On Saturday the 2nd November 2019, the Academy of Ideas looked at the concept of “the people”, its relationship to democracy, its Brexit consequences and implications and what is seen by some as its dangerous usurpation by populists.
Image courtesy of James Cridland
Since the Brexit vote of 2016, the phrase “the will of the people” has gained significant political currency. Brexiteers argue that the referendum represents the will of the people and so needs to be implemented, whereas their opponents say that more recent opinion polls show that the will of the people has changed. Others dismiss the idea of the will of the people as itself being an illusion, arguing that no group – especially not one as diverse as the British electorate – can have a single will.
Yet, even if we put aside the idea of the will of the people, questions abound about what we mean by “the people”. At one level, the idea of the people has been essential to the emergence of democratic life, with the word ‘democracy’ coming from the ancient Greek term for people, ‘demos’. But, beyond the expression’s origins, can we say anything about who the people are and what they want? While citizens of the ancient Greek city states would likely have known each other and been able to all meet and vote in one place, the idea of the people in a modern state is much more complex, with the term often encompassing millions of otherwise unconnected individuals.
Many also worry that the idea of the people is subject to misuse by dangerous forms of populism. Populists claim to oppose “the elites” and, in doing so, to speak for the people. Yet, given the sheer diversity of thought and opinion in any one country, how can one figure claim to speak on behalf of an entire population? Commentators worry that, by claiming to do so, populists ignore the complexities of modern society and stimulate mob-like behaviour with their tendency to provide simple answers to complicated dynamics. Nonetheless, it would be unusual to say the least if a politician were to explicitly announce that they did not speak for the people.
Yet, which people get to be considered part of “the people”? While many ancient Greek states had a comparatively broadly defined understanding of the demos, neither women or slaves were ever allowed to participate. Even in our modern societies, many sections of the population are excluded from the voting populace, with fierce debates around whether prisoners or foreign nationals should be allowed to vote. And, even if we can decide who gets to be included, what, if anything, connects the diverse inhabitants of a modern state? Do common bonds of history, language and culture unite us, or, should commonalities in voting and/or economic practice suffice?
Seeing how the idea of the people is so often described, or dismissed, as a myth, is invoking it merely a populist fantasy? What bonds, if any, do individuals need to form something like a people - are people too marked by their differences and unique identities for the idea to have anything more than rhetorical application? Amidst the churn and change of the twenty-first century, can we give new meaning to the idea of the people?
Aaqil Ahmed - Professor of Media, University of Bolton
Aaqil Ahmed is the former head of Religion and Ethics at both the BBC and Channel 4. At Channel 4, he was also the head of Multicultural Programming and won official recognition with BAFTA, Emmy and Royal Television Society awards.
As an experienced programme maker and executive, Aaqil has worked on many award winning productions over the past twenty-five years, delivering projects such as The Life of Muhammad, The Qur’an, The Hajj, Kumb Mela and The Inauguration Mass of Pope Francis.
Currently, Aaqil works as a professor of media at the University of Bolton. Aquil also sits on a number of boards and is a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, a co-founder and board member of the Prince's Trust youth mentoring organisation, Mosaic, and a council member of the Advertising Standards Authority.
Aquil also runs his own company, Aaqil Ahmed Media Consultancy, which specialises in television and digital media production, religion and diversity strategies and training as well as international development training in media and religious literacy.
Sophia Gaston - Director, British Foreign Policy Group
Sophia Gaston is a social and political researcher, who conducts international projects on public opinion, specialising in both qualitative fieldwork and quantitative analysis. Sophia’s work is especially focused on social and political change, populism, the media and democracy, with a focus on threats to governance in Western nations.
She is a research fellow and head of research at Arena, a research unit in the Institute for Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is also a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, an academic fellow at the European Policy Centre in Brussels and the managing director of the British Foreign Policy Group.
Previously, Sophia was the director of the Centre for Social and Political Risk and the deputy director and head of International Research at Demos and she has also held roles in a range of UK and international NGOs, the civil service and private sector, including working as a political speechwriter in Australia.
Mick Hume - Columnist & Author
Mick Hume is the former editor of Living Marxism and the founding editor of its successor magazine, spiked.
In 2007, Hume ceased to be the editor of spiked, but he continues to contribute to the magazine on a regular basis, in particular on free speech issues. Hume also wrote a weekly column for The Times for ten years and he continues to contribute articles to The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent and The Sun.
Mick Hume is also the author of Revolting!: How the Establishment Are Undermining Democracy and What They’re Afraid of and Trigger Warning.
Stewart Wood - Labour Member, House of Lords
Stewart Wood became a Labour member of the House of Lords in 2011.
From 2001-2007, Stewart Wood was a special adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the UK Treasury’s Council of Economic Advisers (2001-2007) and the project leader of the team that rejected the case for the UK's adoption of the euro. He also led on the Treasury team’s bid & planning for the 2012 Olympics.
He then served as a senior special adviser on foreign affairs (Europe, USA & Middle East), culture, media & sports policy and Northern Ireland at No.10 Downing Street for Prime Minister Gordon Brown (2007-2010). After the 2010 General Election, he led Ed Miliband’s successful campaign for the Labour leadership, becoming a shadow minister without portfolio and a strategic adviser to Ed Miliband (Leader of the Labour Party) from 2010-2015.
In 2016, Stewart Wood was named as the new chair of the United Nations Association (UK) and appointed to the board of the Marshall Scholarships Commission. He was also one of the inaugural members of the new House of Lords Committee on International Affairs.
On top of his work in the House of Lords, Stewart Wood is also currently a fellow of practice at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford University, an emeritus fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford and a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford.
Before starting his work for the Labour party, Wood taught politics at Magdalen College, Oxford University, where his publications focused on welfare and economic policy in Europe and North America as well as on constitutional reform and public policy in the UK.
Ella Whelan - Journalist, Author & Battle of Ideas Co-Convenor
Ella Whelan is the co-convenor of the 2019 Battle of Ideas festival.
She also works as a journalist and is the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.
From 2015-2018, Ella Whelan was the assistant editor of spiked and the host of the spiked podcast. Now working as a co-convenor for the Battle of Ideas festival of debate, she remains a frequent commentator on TV and radio and writes for The Sun, The Spectator, The Sunday Times, The Economist, Conscience and other outlets. Her interviews also feature in the spiked review.
Jacob Reynolds - Partnerships Manager, Academy of Ideas
Jacob Reynolds is the Academy of Ideas' partnerships manager. He also works as a co-convenor for the Academy of Ideas organisations, Living Freedom, The Academy and the boi charity.
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This discussion forms part of 2019’s Battle of Ideas festival of debate. This is the 15th year of the annual debate platform organised by the Academy of Ideas, which, in its own words, seeks to provide a space for interrogating ideas, open discussion and civilised debate.
To find out more about this year’s Battle of Ideas, visit the festival website at https://www.battleofideas.org.uk/why-battle-ideas/.
This Battle of Ideas Keynote Controversies discussion has been organised by: