Ever since the EU referendum, an increasingly poisonous debate has raged about “the will of the people” and how it should be delivered. Both Remainers and Brexiteers are scratching their heads at what is clearly a clash of two different ideals of democracy. The clash is partly linguistic. On both sides of the Brexit debate, you hear phrases like “will of the people” and “democratic representation”. But each side seems to be describing a different kind of democracy. The gap between word and meaning is causing a rift in the democratic process itself.
One of the key philosophical and scientific discoveries of the modern era was that the language we use to talk about abstract concepts shapes how we understand those concepts. The word “democracy” is no exception. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville compared it to the growth of a person when he likened the American democractic process to the growth from infancy to adulthood.
The metaphor of democracy as a powerful body extends back to ancient Greece. Demos means the people or the multitudes. And in Greek mythology, Kratos, one of Zeus’ enforcers, is the personification of power and authority. So, when the Demos have Kratia, you have an authoritative or powerful multitude.
Since June 23, it has become clear that the definition of the language of democracy that is thrown around in the British media reveals significant ideological clashes.
Day after day, pro-Brexit commentators and publications have stood behind phrases like “will of the people” when talking about democracy.
Gina Miller, the businesswoman who took a case to the high court to argue that the government couldn’t go ahead with Brexit without first consulting parliament, was labelled a “traitor to democracy” for her actions. Yet she stated that she led the action against the government precisely because of her concern that democracy was under threat.
After one anti-Brexit march, meanwhile, protesting remainers were accused of attempting to “thwart the people’s will” and “crush public opinion”.
In this view, democracy means a path towards a particular goal that the people collectively want. Will is obviously our ability to choose one thing out of many things such as the choice to vote leave instead of remain. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau applied this to politics during the French Revolution when he stated that the law was meant to “express the general will”.
But the other side of the debate sees itself as equally concerned about the need to honour democracy. The Brexit-sceptical Guardian urged despairing Remainers not to resort to “undemocratic moves” – such as urging parliament to ignore the vote – to achieve their goal of staying in the EU.
However, it has also outlined the legal ways in which “the will of the people” could be legitimately and democratically overturned such as by a vote by MP’s against triggering article 50 or holding a second referendum if evidence suggests that a large number of those who voted leave have changed their mind.
This is the other view of democracy that seems to clash with the “will of the people”. It is one that describes democratic representation rather than general will as outlined by Rousseau.
Many people – particularly Remainers – think it undemocratic for the government to plough on with Brexit without a debate about it in parliament. This is of course the line that Miller picked up on when defending herself against people who called her actions undemocratic. Miller said:
All the people who have been saying “we need to take back control”, “we need sovereignty”, well you can’t have it with one hand and then with the other say, “I’m going to bypass it now and not seek consultation from the representatives in parliament”.
Miller is making a quite literal appeal to democratic representation in parliament. But she is also referring to the ideal of the democratic process itself. Walter Bagehot, who wrote the famous 1867 work English Constitution, said that representative democracy is “government by discussion”. And in the UK, the vehicle for that discussion is parliament. So, while the word “representation” does not refer to the particular goal of the people’s collective will, it does refer to the goal of democracy itself.
This is an ideal of democracy framed by the representation of the public by elected officials. In the context of the Brexit debate, that means the people have given their view on the general direction of travel the country should take but their elected representatives should fill in the detail.
As we decide how Brexit is to be delivered, we need to decide what the word “democracy” means in modern Britain. After the referendum, is the will of the people being thwarted by parliamentary discussion or is it best represented by it?
This linguistic crisis of the meaning of democracy is far from a quibble about semantics. These two words – will and representation – frame two different ideals of one of the West’s most cherished ideas. Now the discord about which word best represents British democracy is threatening to tear the practical process of that very idea apart.