Ballot box

Democracy is supposed to mean government by the will of the people. But which people? And don’t the people sometimes get it wrong? Ten days before yet another British general election, it is far from clear what the people’s will is, let alone that it is competent to produce a satisfactory government.

The idea of government according to the people’s will is usually dated to around the seventeenth century. Before then, government was supposed to be by the will of God. Today, nobody admits to believing that; we have inherited the mantra that ‘religion causes wars’. But given the uncertainties we now have, can we learn something from it?

The problem is clear enough, whether we judge by government legislation or opinion polls. Is it really the will of the people

  • • that tens of thousands must drown in the Mediterranean and the Channel to stop immigrants coming into our country?
  • • that more and more British citizens should be stripped of all assets, made homeless and left to starve on our pavements?
  • • that we should willingly destroy the environment, ignoring climate change?

Even if some people really do believe all these, we might still ask how refugees, beggars and children stopped being people.

The idea of ‘the will of the people’ has lost its meaning. It has degenerated into a political slogan, used by different parties to justify policies that wouldn’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

The Brexit debate is a good illustration. We had a referendum, it produced a narrow majority in favour of leaving, and that majority is now trumpeted as the will of the people. If it really was, Brexiteers would not now be passionately opposing a second referendum.

We are all familiar with the idea of fake news. We know that social media tell us what we want to hear. As a result we get sharply conflicting impressions of the big picture. This produces a polarised society, passionately convinced that the people we disagree with are obviously wrong.

Because there is no shared belief in the big picture, there is no such thing as the will of the people. Different people see the world through different spectacles. What is obviously urgently necessary to some is bonkers to others.

When we voted on Brexit, the vast majority of us didn’t have enough information to make an informed judgement. The same is also true of this forthcoming General Election; but however little we understand, our sources of information encourage us to believe we know the answers – and to feel strongly about it.

It gets worse. If we really ought to be governed by the will of the people, then it would follow that the refugees ought to drown, the beggars ought to starve and our children ought to grow old in a planet we have trashed.

I doubt whether anybody really believes this, but this is the logical implication of believing the will of the people should be supreme. Our secular society has no other justification of government.

In practice, people often appeal to principles that transcend the will of the people: human rights, the country’s laws, international laws, the sanctity of life, equality and diversity.

This collection of principles doesn’t add up to a systematic political authority capable of transcending the will of the people. We just appeal to one or another as it suits our case at any particular time. We know that what the majority want at any one time isn’t always for the best, but we don’t have a coherent account of what the will of the people ought to aspire to.

So does the will of God work better? Government by the will of God was abandoned because of the disastrous events of one time and place: Europe’s religious wars just over 300 years ago. What kings and church leaders were doing was truly tragic and there should be no attempt to revive them.

But that was exceptional. Before then, and in other parts of the world, government according to the will of God was pretty normal. It was easily abused: to find out the will of God one asked the religious experts, who were usually appointed by the government. Christianity has succumbed to this abuse often enough.

But the general idea often produced stable societies, and had a strength that we now lack. In our God-free secular system the ‘will of the people’ locates supreme authority in each individual person. Our political system provides means for negotiating between disagreeing individuals: elections, or the Market. What it does not provide is reliable resources for individuals to reflect on what is true and what they ought to will. Instead, the vacuum is filled by a bear pit full of fake news. It has become far too easy for the most powerful to get their way by misinforming the majority. We have no process for finding out what people would want if they were well informed and encouraged to reflect on what they ought to want.

What’s the solution? How can we get out of this destructive situation?

To say that ‘the will of the people’ often gets it wrong, and is easily manipulated by power brokers, is to imply that there is a rightness that transcends what the majority want. We therefore need to reflect on what this righness is: what kind of authority it has over us, what judgements it contains.

Personally I think that if we did this, we’d find our way to something like the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but I can see why the taboo on this conclusion remains strong. In the meantime we could perhaps pay more attention to the transcendent values we can accept more easily – human rights, equality and the sanctity of life – and focus on what it would be like to create a society that took them seriously. It might be a step in the direction of better government.