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?