Calling all cliches: The will of the people

The expression ‘the will of the people’, and quite what it means in the context of the Brexit referendum, has increasingly been a source of concern.

‘Ignore the will of the people at your peril,’ shouted the front page of the Daily Express on 12 June, as the Brexit Bill staggered into the parliamentary home straight. And Chuka Umunna was one among many to express disapproval: ‘These people think they can intimidate and threaten Members of Parliament,’ he tweeted. ‘This is 2018 not the 1930s.’

He’s not the only one to evoke the fascist era. When Theresa May said this week that ‘Parliament should not overturn the will of the people’, the LBC phone-in host James O’Brien compared her comments to those of Joseph Goebbels in 1933: ‘The will of the people is the will of the government and vice versa.’

There is a problem, though. Not all the leading Remain voices are singing from the same hymn sheet. Professor A.C. Grayling, for example, denies that the referendum result expressed the will of the people at all: ‘We’re talking about 37 per cent of the electorate that was enfranchised, 26 per cent of the population. This is not the people, this is a dishonest phrase “the will of the people”.’

Baron Adonis of Camden Town, on the other hand, wants to annexe the phrase for the European cause: ‘We are a democracy and we believe in the will of the people,’ he told the House of Lords. ‘The only way I can see of deciding Brexit democratically with a real option to reject it, is a referendum.’

Maybe it’s worth remembering how the ‘will of the people’ was understood at the time of the referendum itself. Here are ten quotes from the run-up to the vote:

1. David Cameron: ‘I want changes in Europe but then, unlike Tony Blair, I will trust the people in an in-out referendum. You cannot ignore the will of the people as Tony Blair thinks we should.’ (The Journal 8 April 2015)

2. Charles Moore: ‘Who would dare disagree with Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”? Yet the government of the EU as a whole has never been submitted to the will of the people, and the leaders of the Western democracies never admit this.’ (Daily Telegraph 28 May 2016)

3. Gerald Howarth: ‘It would be constitutionally wholly improper for members of parliament elected on a basket of issues to thwart the will of the people.’ (International Business Times 6 June 2016)

4. Liam Fox: ‘It is unthinkable that when given a clear instruction either way politicians should have the arrogance to try to ignore the democratic will of the people.’ (Times 7 June 2016)

5. David Cameron: ‘The people will decide and we will accept their instructions. We’re all democrats who must obey the will of the people, come back together and get on with the job of running the country.’ (Evening Gazette 10 June 2016)

6. John Rentoul: ‘This imbalance has prompted all manner of speculation: that if the result of the referendum is close there would have to be a second one; or that the majority in Parliament would obstruct the will of the people to leave the EU. Neither is plausible. Parliament has to respect the result.’ (Independent 11 June 2016)

7. John McDonnell: ‘Labour will respect the will of the people next week, whatever the outcome.’ (i 17 June 2016)

8. ‘Technically MPs could block an EU exit, although it would be seen as political suicide to go against the will of the people as expressed in a referendum.’ (Express & Star 18 June 2016)

9. Adam Boulton: ‘Our democracy will be badly out of kilter if, as seems eminently possible, a majority of electors opt for Brexit on Thursday. The will of the people will have disregarded the considered opinions of 71 per cent of their elected representatives, including Jo Cox. That’s the problem with referendums. They can set the people against their politicians, and leave a mess behind.’ (Sunday Times 19 June 2016)

10. ‘Michael Gove, the Eurosceptic justice secretary, said if the country voted to Leave he expected Mr Cameron to stay on as prime minister to carry out the will of the people.’ (Financial Times 19 June 2016)


And here are ten quotes from the immediate aftermath:

11. David Cameron: ‘The British people have voted to leave the European Union and their will must be respected. The will of the people is an instruction that must be delivered.’ (Daily Mirror 24 June 2016)

12. ‘The Pope says the UK voting to leave EU is “will of the people” and calls for “guarantees” for “good of both Britain and continent.”’ (Telegraph website 24 June 2016)

13. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament: ‘We have the will of the British people on the table. The question is now to implement it. We must do this very quickly.’ (Daily Telegraph 24 June 2016)

14. Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever: ‘The most important thing to have long term prosperity is to accept the will of the people and respect democracy.’ (Guardian 24 June 2016)

15. Terry Scuoler, chief executive of the Engineering Employers’ Federation: ‘While it is not the result many businesses wanted, it’s the democratic will of our nation.’ (Daily Telegraph 24 June 2016)

16. Ruth Davidson: ‘Remember just a year ago my colleagues in London were elected on a manifesto to have a referendum on the European Union – we have carried out that – that we would respect the result – whatever it is – and after that we would all as democrats respect the will of the people of this country, come back together and govern to the manifesto on which we were elected.’ (Express 25 June 2016)

17. Donald Trump: ‘You have to embrace it, it’s the will of the people.’ (Sun 25 June 2016)

18. John Kerry, US Secretary of State: ‘It’s now incumbent on leaders to implement the will of the people.’ (Financial Times 28 June 2016)

19. Tony Blair: ‘I don’t think you can over-ride the settled will of the people. But supposing some weeks or months down the line as it becomes clear what we are moving to if it’s clear these terms are bad for us if people start to worry about their jobs we should keep our options open.’ (Sky TV 3 July 2016)

20. Boris Johnson: ‘It is vital that we respect the will of the people and get on with exploiting new opportunities for this country.’ (Daily Mirror 11 July 2016)



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