Well, we shouldn't be too surprised: politicians will always try to play the system to their best advantage. But these on-the-fly speculations and constitutional bullshitting – of which we seem likely to hear much, much more in the next couple of weeks – have got me thinking about that phrase, "the will of the British people". What exactly is its referent?
It strikes me that there are three readings in play.
The first I will call the Atomist, and it's the one I am most in sympathy with. This holds that there is no such thing as the will of the British people. Rather, there are as many wills as there are electors. These millions of individual preferences get filtered through whatever electoral system is in place, resulting in 650 MPs being elected. The elected government will be whichever party or combination of parties is capable of commanding the support of a majority of those MPs. That's really all there is to it.
The other approaches tend to reify the collective national will. The first, which I will call the Averagist, we can deal with quite quickly. It's the idea that the will of the British people can be established by averaging out all the views that they vote for. Some vote for the left, some for the right, so the real will of the British people is somewhere in the middle. Many's the time I've heard Government ministers (not just in this present government) say that because they're being criticized from both Left and Right they must have "got it about right". Naturally the Averagist approach is most favoured by parties that are middle of the road, and it's hinted at in Nick Clegg's Wizard of Oz idea about adding a brain to the Labour Party or a heart to the Tories. As a way of saying, in effect, "We don't care who we go with as long as we get a ministerial car" this was quite smart (even if as a literary allusion it was astonishingly maladroit) because it spoke directly to the instincts of Averagists.
Then there's what I'll call the Holistic approach. This also reifies the Will of the British People, but in a different way. It looks at the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup of democracy and instead of respecting each individual leaf it sees an overall pattern. If there is a hung parliament, it talks of the WotBP as being for a hung parliament – even if no individual voter wished for that.
To make the point clearer, allow me to quote Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, and in particular the conversation in which an Anteater describes his friendship with an ant colony known as Aunt Hillary:
Tortoise: Pardon me, my friends. I am sorry to have interrupted. Dr. Anteater was trying to explain how eating ants is perfectly consistent with being a friend of an ant colony.
Achilles: Well, I can vaguely see how it might be possible for a limited and regulated amount of ant consumption to improve the overall health of a colony-but what is far more perplexing is all this talk about having conversations with ant colonies. That's impossible. An ant colony is simply a bunch of individual ants running around at random looking for food and making a nest.
Anteater: You could put it that way if you want to insist on seeing the trees but missing the forest, Achilles. In fact, ant colonies, seen as wholes, are quite well-defined units, with their own qualities, at times including the mastery of language.
Achilles: I find it hard to imagine myself shouting something out loud in the middle of the forest, and hearing an ant colony answer back.
Anteater: Silly fellow! That's not the way it happens. Ant colonies don't converse out loud, but in writing. You know how ants form trails leading them hither and thither?
Achilles: Oh, yes-usually straight through the kitchen sink and into my peach jam.
Anteater: Actually, some trails contain information in coded form. If you know the system, you can read what they're saying just like a book.
Achilles: Remarkable. And can you communicate back to them?
Anteater: Without any trouble at all. That's how Aunt Hillary and I have conversations for hours. I take a stick and draw trails in the moist ground, and watch the ants follow my trails. Presently, a new trail starts getting formed somewhere. I greatly enjoy watching trails develop. As they are forming, I anticipate how they will continue (and more often I am wrong than right). When the trail is completed, I know what Aunt Hillary is thinking, and I in turn make my reply.
Achilles: There must be some amazingly smart ants in that colony, I'll say that.
Anteater: I think you are still having some difficulty realizing the difference in levels here. Just as you would never confuse an individual tree with a forest, so here you must not take an ant for the colony. You see, all the ants in Aunt Hillary are as dumb as can be. They couldn't converse to save their little thoraxes!
Like most people, I can easily foresee a situation in which a minority party with a small number of votes and/or seats will – because of the mathematics – hold disproportionate power after 7th May. If that party is led by Nick Clegg, I also foresee that he and his supporters will try some version of the holistic argument to justify their position: "The UK voted for a coalition, and a coalition is what it got." (If the party in question is the SNP then of course it will all be terrible and illegitimate and the same argument won't apply at all because mumble mumble.) But the interests of ants and the interests of ant colonies are not the same, and pretending that they are through some kind of magical thinking is dangerous. Whoever ends up with disproportionate power will do so because the quirks of our electoral mathematics made it pan out that way, not because of some mystical entity called the Will of the British People.
Democracy should be about supporting the ants.