Friday, 1 September 2017

The Will of the People?

Since the Brexit vote and the election of Trump, we have increasingly heard that the will of the people has been declared, so those in charge must now act accordingly, and anyone in disagreement with them should not protest or obstruct, but stay silent. At the same time, hate crime has soared in both those countries, as ‘foreigners’ are demonised and made unwelcome. This combination of authoritarian arrogance at the top and thuggish intimidation at the bottom eerily echoes a period of history that has all too many painful lessons for us – the 1930s.

In 1933, the Nazi Party in Germany received 43.9% of the vote cast and obtained 288 seats out of the available 647. Hitler went on to secure the support of the Centre Party in passing the infamous Enabling Act, which dismantled all constitutional constraints on Nazi rule and enabled Hitler to embark on whatever he declared to be necessary to fulfil the will and destiny of the people – everything from stigmatising vulnerable groups, making arbitrary arrests, to removing innocent people to concentration camps, and invading neighbouring countries.

Two years later, the Conservatives in the UK under Stanley Baldwin won 47.8% of the votes, and with the support of other parties, formed a government that commanded a majority of 255 in the House of Commons. When Baldwin stepped down in 1937, Neville Chamberlain took over as Prime Minister on the assumption that the national mandate to govern had been passed to him. With that mandate, he signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938, which allowed the Nazis to overrun Czechoslovakia with impunity, and encouraged them to plot more invasions.

Did Chamberlain act on behalf of the will of the British people? If a referendum had been held in the UK at that time, when many people did not want to go to war with Germany again so soon after the First World War ended less than two decades ago, Chamberlain’s appeasement policy might have been backed by a majority of the public. But the reality was that Nazi aggression and oppression could not be appeased. This is not being wise after the event. Politicians such as Churchill and Attlee could see it and wisely, and courageously, formed a new national government between them (after pressurising Chamberlain to resign) and together fought the Nazis until the war was won. The US tried to stay out of the war too, but was stung into action when it was attacked by Nazi Germany’s ally, Japan, at Pearl Harbour.

Whatever Hitler, Chamberlain, or any political leader might claim to do in line with the will of the people, the fact remains that they should never be allowed to impose their interpretation of what that ‘will’ means on everyone else, especially when it could have dire consequences in ruining countless lives. Even if they had managed to win enough votes on one or another occasion, many of those who voted for them might be misinformed in the first place, or simply voted for a headline they found attractive without considering what specific policies would ensue. Most importantly, circumstances could change to reveal that what might have seemed a good idea at one time was likely to lead to a major disaster that must be averted at all costs.

Almost a century on from when fascism first reared its ugly head and isolationists thought they could prosper without giving consideration to other countries, we once more face threats that are all the more dangerous because they come from those who claim to be backed by ‘the will of the people’.

In the US, Trump’s white-washing of the racist intimidation and callous murder witnessed at Charlottesville leaves no doubt where his narrow sympathies lie. As far as backing from the people is concerned, out of the US population eligible to be a voter in 2016, only 19.2% of them voted for him [see Note 1]. Americans once bravely fought and helped to defeat those who supported the toxic Nazi ideology abroad, they must now tackle those who are promoting it at home.

As for the UK, Theresa May, like Chamberlain, took over from a previous Conservative Prime Minister who had resigned, and declined to call an election before she triggered Article 50 to leave the EU, because it was ‘the will of the people’ (out of the UK population who were eligible to be a voter in 2016, 31.8% voted to leave the EU [see Note 2]). When she eventually called an election in an attempt to obtain a mandate for her actions, the Conservative Party promptly lost its majority in the House of Commons. Chamberlain was not permitted to get away with thinking the UK could cut itself off from Europe and keep appeasing nationalist extremism when it was spreading across the channel. Neither should May be allowed to steer the UK away from Europe and reinforce anti-immigrant sentiments just to appease the nationalist extremism growing on our own soil.

At any given moment, it is unlikely anyone can tell for certain what the will of the people is. But for all time our conscience will leave us in no doubt – stand against racism and bigotry.
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Note 1: Out of the whole voting-eligible population in the US, it is estimated that on average 76% are actually registered to vote (based on a 2012 study by The Pew Charitable Trusts); in the 2016 presidential election, the turnout was 54.7%; and Trump won 46.1% of the votes cast – so 46.1% x 54.7% x 76% = 19.2% of the voting-eligible population in the US backed Trump for President.

Note 2: In the UK, out of those eligible to register to vote, it is estimated that 85% actually register; the turnout for the 2016 EU referendum was 72%; and 52% of those voted ‘Leave’ – so 52% x 72% x 85% = 31.8% of the voting-eligible population in the UK backed Brexit.