One of the strange subplots of the Brexit wars was the way in which the phrase “will of the People” was co-opted by some outraged Brexiteers when Remainers attempted to reverse the referendum or halt Britain’s departure from the EU. The phrase was used in headlines and in shouting matches, making moderate Brexiteers and “make it work” Remainers uneasy.
It’s a horrible populist phrase with suspect origins. Who are the People? Note the cap P. Although there are ancient echoes, in modern history the P word has Marxist origins, of course, even if most of those who use it on the right and the left don’t think of it in those terms. In Marx there are The People, who are oppressed by powerful minorities, the aristocrats and the wicked boss class, supposedly aided by their bourgeois lackeys, all who have an interest in the continued impoverishment of the workers.
Tony Blair at his cultural revolution peak – when he was most carried away with the almost religious fervour and conviction he was right that later led him to Iraq – famously invoked the People. Blair didn’t mean it in a strict Marxist sense. It was populist though. If you were with him and New Labour you were deemed okay (on whose say so?). Vote New Labour? You were of The People, the British People. What did that make everyone else who hadn’t voted for Blair, actually a majority when considering he never got 50% of the vote? Traitors? Counter-revolutionaries? Wreckers? Anti-British?
Diana when she died was deemed by Blair to be “the People’s Princess”. This raised interesting questions. What if you preferred the Queen? Or thought that while the death of a young mother was an avoidable tragedy, Diana’s view of the constitution and monarchy was impractical and unrealistic? Were you against the British People?
Blair, forgetting how transient politics is, also described New Labour as nothing less than the political wing of the British people. It was a creepy and ill-thought though phrase, with echoes of Sinn Fein being the political wing of another, more violent organisation.
Now, Sir Keir Starmer is – we are briefed – going to borrow the phrase for his speech to Labour conference.
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This is curious on a number of levels. Labour is far ahead in the polls – YouGov on the eve of his speech gave the party a 17pt lead – but he’s not won yet. Already he’s reaching for the P word, appropriating the country, implying anyone sceptical or not with him is somehow suspect and against or nor part of the true British People.
Perhaps hubris is kicking in already. In the excitement of the Tory poll collapse, and with the Starmer team keen to invoke the electoral successes of the Blair era, in the hope they can do something similar, it has been forgotten just how bonkers it gets when here today, gone tomorrow politicians start implying they have some mystical, magical connection to the true heart of The People.
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