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Brexit and the myth of the people’s will

Features | Published:

Nick Le Messurier spoke to political expert Albert Weale ahead of his appearance at the Guernsey Literary Festival

Albert Weale, author of The Will of the People: A Modern Myth, will be at this year's Guernsey Literary Festival

AN INCIDENT that followed the Brexit referendum in 2016 so horrified political expert Albert Weale that it spurred him into writing his book The Will of the People: A Modern Myth.

Weale, emeritus professor of political theory and public policy at University College London, felt that he had to counter the increasingly prevalent use by some politicians and commentators of the phrase ‘the will of the people’ to back up whatever opinion or viewpoint they had.

‘I was shocked that the UK government failed to respond to the attacks on the High Court in the press over the Miller judgment, when the judges were called “enemies of the people”,’ he says. ‘Instead ministers kept repeating the slogan that their job was to act in accordance with the “will of the people”.

‘A lot of thinking has gone into showing that this idea makes little sense.’

Professor Weale is one of the guest speakers at the Guernsey Literary Festival from 1-6 May this year. His talk on the book and the ideas which are at its foundation will be in the Festival Hub on Sunday 5 May at 2.30pm.

He disagrees that the phrase ‘will of the people’ is simply democracy at work ‘for many reasons. Unless there is complete consensus there are always differences of view in politics that need to be respected.

‘With more than two alternatives, it may be impossible to find a single will: look at the present House of Commons. And in referendums governments set the questions at the time of their choosing.’

There are no easy answers to the problems of society and politics, even if some populist leaders might try to convince people otherwise with easy slogans and simple viewpoints.

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Professor Weale, who is also programme director of executive MPA in global public policy and management at UCL, said: ‘A leading scholar of populism, Cas Mudde, points out that populists appeal to “the will of the people” and many political movements do that these days. There are populist parties, but there is also a populist style of politics that is becoming prevalent.’

So how do ordinary people deal with the easy claims and slogans of populism?

‘Good question – and I wish I knew the answer,’ he says. ‘When I hear big claims being made by anyone in politics, I always try to ask the question “What does it mean?” For example, when you hear someone say that the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, that sounds impressive. When you realise that equates to around 4% of global output, the claim gets put in proportion. Use Full Fact, Channel 4 News FactCheck and the BBC’s Reality Check.’

Mr Weale has written 12 books on subjects ranging from democratic theory to environmental policy, the law and citizenship and the European Union. It will be his first visit to Guernsey. ‘I am looking forward to my visit and the fabulous festival very much,’ he said.

  • Albert Weale will be appearing at this year’s Guernsey Literary Festival. More information is on the Guernsey Literary Festival programme and tickets are available on the festival website, guernseyliteraryfestival.com.
Shaun Shackleton

By Shaun Shackleton
Features reporter

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