The general will of a people is considered by some and desired by others to be that which is conducive to the common good; the national interest. Inasmuch as it can be measured, it reflects, at best, an assumption that everyone agrees on a point or points of principle. Principle, not detail.
In the current context of Brexit, it certainly cannot be discerned by a near fifty-fifty referendum vote. This is neither “the will of the people” nor the entirety of ‘public opinion’. Not even where and when politicians cite their constituencies as expedient justification for the fact that they are very likely sacrificing the long-term common good to a short-term effort at self-preservation, on the back of a pre- and post-referendum campaign of wilful ignorance and manipulation. The result of that referendum wasn’t representative of ‘the People’ but a collection of leanings based on a spectrum of individual understandings and expectations versus another collection of leanings based on a spectrum of individual understandings and expectations. But one side’s will and opinion is not to be countenanced, apparently. It is as if Remain were not of the People but an irritant for which the solution is to try to ignore it.
The thing about MPs respecting “the will of the people” and being led by public opinion is 1) that it does not follow that said will or opinion is correct or directed towards the common good; 2) that it is simplistic and cynical to assume that a majority or even just the loudest voice automatically represents either collective will or opinion; 3) that MPs, themselves, collectively, are usually behind the curve, not with it and rarely in front of it; 4) that the public is no better generally or singularly informed than the medium of the message and each individual’s capacity for critical thinking and the time and opportunity in which to use it. And 5): As the Brexit debates show, though MPs are best-placed for access to facts and well-informed opinion, they often start with no more understanding than the rest of us because they are no more expert, intelligent or open-minded, than the rest of us, either. Because they are not a special species of Human. They are just us. But, that they are elevated, voluntarily, to a high office of public service means they have a civic and moral duty to the national interest and our common good. Our, not a narrow selection of their. Parliamentarians are part of that rising tide that is supposed to lift all boats. They are also the planners, architects, builders and providers of boats.
Besides, all too often, the loudest voice of influence on the governing class is not the electorate in general but the most arbitrarily muscular newspapers and best-scheduled television and radio broadcasters. They can lead, reflect and project opinion far more effectively than any other demographic. One might reasonably question, then, which will and what opinion it is that MPs are really respecting. At the moment, “the will of the people” is merely a disingenuous and dangerous demand for narrow political patriotism. One might wonder if there is any such thing as the former and why on earth there is such a demand for the latter. If only there were ways by which to know…