Democracy: can it evolve post-Brexit?
Dear Sir, — In recent years we have heard a lot about “democracy”.
“The will of the people” should override everything. Nobody would challenge this basic assumption. It has become a sacred cow. What causes the trouble is the innumerable different definitions of “democracy”. Which people? How is their will to be measured? And how can it be put into practice? These are only a few of the obvious questions.
Democracy was not always the form of government aspired to, let alone achieved.
The idea was not always even respectable. As a set-up it is first recorded in Ancient Athens, a novelty in a monarchical world.
But it did not mean one person, one vote in the modern sense. The right to vote was hereditary. Women, slaves, ex-slaves and foreigners were permanently excluded. Sparta, Athens’ great enemy, imposed similar limits.
Decisions were made by mass meetings. There was no bureaucracy as we understand it. This meant it was impossible to carry through consistent policies. Both states were to collapse. Systems suited to villages were unsuited to states with empires to govern.
The idea was “lost” for centuries. Rome was an oligarchy centred on the Senate. There were elections, but they could be managed. Under the stresses of expansion and civil war, Rome turned into a despotism. Elections were a formality left over from the past. The people could always riot. It was a sort of negative continuous election. Emperors prevented these disturbances by providing free food and entertainment. “Panem et Circenses”. Sound familiar?
Rome weakened, falling in 410 AD. Barbarian tribes took over. The best warriors raised a new chieftain, often a relation of a previous one, on their shields. Roman armies had acted in a similar way. It was a sort of democracy-election by soldiers. Rough and ready, but suited to the times.
The chiefs, however, were bound by custom, usually interpreted by the elite chieftains, and were not absolute rulers. As the tribes settled into urban communities and nations, these oligarchies and their leaders acquired sacrosanctity.
The idea of universal adult suffrage never entered anyone’s head. Feudalism and class divisions became entrenched. “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.” The assumption was, in the words of a Tudor councillor: “The mass of men do utterly know nothing.” When the commons stirred, response was quick and often bloody. Luther’s 1525 pamphlet, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, was typical. Usually when the poor rebelled they wanted to change the ruler, not to rule themselves.
Then in 1789 came the French Revolution. The slogan Liberty, Equality, Fraternity echoed all over Europe. Referenda appeared to put the stamp of legitimacy on new assemblies, but these and mob rule in Paris did not make for stable democracy in our sense. In practice, property qualifications were essential to sitting in a parliament or assembly.
Gradually the idea of democracy became respectable and not just a flash in the pan. Over the 19th century and early 20th the franchise was extended to women, non-whites and those with no property.
In 1918-19 these approaches to democracy, genuine or not, speeded up dramatically. During and after World War I Woodrow Wilson, the idealistic president of the US, wanted to “make the world safe for democracy”.
As the US was the richest country in the world and Europe exhausted, the president’s plans were adopted. Or were they? Did his vision bring about the triumph of democracy and world peace? True, “democracy” became as fashionable as it had once been unfashionable. Referenda and plebiscites flooded Europe. The intention was to ascertain “the will of the people”, particularly in relation to national boundaries and new constitutions.
Alas, these pious attempts were ill rewarded. The idea of democracy includes choice, freedom of speech, etc. By 1939 most of Europe lived under forms of democracy without the substance. Questions on referendum papers were loaded. Intimidation was rife.
When the Nazis destroyed the Weimar Republic and confirmed their hold on Germany and the Communists confirmed theirs on Russia there was only one party on the ballot papers, anyway.
Paradoxically the vote was used to prevent choice. The pendulum had swung and it was intended that it should remain in its new position.
Allied victory in 1945 led to another attempt to bring about democracy and peace. Great hopes were entertained of the United Nations. Again, the whole world paid lip service to the supremacy of the “will of the people”. Democracy via elected representatives was again in vogue.
Unhappily, reality did not match expectations. For years confusion reigned. The redrawn states of Eastern Europe were turned into people’s democracies — communist dictatorships subservient to Moscow and collectively described as “the satellites”. Eventually this network collapsed but democracy, as we understand it, has had a rocky ride.
With all this in mind we might consider the various definitions of “democracy” as applied to the recent Brexit controversy.
In some ways the situation was typical. Are moods and prejudices, so often like decision-making factors in a referendum, softened by a two-chamber representative set-up with, effectively, its cooling off period? Are elected bodies less likely to be swept by the passions of the moment and/or deep-seated gut feeling, particularly nationalism? Not that representative assemblies are necessarily right. In 1914 all over Europe they voted for war. Cheering crowds, young men rushing to join up, national unity … but nobody had foreseen the Somme and Passchendaele.
Now we have the internet, pumping out real news, fake news and propaganda.
If people are exposed to only one vision of the world, are they entitled to judge an issue? Any eccentric or psychopath, especially one in charge of a state, can put out anything. It is 1984 with a few twists George Orwell could not have foreseen.
The past few years have seen a stark contrast between mass direct democracy, as expressed in mass voting, and representative democracy as expressed in parliaments. One tier or two tiers, if you like. How will this division affect the evolution of Brexit? What happens if it goes wrong? Will recriminations help? How will we cope with climate change, HS2 and the NHS?
The last question might get an answer little more engaging, if unlikely to work a miracle. The question of human responsibility is no better resolved than it was 3,000 years ago. Can we succeed where our ancestors failed?
We face challenges that our ancestors never thought of. Perhaps we should evolve new governmental structures to enable us to survive. Otherwise our base might be our coffin.
Of course it might be possible to upgrade voting even more to meet the new stresses. If people can register their votes electronically, as they do in some countries, the process could be made interactive. The computer could “read” the voter and assess not only his or her preference, but the vigour with which they would press for the favoured party or policy and the lengths to which they would go. It could probably assess the amount of thought that had gone into the choice.
Our electoral rituals might be about to be modified yet again. “Democracy” is entering another stage. How will it change? — Yours faithfully,