should be questioned. It is democratic to question the false premises.

It looks undemocratic to proceed with the fiction that a vote in which a large number of people were conned by powerful campaigners somehow represented a will that should not be questioned.

The current confusion and polarisation in Britain over the terms in which Britain would leave the EU reveals the dangerous forces behind the Brexit vote. The tabloid press brands as traitors the Conservative MP's who voted to remain in Europe. Fomented by derision and hate masquerading as a form of journalism, right-leaning individuals have sent death threats to such MP's. It's only a year ago that the Labor MP Jo Cox who campaigned to stay in Europe was murdered. The tabloids are using 'the will of the people' as the basis for their racist intolerance and their consequent refusal to be even slightly circumspect about opposing views.

On those grounds too, there's a case for reframing what was meant by a referendum in which arguments were built on shifting sands. They look more like dangerous quick sands which make it hard for people already experiencing difficulties to escape the consequences of a vote which contributes to European disunity, which is giving pleasure only to far right nationalist regimes.

The fraud used to influence the U.K. referendum raises questions, such as what could the will of the people look like if not influenced by devious forms of manipulation, and under what conditions might policies in democracies be nurtured by electors ?

In a rule-based democracy, reinforced by international law, it is imperative that the will of the people be expressed free of manipulation, not compromised by deceits which do not match the spirit and ideals of democracy. To achieve those principles, elections have international observers to discourage intimidation of candidates, to challenge vote rigging, to provide transparency in the counting of votes and in the endorsement of outcomes. Guidelines for international election observers can be applied not just to states struggling with democracy but also to countries, such as the UK, Australia and the USA where democracy may be taken for granted but in recent years looks fragile, sitting across fault lines created by bullies and fraudsters. In key features of the operation of democracies, the mainstream media colludes, aids or ignores the manipulators, facilitates their unethical and even illegal conduct. 

No one pretends that every feature of elections, including the conduct of referendums, can be squeaky clean, but at least the rules can be recited, the ideals expressed and the   media encouraged to write about ethics, the rule of law and even about justice. In reaching for those ideals and in teaching others why and how they are the bricks of civil societies, the participants in democracy - candidates, influential NGO's, branches of the media, including social media - can strive to represent a genuine will of the people. The alternatives to principled conduct lie in cowardly deceit and mafia like thuggery. 

An ethically principled approach to elections can also be applied to the formulation and implementation of policies, but with additional conditions: to seek justice and to do no harm. Such aspirations already exist in statutes and in legal principles. They are called universal human rights. Influenced by human rights perspectives, policy deliberations could produce different outcomes from those in states which have fostered inequalities, starved public institutions, have imprisoned asylum seekers and treated them as illegals.

In reported attitudes to policies, there is often a mismatch between the views of members of the public and the values being promoted by politicians and their bureaucratic servants. In the U.K., more than 50% of British citizens say they welcome and want to help the travelling Roma people but the government plans to deport them unless they can give satisfactory answers to questions about identity, evidence that they have no criminal convictions, and can record  their permanent address. Roma people without computers or smartphones, many of whom are illiterate, are expected to satisfy government demands by filling in forms online. 

In Australia, public surveys have shown significant majorities in favour of recognising Palestine and seeking justice for Palestinians. The government of Prime Minister   Turnbull only expresses the Israeli narrative as in Turnbull's claim that Australia's and Israel's values are the same. Successive surveys also show the public in favour of financing schools and hospitals rather than receiving tax cuts, but such will of the people is ignored and even ridiculed by the award of substantial tax cuts to large corporations.

Justice, human rights and policies of nonviolence represent commitments to a common humanity. That can be the standard and litmus test for social and foreign policies. Such a test is a far cry from the bullying, lying and illegalities which affected the UK Brexit referendum. If democracies are human rights based, then we can speak with confidence about the will of the people.

Once the evidence is assessed, reference to the will of the people can turn out be as dangerous as it is uncritical and absurd.


Stuart Rees is an activist, author and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. He is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and a member of the Ngara Institute Advisory Panel.