Will Bott on asking the wrong questions about Brexit.
First published in April 2019.
A major rhetoric trope of Brexit after the referendum has been the idea of the ‘will of the people’. Some of the problems with this idea have already been discussed quite extensively. The main criticisms fall into two categories.
The first line of criticism problematises the idea that a meaningful majority was in fact produced in favour of Brexit. Key points here include divisions amongst Leave voters about what Brexit should actually entail, disenfranchisement of key stakeholders (EU citizens in the UK, UK citizens abroad, the under 18s, etc), and the problems with the campaign itself.
The second line of criticism focusses on the kind of values implied by the phrase ‘will of the people’. The term is ultra majoritarian and appeals to a misleading abstraction, where a majority view is substituted for the view of people in general. The fact that the term is politically relevant on some level will always imply it is false: there is no need to invoke the idea of a popular will to justify a course of action when there is genuine unanimity of opinion, the idea is only relevant when opinion is not in fact unanimous.
This, it should be noted, is not the same as objecting to all majoritarian decision making processes. Politicians will generally at least pay lip service to the idea of thinking about the needs of those who did not vote for them. Having a majoritarian decision-making process does not require the pretence of unanimity after it has taken place.
There is, however, a third problem with the idea, which I don’t think has received enough attention. This is that in the specific context of Brexit it has played a dangerous role in leading politicians and commentators to ask the wrong questions about what should happen next.
As discussed previously here there were specific legal and political conditions of the referendum which contributed to subsequent radicalisation afterwards. The referendum was not legally binding, with an ill defined positive proposition supported neither by the government nor the majority of MPs. This set up a situation where there was a crisis of political legitimacy.
Two sources of political legitimacy came into conflict: legal and parliamentary legitimacy on the one hand, and the idea of popular will on the other. It made strategic sense for Brexiters to try and delegitimise parliamentary and legal impediments to Brexit, provided they were ruthless enough to do so, and appeals to the ‘will of the people’ certainly played a role here. But appeals to the idea of the ‘will of the people’ was about more than delegitimising opposition. It also impacted the way in which questions about what should happen next were framed. If the ‘will of the people’ was the source of legitimacy for Brexit, policy would have to be justified by reference to a retroactive interpretation of this will.
This is more dangerous than it seems. This is firstly problematic because it involves not discussing one’s own beliefs or desires, but an approximation of what other people believe. People are notoriously bad at this.
It is secondly problematic because it does not provide any mechanism for re-evaluting a position or processing new information. Nobody can reveal any new ideas or beliefs of their own, they can only reveal new interpretations of what they think other people think.
But most importantly, it means replacing the human benefits or harms of a policy as a means of evaluating it with the question of whether it is true to the spirit of an idea. It means traditional criteria of the desirability of effects and consequences are replaced with whether or not something fits an abstraction, the desirability of which is taken as self evident. It meant, for example, that when discussing whether or not the UK should leave the Customs Union, the question is often not ‘What will the consequences of this be?’ but ‘Is this Brexit?’.
As Karl Popper argued, this way of thinking which diminishes the human consequences of policy in favour of their accordance to reified abstractions is a real danger to open, democratic societies.🔷
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