The Trouble With The 'Will Of The People'

Much has been written with reference to the EU Referendum discussing the oft repeated phrase "the will of the people." The phrase has been taken to be a key definition of democracy but in my view there are several reasons why such a definition is problematic.

Much has been written with reference to the EU Referendum discussing the oft repeated phrase "the will of the people." The phrase has been taken to be a key definition of democracy but in my view there are several reasons why such a definition is problematic.

The referendum was at odds with our political system

Referendums do not work well in an Indirect Democracy. They confuse the role of the MPs we have elected to make policy for us and cause conflict between the competing concepts of Direct and Indirect democracy. The role of the will of the people in our democracy is to elect members of Parliament. In consulting the people directly on issues we are bypassing our own system of democracy.

Many of the voters were not politically aware enough to make an informed decision

It may not be popular to say that there are many people in Britain who know very little of either our own political system or the wider political and economic considerations of leaving the EU bloc but it is the truth. Members of all political parties and the media have shied away from criticising the knowledge of the electorate as they believe in doing so they will be perceived as being elitist but as even our seasoned and experienced politicians seem confused as to the ramifications of Brexit, the man in the street can hardly be expected to have more of a clue.

The facts provided by both the Leave and Remain campaigns could not be relied upon

I think we are all perhaps a little bored of the big red bus by now but it still serves to make the important point that misinformation was abundant in the weeks leading up to the referendum.

Some of this was due to media bias with most of the big newspapers having strong bias toward one of the campaign sides.

'Fake News'

There is probably no worse time in modern history to be consulting the people about their opinions. We sit in a technological gap where information flows more freely than it ever has but we have not yet taken that next step to regulate and verify the information that is being so readily consumed. As seen in a 2016 Pew Research study 62% of people now get their news via social media. Although action is now being taken to ensure veracity, back in June 2016 there was little governance relating to what could be published and termed news. The 'will of the people' only has value if it is a will established through giving the electorate the true facts prior to asking them to form an opinion.

Some voters were influenced by social bias and cultural pressure

Think tank Demos published a study of how social media channels essentially become an echo chamber where an individual's political convictions are further strengthened by the fact that all the information they receive reinforces their initial belief. Culturally people are more likely to seek out and friend those who will share their views and who are likely to share similar material that will support those views. The algorithms that drive social media are also programmed to identify what material a user finds interesting and provide more of the same of it.

It is not derogatory to question the impartiality of an electorate who are only exposed to information that reinforces rather than challenges their preconceptions.

Some individuals had an agenda of prejudice

It would be ridiculous to assume that every one of the seventeen million people voting Leave were racists or xenophobes and any Remainers who push this view do the rest of us no favours.

However it is certainly fair to say that the Leave campaign was hijacked by a minority of those who want to push a divisive agenda in the country. The concern here is that in a referendum some people may be swayed to act irrationally (in the academic sense of the word - broadly speaking to act against their own economic interests) in favour of supporting ideological principles or, in the case of Brexit, an agenda of prejudice.

The People can change their minds

Poll after poll is showing that a significant number of those who voted for both Leave and Remain have changed their minds. The result of June 2016 does not necessarily reflect the will of the people today. I would question how democratic a referendum result nearly ten months ago is after the huge influx of information and publicity generated after the referendum took place.

Anybody questioning the validity of the 'will of the people' has experienced a backlash pointing out that in a democracy all votes are equal and every individual has the right to a vote. However what is often overlooked is the fact that along with the right to vote comes the implied responsibility to understand what you are voting for. Agreed that in our political system every vote carries equal weight. But not every vote has equal worth. Ignorance is not equal to informed opinion. If people vote based on misinformation, lies or prejudice and with only poor or biased information upon which to base their opinion then chances are the outcome of that vote will not reflect the best outcome for the people voting.

'The will of the people' may sound democratic but it is not always a democracy that will work best for the people.


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