Sir Winston Churchill famously growled, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.’
The great man had a point. He understood the dangers of ‘the tyranny of the majority’ very clearly, even adding on one occasion, ‘the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.’ Despite this, Churchill was a genuine democrat. He believed in the people and accepted their judgments.
This is highly relevant today, because democracy is under attack. The most obvious is Britain’s undeclared civil war over Brexit, where a narrow majority of voters – albeit on the biggest recorded electoral turn out – voted to quit the European Union. The subsequent uproar and the blatant attempts to pervert and obstruct the people’s decision to leave have shown that the democratic will is only recognised by some when it suits them. That is profoundly undemocratic. But, as in some many things, it all depends on what you mean by ‘democracy.’
Democracy as a political idea dates back to ancient Greece. Literally, it means, ‘rule by the people.’ The word comes from the Greek word dēmokratiā, which is a combination of ‘the people’ (demos) and ‘to rule’ (kratos). The first major exponent of the system was the city state of Athens, around 400 BCE. Not every Greek agreed with the concept. When a Spartan aristocrat argued for more democracy, he was put down firmly by the retort, ‘I’ll believe it when you run your own family as a democracy!’
Since then, both the theory and the practice of democracy have undergone profound changes. What worked for certain types of male citizens of Athens centuries ago (women, slaves, foreign residents and children under 18 years of age had no vote) clearly does not work for hugely diverse countries like the USA or complex modern societies like the UK.
However, the idea of the people as ‘sovereign in their own affairs’ persists at the heart of democracy. Lincoln spelled it out simply in his Gettysburg Address: ‘… government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth’. From this, three principal systems of democracy have emerged; ‘direct’; ‘delegated’; and ‘representative’.
- Direct democracy means every voter has a direct say via referendums. The Swiss and Californians like these.
- Delegated democracy means that the people elect an individual to carry their views to a governing body such as a Senate, as in Ancient Rome. British Trades Unions are a modern example. Shop stewards are given instructions from their members and send delegates to the TUC with ‘a mandate from their members’.
- Representative democracy means that elected officials represent a group of people. This is the theme of the rest of this article.
Colonial America favoured a system of representation because of the new country’s enormous size and widespread population. The Constitutional Convention (1787) realised that ‘the People of the United States’, could only govern themselves at the national, Federal level by electing Congressmen to go to distant Washington DC to represent their wishes.
The key word is ‘represent.’ Whereas a delegate is merely a mouthpiece, a representative is sent to use his (or her) best judgment on behalf of his constituents. The English political thinker Edmund Burke described his role as an MP to the voters of Bristol in 1774: ‘Your representative owes you … his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ This explains why, for example, hanging is not put to the popular vote. Polls show that any referendum of the people would reimpose capital punishment, but Britain’s elected representatives in Parliament disagree. MPs think they know best, so they use their judgments to represent their constituents; they do not take their instructions from the people between general elections, which gives rise to the saying: ‘If you don’t like me or my views, then you can vote me out.’
Democracy therefore can mean different things to different people. What is clear, however, is that representative democracy requires mutual trust: trust of the representative by the people; and trust in the people by their elected representatives. Somewhere in the past 20 years that trust has begun to break down. We live in a world where politicians spout democracy – but do everything in their power to overturn it when the people give the ‘wrong answer’ at elections.
Nowhere was this more in evidence than the 2008 farce of Irish voters rejecting the Lisbon Treaty, only to be sent back to vote again after EU officials’ behind-doors deal to force a second referendum. Similar European Commission’s contempt for democratic majorities – and for democracy itself – has been seen in Denmark and France. For Brussels, ‘the people’ cannot be trusted and must be forced to vote again until they come up with the ‘right answer.’ This is dangerous stuff and reflects Bertholt Brecht’s sardonic comment on Communist elections: ‘Would it not be simpler, if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?’
Closer to home, the UK’s Brexit referendum and Trump’s election in the USA sent shock waves through liberal elites, by coming up with the ‘wrong answer’. The chattering classes were horrified. What these events revealed across the Western world is a widening chasm in far too many countries between voters and the cosy governing class represented by the likes of Davos, the Bilderburg Group, Brussels, Westminster, Washington, politicians, intellectuals and civil servants. This gap is made worse by the refusal of these elites to accept the will of the people; vested interests do everything in their power to block resolutions using non-elected institutions, such as supreme courts and the European Commission, to clamp down on dissent and liberty. For the EU it’s the (deliberate) ‘democratic deficit’; for the chatterati it means finding some way to ignore or neutralise voters’ wishes.
So, when added to the alternative-fact extremes of frightened metropolitan-elite politicians who wish to bash the masses using phrases like ‘post-truth politics’ to control the ‘unqualified simpletons of the great voting public,’ something sinister and profoundly undemocratic is emerging.
Democracy itself is under attack across Europe and the USA, a fact becoming plainer with every daily headline. The idea that the ‘common people are too ignorant and too driven by base emotions to really understand what they voted for’ has gained ground in political circles ever since Trump was elected and Britain voted for Brexit. This is sold as defence of human rights, and especially minority rights against the ‘tyranny of the ignorant majority’. These days it’s not the aristos who fear the mob – it’s the ivory-tower academics and intellectuals who think only they know what is best.
Their solution? ‘Ordinary people are too ill-informed to know what’s best for them – leave it to the experts.’ Well, the experts of the IMF, CBI, the EU, most of the media, the Chancellor and the Bank of England forecast instant ruin, famine, unemployment and plagues of frogs if Britons dared to leave the EU. They’re still waiting.
Another chestnut touted by the new anti-democrats is that ‘Democracy leaves semi-illiterate voters at the mercy of fake news and media lies.’ The high-minded BBC naturally does not agree; but heartily agrees that Fox News and the Daily Mail’s ‘propaganda’ only confuses ordinary, simple folk – quite unlike the BBC and The Guardian, of course ….
The truth is that democracy itself is under attack. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in today’s struggle over Brexit, but showing contempt for the masses can only end one way.
As Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP has said he ‘dreads to think’ what will happen to British politics if the Establishment fails to implement the people’s verdict in the Referendum. He warned: ‘That’s not what democracy looks like in my book. Of course, the EU has always tried to reverse every adverse referendum … but if they defeat the British people in this endeavour, that would be a disaster for our country.’
And for democracy? Watch out for forthcoming variations on the ‘I’m a democrat, but …’ theme before politicians and bureaucrats then ignore the will of the voters. Be very careful; the ‘post-Democratic’ age is being touted as the way ahead.