Colin Gordon, The will of the people in post-truth times. Notes on the current situation (2016)
10th July 2016
Daniel Cohn-Bendit gave an interview this week on French TV, discussing Brexit, referendums and democracy, in which he said that “we should stop saying that the people is always right”.1 Should we always, unconditionally, irrevocably defer to the expressed will of the people, right or wrong, as a definitive sovereign decision? If not, when, and on what legitimate grounds?
We are seeing the beginnings of a critique of the conception and conduct of the UK Brexit referendum, a critique which, if it is properly carried through, could influence the further course of public action. This critique relates primarily to (a) the manner in which the result was procured, through what has been justly described as an industrial-scale exercise in political lying, and (b) the fact that the best received formulation of the practical proposition which the UK people is deemed to have accepted is a de facto impossibility, namely the combination of full, unimpeded UK access to the EU single market with UK exemption from EU single market rules of free movement (except perhaps where such movement might benefit the UK and its citizens) – together with an assurance that immigration levels will be cut, and a promise that funds falsely described as being currently transferred from the UK to the EU would in future be used to supplement the funding of the National Health Service. The British public has voted, by a small majority, to award itself a round square and a free lunch. Or in the letter-day Marie Antoinette formula of the lead demagogue and charlatan of the Leave campaign, the nation has now adopted his policy on cake – let them have it and let them eat it. Professors of democracy are now offering to certify the binding legitimacy of such irrational sovereign volitions. A Leave majority composed of the poor, the uneducated and the post-industrial regions is hailed by commentators as having defied – at the instigation of the demagogues of Leave – the advice of “toffs and boffins, the chief executives, tycoons and clever-clogs”.