I voted Remain and, like Corbyn, I’m a 7/10er. I think there is much to criticise about the EU, which is an undemocratic, business-dominated behemoth but, on balance, I think that we are now, if not heading off a cliff, certainly rattling down a steep hill in a tin bath. But that was the verdict of the referendum and, flawed as it was, I think there’s no alternative but to respect it. Not everyone agrees with me and, if you’ve spent any time on social media or reading the press in the last year, you’ll know that opposition ranges from ‘call another referendum’ to ‘It. Never. Happened’.
I’m not going to waste time surveying the case for opposing the referendum result here. If you’re reading this, you’ll know the outlines:
A) the campaign was riddled with lies, distortion, and scaremongering.
B) the majority wasn’t big enough.
C) the referendum was only ‘advisory’.
D) the result was wrong. Idiots.
As it happens, in my opinion, all four points are correct although C is specious. It’s also the case that A might well be true but we still have no way of knowing that, had the campaign been of unimpeachable honesty and clarity, the result would have been any different. Had the vote gone the other way by the same margin, the first three of these points would still be correct and D would be correct for almost as many people as it is now, just different people. And the victorious Remainers would be making none of them – while sneering at Leavers who did. A. C. Grayling stood for the rest when he wrote,
But MPs live with a fetish: the fetish of the plurality in a ballot… The structures of representative democracy exist to provide a filter against mob rule moods and errors. In that respect MPs have the kind of responsibility that we are all pleased to think airline pilots feel for their passengers. In a case like the madness of Brexit, we want them to exercise it.[i]
So there you have it, the public are passengers – a mob – who need to be protected when their betters judge that they’ve made a mistake. This recalls 2004 when the people of the Irish Republic rejected the Nice Treaty on EU enlargement and were castigated by the British press for their ‘civic infantilism.’[ii] New Labour’s Peter Hain, then UK Minister for Europe, was reported as saying that the Irish hadn’t really rejected the Nice Treaty, as they couldn’t have ‘known what they were voting about… because if they had, they would have voted in favour of it.’[iii] Doubtless Grayling would have agreed with the deputy head of the German Social Democrats’ Party who observed that sometimes ‘the electorate has to be protected from making the wrong decisions.’[iv]
Strangely, voter ignorance about the Treaty was only a problem after the ‘no’ vote, despite pre-referendum polls indicating that 50% of the electorate ‘did not understand it, or know even vaguely what it was about.’[v] Nor did the Irish Government seem eager to encourage careful deliberation for the rerun in October 2002; deciding on a 30 day campaign despite evidence that just 16% ‘felt they understood the issues’.[vi] This second referendum was duly won, allowing EU enlargement to proceed unhindered by popular interference. Indeed, it brought the added benefit of endorsing a provision to keep the public out of future decisions.[vii]
Intellectual disdain for democracy is nothing new. The US, for instance, is pleased to present itself as the pinnacle of democracy with a constitution that is venerated as a model for all other societies. Yet, as Gordon Wood noted, the Constitution was ‘intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period’ that would bestow power upon the better people and exclude ‘those who were not rich, well born, or prominent from exercising political power.’[viii] James Madison himself, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, said,
In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, them property of landed proprietors would be insecure…Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.[ix]
The fear of the rabble is aggravated in particular during periods of wider social discontent when demands from below risk jeopardising the position of those above. Historically, the upper middle classes have always walked a tightrope between wanting more rights and liberties and a fairer society for themselves but not wanting this to spill over and allow the lower classes to get out of hand. The ruling class, of course, uses this fear to maintain control.
The current period of economic upheaval, popular unrest, and right and left populist leaders like Trump, Sanders, Le Pen, Mélenchon, Farage, and Corbyn is reminiscent of late 19th Century America when there were similar popular anxieties; particularly a widespread mistrust of big business, anger about egregious inequality, and fear of immigration. A Dickens of his day, Upton Sinclair summed up late 19th and early 20th Century America:
See, we are just like Rome. Our legislatures are corrupt; our politicians are unprincipled; our rich men are ambitious and unscrupulous. Our newspapers have been purchased and gagged; our colleges have been bribed; our churches have been cowed.[x]
I won’t belabour the obvious parallels with today’s conflict between The Many and The Few.
Intellectuals recognise the reality of popular sovereignty but, as the noted American intellectual Walter Lippmann put it in 1925 in The Phantom Public, it must be ‘put in its place, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd.’[xi] For Lippmann, democracy was merely a ‘pacific substitute for civil war in which opposing armies are counted and the victory is awarded to the larger before any blood is shed.’ In Britain, Sir Norman Angell’s treatise on the ‘disorders’ and ‘exploitation’ of the public mind maintained that the ‘hope of democracy’ lies in ‘fully realising the truth that the voice of the people is usually the voice of Satan.’ Furthermore, Angell held that, while there was ‘no alternative to popular judgement as the basis of government, ’ it was necessary to ‘correct and guide the [public’s] natural tendencies…’ with ‘the right social disciplines and educational processes…’[xii]
One of the most eminent American political scientists of the 20th Century, Harold D. Lasswell, was similarly contemptuous of ‘democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests’. Education’s failure to eradicate ‘ignorance and superstition’ necessitated propaganda as ‘the one means of mass mobilization which is cheaper than violence, bribery or other possible control techniques…’[xiii] ‘If the mass will be free of chains of iron,’ Lasswell declaimed, ‘it must accept its chains of silver. If it will not love, honour and obey, it must not expect to escape seduction.’[xiv]
In essence, Lippmann, Lasswell et. al. advocated a theory of ‘democratic elitism’ in which rival elites would define policy and compete for the public’s approval – expressed through electoral ratification. This doctrine relies on a ‘division of labour’ between pilots and passengers and the idea that, once installed, elites should be left to carry out policy free from interference from the ‘bewildered herd’.
In the 1960s, there was much academic literature on the so-called ‘crisis of democracy’ or the ‘overload’ thesis, which was a response to another period of political and social turbulence, particularly in the US and Western Europe. A variety of movements emerged – student rights, environmentalism, anti-nuclear, regionalist, and feminist, for example; all of which challenged the existing social order and demanded new forms of participation. Michael Crozier, considering the ‘crisis’ within Europe, noted that the ‘superiority’ of European democracies had been built on a ‘subtle screening of participants and demands’. The ‘overload thesis’, however, held that the ‘information explosion’ was eroding the ‘traditional distance’ deemed necessary to govern.[xv]
Britain, the leading political scientist Anthony King concurred, was once thought an ‘unusually easy country to govern, its politicians wise, its parties responsible, its administration efficient, its people docile’. Yet things had now ‘gone wrong’. Modern problems were ever more intractable and the people had become ‘increasingly bloody-minded.’ Increased complexity, diminished government capacity, and increased public expectations had combined to create ‘mass dissatisfaction’ that threatened to jeopardize ‘political arrangements’.[xvi] What were those ‘arrangements? The noted British politician, Norman St. John-Stevas, succinctly characterised them as policy ‘defined by the executive and made acceptable to the man in the street through propaganda and advertisement.’[xvii]
In 2003, New Labour launched its ‘Big Conversation’, touted as a massive consultation exercise in which the Blair Government would listen to its electorate. This exercise in ‘conspicuous listening’ was lauded by the former Deputy Leader of the Party, Roy Hattersley, as ‘clearly bogus – and greatly to be welcomed.’ The dialogue, wrote Hattersley cheerfully, was really ‘a monologue in disguise’ but this did not obscure the welcome fact that ‘[a]n obeisance is being made in the direction of the humble and the meek.’[xviii] And the scraps of New Labour still apparently retain the same inclusive attitude. ‘In the unlikely event Corbyn wins,’ stated John McTernan in 2015, something would have to be done “swiftly and quickly to restore the party to its sense… who cares about the grassroots? if you get a strong leader, it doesn’t really matter what the grassroots say.’[xix] Well, of course squire, we’re only passengers.
This has been a necessarily short survey of a recurrent theme in the thought of the priests of our day. I’ve not even touched on the attitude of our ruling class to whether the bewildered herds of other countries be allowed to rule over themselves.
Next week, I’m going to continue with this theme by looking at business’s response to democracy during the past century.
Note: The title to this piece is a quote generally attributed to the American politician Morris Udall after he failed, in 1976, to secure the Democratic Presidential nomination.
[i] AC Grayling, “Article 50 ruling: the EU referendum was only ever “advisory” (3/11/16) http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/11/article-50-ruling-eu-referendum-was-only-ever-advisory
[ii] John Plender, “From disenchantment back to democracy…,” Financial Times June 22nd, 2001
[iii] “Fortress Europe”, Telegraph 17 Jun 2001 ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/4263094/Fortress-Europe.html )
[iv] Quoted in Tony Paterson ‘Change law to give us vote on EU, say Germans. Schroeder comes under growing pressure to hold referendum on new constitution,’ Sunday Telegraph, August 1st 2004.
[v] Quentin Peel, ‘An Upset for Europe…’ in the Financial Times, June 11th 2001.
[vi] John Murray Brown And George Parker, ‘Ireland fixes date for re-run of referendum Nice Treaty Yes Vote Urged To Pave Way For Enlargement,’ in the Financial Times, September 20th 2002.
[vii] The second referendum also asked for approval for future moves on EU integration to be put to a parliamentary vote instead of a referendum. Leader, ‘EU Gets The Vote It Wanted,’ in The Scotsman, October 21st 2002.
[viii] Gordon Wood (1972) ‘The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787’pp. 513-14
[ix] James Madison (1787) Term of the Senate, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-10-02-0044
[x] Quoted in Stuart Ewen (1996) “PR! A Social History of Spin”, p. 49.
[xi] Lippmann (1925), ‘The Phantom Public’, quoted in Rossiter & Lare (1963) “The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy”, p. 91
[xii] Angell (1926), “The Public Mind its disorders: its exploitation,” pp. 175, 177.
[xiii] Lasswell (1933) ‘Propaganda,’ in Edwin R.A. Seligman, (ed.) Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, New York: Macmillan, 1933, Vol. 12 (reprinted in 1954 edition), pp. 527, 523-526
[xiv] Ewen (1996) p. 175; Alex Carey (1995) “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy,” p. 23.
[xv] Crozier (1975), pp. 12-14.
[xvi] King, A. ‘Overload: Problems of Governing in the 1970s,’ in Political Studies vol. 23 (1975): 284-96.
[xvii] St. John-Stevas in King, A. (Ed.) (1976) ‘Why is Britain Becoming Harder to Govern?,’ London: BBC Publishing.
[xviii] Roy Hattersley, ‘A confidence trick in a good cause Labour’s exercise in listening is bogus – but to be welcomed’, in The Guardian, December 1st 2003.
[xix] Sebastian Payne, “John McTernan: if Corbyn wins the Labour leadership, he should be deposed immediately,” The Spectator July 2015 https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/07/john-mcternan-on-labour-leader-who-cares-about-the-grassroots/