Is ‘The Will of the People’ What We Think It Is?

Last night I retired to bed with the High Court ruling on exiting the E.U. — just 32 pages of clearly-written summary, which you can read for yourself here — confident that we all agreed on the sovereignty of Parliament and the way in which representative democracy works in this country. I awoke to discover something very different. It seems that a very large section of the British public does not agree on the sovereignty of Parliament but wobbles between believing that the Royal Prerogative or a Referendum takes precedence. In support of this view, some questionable statistics have been repeated — for example, that more than half the British people voted to leave the E.U. That is not true. More than half the people who voted in the 23 June Referendum voted to leave the E.U., but that was less than half the eligible voting population. Most of us accept that a majority is a majority, and whatever reservations we may have about the then Government’s failure to make clear the status of the 23 June Referendum (consultative? deterministic?), have been waiting patiently to see how the process of exiting the E.U. would unfold. Now, however, we have an additional problem: a visceral attack on the independence of the judiciary and a clamorous invocation of ‘the will of the people’.

Constitutional lawyers and historians will have a field day, but I wonder whether there is something here that ‘religious people’ should also be thinking and praying about, because to some of us, that invocation of ‘the will of the people’ has some sombre overtones. One does not need to know much history to recognize that it has been used in defence of fascism, totalitarianism and some very unsavoury, undemocratic processes. It has also been used, increasingly I think, to urge change upon the Church in areas where the Church cannot change: in her doctrine and the moral teaching derived from that doctrine.

What exactly do we mean by ‘the will of the people’? I am reminded of the old medieval principle that the power of the people resides in the prince, and what the prince wills has the force of law — very convenient if one happens to be a dictator. But what if one isn’t? What if one believes that parliamentary democracy is probably the best form of government available to us in the secular sphere; and how do we link that up with our understanding of ecclesiastical government? How do we see the role of the judiciary? Yesterday I mentioned Parliament’s first Act of Supremacy in 1534, which left a lot of people seriously confused about what was or was not permissible. Some of us are still confused today when we have to consider the interaction of faith and law, e,g. in questions of commercial cake-baking services or the provision of guest-house accommodation. How does ‘the will of the people’ fit in here?

As you will have gathered, I have questions but no answers; and I fear I have not even stated the questions very adequately. No doubt we face a further judicial review of the question the High Court gave judgement on yesterday; and no doubt our M.P.s will reflect very carefully whether they wish to put their seats at risk by challenging or seeking to undermine the results of the 23 June Referendum; but that question about the will of the people, how it is expressed and the power it has, will not go away; nor will it bypass the Church or any other institution. Much prayer is called for, I think; don’t you?

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15 thoughts on “Is ‘The Will of the People’ What We Think It Is?”

  1. Without disagreeing with any of this characteristically acute and thought (and prayer)- provoking post, in the interests of clarity I would suggest a further factor which in my judgment has contributed greatly to the furore greeting the High Court’s decision, namely that the EU has form for seeing to it that previous popular votes which did not fit its agenda were sidelined and frustrated (I’ve forborne to list the evidence, but I could, and the list would not be short). Against such a background, those who voted Leave in the UK referendum have respectable grounds for being wary of this being or becoming an attempt to affect matters in the same way. Prayer IS needed – on all sides.

    • I would also point out that the High Court decision was not that of an an EU court but of an English court adjudicating an English point of law regarding the limits of executive authority — exactly what it is meant to do. The muddle over the referendum and its legal scope and authority should have been settled beforehand — but it wasn’t. Hence the mess now.

      • Well, I expect the Government now to argue before the Lords that it was, but my main point is that the EU didn’t trouble to disguise its own involvement in at least some of the other cases I have in mind, whether or not it was an EU institution which decided them. I entirely accept that such important matters must be dealt with properly and openly. My point – and a request I’ve made in prayer – is that neither party to this debate will imagine that, or act as if, such considerations apply only to those with whom they disagree.

  2. Thank you so much for just reminding of the constitutional position of which so many are either ignorant or wish to ignore as it does not suit their rabble rousing comments.
    Prayer of course is a no-brainer!

  3. I am finding it difficult that a group of Politicians who are failed in one way or another, are the ones bringing the case. All of whom were on the Remain side during the referendum campaign.

    What they are doing is providing grist to the mill of the right wing media, and causing even more hysteria than we already had.

    We don’t have a written constitution, but we have a series of Precedents, where the Royal Prerogative has been used to negotiate and to sign international treaties, and which were subsequently placed before Parliament to validate – that was where the authority of Parliament was exercised.

    Those seeking to change that precedent are resorting to law, having lost the argument.
    Instead of working to reunite the divided areas of the country and to rebuild the many broken relationships.

    I find it difficult to understand why all of the attention is on spending tax payers money to defend the action, while we are ignoring the plight of the poor and vulnerable and alienated in our own country, the refugees in their thousands suffering in Europe, The Middle East and parts of Africa. To my mind, they are a greater priority than a bit of a huff over losing a vote and using legal steps to over turn a vote, which I accept wasn’t from the majority of the population, but was of those who chose to vote on the day.

    Perhaps the politicians who drafted and passed such clumsy legislation might think of making an apology to the people of the UK and Europe who have been damaged and diminished as a result.

    • You will have noticed, I hope, that I’ve been writing about the wider implications of the constiututional questions opened up by the High Court judgement and, even more, the reaction to it. It isn’t an either/or question. One of the worries I have is that many people now seem to be unable to think or argue save in terms of the E.U. and Britian’s membership/leaving and are using constitutional language in ways that I think are not accurate or even misleading. ‘Democracy’ has certainly been used in ways that make me wonder what some people mean by it!

      • Indeed I had.

        And it seems that at the moment, democracy is for the rich and those able to take out legal action (the prime mover in this runs a city business reputedly worth 60 Billion).

        We are told that the Leave vote was a protest vote against the establishment, who appear not to be listening – just going on blindly, without appropriate reflection (or prayer) on just what damage has been done.

        In the meantime the poorest and still being persecuted with ongoing cuts to benefits, which are quietly happening in the background. Social care is a basket case and the NHS, while doing it’s best, is being expected to bear a further 20 billion of efficiency savings (cuts). Our Prisons are places of violence, fear and drugs – understaffed deliberately through government policy, and we seem to hear of a murder or suicide in them weekly.

        If I could migrate, I would. But I fear that I would be unwelcome in some of the European countries that I once lived in happily – we’re leaving them without even one iota of knowing what that means for us and for them.

        • I think, as old friends, we must agree to disagree agreeably, Ernie. Would it help explain why if I were to put some questions to you (not necessarily for answer here!)? Are the Law Lords obliged to answer the questions put them by litigants or not? Isn’t that how our legal system works? Is there no one favouring Brexit who is unable to pose a similar and opposite question, or are they all too poor to do so, as you seem to imply? I would have thought the owner of Dyson could have done something, had he wished; and it seems virtually certain that the Government will appeal the decision. How do you get from a legal pronouncement of the High Court about executive authority to the statement ‘democracy is for the rich’, and what do you mean by it? Who says the leave vote was a protest against the establishment, and again, what is meant by that? I get nervous when people talk about the establishment: it seems always to mean other people, but I’m never clear who is included/excluded. It doesn’t seem to be just a question of wealth. Finally, how do you relate your points about benefits, etc, which, although valid and very important in themselves were not under discussion in the High Court and formed no part of my post, to the question about how we understand the will of the people? I agree that we have committed to leaving the E.U. without really considering what it will mean for anyone, but, following the Referendum, the question now is how do we achieve that exit justly and fairly. I think we’re in a mess, and the attack on the judiciary following the High Court decision made me realise that there are some very sinister aspects to the current debate.

          • Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful response.

            I have to agree with well made points, perhaps I’m just too frustrated with the whole process to see straight.

            Just a comment about the Establishment.

            I suspect that as I spent 43 years of my life as part of it, the Army is part and parcel of it – and while I have no complaints about my service, I was often torn morally about some of the things that we did in the name of the Government.

            Sure, we were obeying orders, but the outcomes always seemed to have consequences for people which were outwith what the intended outcome was supposed to be. Late in my career, when we were fighting wars and I was involved in both sending people there and picking up the pieces of those coming back broken, I developed a pacifist view point and the approaching retirement was my escape from the moral dilemma that my role was giving me.

            At the same time, my ability to voice disquiet was muted by Queens Regulations, which precluded voicing those concerns in public.
            Even in private, discretion was required on what you talked about, even too your spouse and family.

            Yes, there was an ability to complain about things which we thought were not legal, but in reality, it was at times, difficult to articulate that, so conditioned were we to the fact that any sharing of official information was subject to the official secrets act, which still binds me, 7 since my retirement.

            I suspect that the establishment (however you identify it) is now the easy one to blame as individually, we are powerless to change things – we need to work harder to put perceived wrongs and injustices right through those who are working for such change.

            Something for me to think and to pray about.

          • Thank you for taking the trouble to reply, Ernie. I can understand your feelings of weariness with it all. I think most of us do feel powerless most of the time; but we aren’t really, although I think we fail to see the power we do have because it looks so little. For example, when I think that my grandmother was unable to vote until she was 30, by which time she had two children and had done a number of amazing things, I feel humbled that I can vote; and I always make a point of exercising my vote. So many things likewise; and the need to pray always.

  4. An excellent blog, Sister. I think this quote from A Man for all Seasons sums it up.

    More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

  5. I do not believe this case was not brought before the British courts by people who were interested in protecting and preserving the “sovereignty of Parliament” – quite the opposite. Their motivation is simply to prevent Brexit from ever happening.

    From what I have been reading about the EU – I understand that EU laws and courts are the governing laws of each member country.

    • I think you’ll find that, under English law, judges are required to adjudicate on facts, not on what motivates the litigants; and I must stress that it was an English (and Welsh) court, not a ‘British court’, that gave the judgement to which I referred in my post. If you read the judgement, you will have seen that it addresses a legal point about process which involves both the executive authority (Government) and Parliament. I think a lot of people have commented on the judges’ decision without really knowing very much about how our Constitution works, which is understandable because it is complicated; but I am troubled by the violent attack on the judiciary and the wider implications of that.

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