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Brexit is the new low point of British democracy

28 November 2017

4:51 PM

28 November 2017

4:51 PM

As faith wanes in democracy, arguments against it have more power than arguments for the status quo. People still quote Churchill’s line about democracy being the worst system of government apart from all the others as if it settles the matter. For what it is worth, I think it is true. But as memories of the cataclysms of the 20th century fade, it sounds exhausted.

‘Our system is better than the Nazis’ has lost its purchase. Soon we will be living in a world where no one alive can remember the Nazis in power. The law of diminishing returns applies equally to the argument that at least our system is better than communism or Western imperialism. Maybe democracy is like peace: the longer a society lives with it, the more likely it becomes to disparage it.

For all that, it is telling that strongmen still want to pose as democrats. Viktor Orban, who has so corrupted Hungary that he is a de facto dictator, says he is ‘illiberal’ but a democrat. Putin likewise says his enemy is liberalism not democracy, and goes to considerable trouble to rig elections to give himself a spurious legitimacy. But in the democratic heartlands faith is dwindling, as polls in France, Australia and the United States show. It is too easy to blame disillusion on democratic decisions, such as Brexit and the Trump election, alienating the young – who are on every measure the most disillusioned of all.

Democracy has a lie at its heart. It is meant to be an egalitarian system in which every vote is equal. Yet the power to influence decision-making is as unequal as in a Romanov court. Traditionally, when this case is made writers point to the ability of rich special interests to get their way. I don’t want to discourage them. The defining moment of the last decade was the taxpayer bailing out the banks without seeing the government requiring a single banker go to prison or hand back a penny of his or her bonuses. For every member of the US Congress in 2011, there were 23 lobbyists trying to twist their arms. Back in Britain, Rupert Murdoch has commanded the governments of Thatcher, Blair and Cameron to favour his business interests. Indeed if you view the careers of Tony Blair or George Osborne as a whole, their time in Parliament appears to be an internship or an audition for the lucrative corporate posts they moved on to. I could go on, but you get the point and know the argument.

Paul Evans’s important pamphlet Save Democracy – Abolish Voting is disturbing, and therefore worth reading, because he shows the supposed enemies of corporate power are no less elitist. We agree (or most of us agree) that someone should not have more power in a society that calls itself democratic because they are well connected or because they own a newspaper group or because they can afford to pay a lobbying company. The shy, the inarticulate, and the poor are just as deserving of a hearing.

But how is a commercial lobbying firm different from say, Oxfam, which can call on voluntary activists to try and ensure the government never rewrites the aid budget? Both Oxfam and Murdoch know how to work the system. Drawing on the work of Mancur Olson, Evans says that the inchoate mass of people with poorly expressed concerns have little and, on most occasions, no lobbying power to match them. Laws and regulations are changed by active minorities, who either have money (lobbyists) or the time (activists) to take up politics as a hobby, whether as the highly unrepresentative groups of party members who select candidates and elect party leaders, propagandists for causes on social media, or the supporters of single-issue campaigns.

From an egalitarian point of view, there is nothing to choose between the hobbyist and lobbyist. The lobbyist might be paid and might be morally suspect because he or she does not necessarily believe in the cause they are selling. But sincerity of belief is beside the point. In both instances, we are talking about active minorities overriding the majority. Once you could have said that the world was ever thus. I don’t think you can get away with shrugging your shoulders after the bank bailout compensated the very special interests that caused the crisis in the first place. Democracy should not be a system that grants favours to those who turn up, which invariably means those who have the time and the money to turn up.

What make Evans’s pamphlet compelling is that traditional remedies fail to answer the problems he highlights. Elections are too weak a control on power. As the Trump example shows they can be exploited by charismatic thugs. Electoral reform rewrites the problem rather than answering it. Meanwhile, Brexit shows that the direct democracy of a referendum allows charlatans to win with false promises; and then insist that the public cannot hold them to account in a second referendum; and that Parliament cannot intervene in the public interest because it would be defying the people’s will to do so.

British democracy has had many low moments. But the sight of Theresa May and the majority of MPs forcing through a vast change they do not believe is in the national interest must surely be the lowest. Evans’s modest proposal, presented with a touch of Swiftian irony, is that rather than give every citizen the vote, the state should give each citizen an equal sum of money to spend on politics. They could then form consortiums of like-minded people to sponsor not just politicians but everyone involved in the political process – civil servants, journalists, lobbyists and so on. Only ‘players’ who secured broad support would then be able to play the game.

You should not dismiss the idea because it is far-fetched. Half the ideas we now take for granted once seemed ludicrous or utopian. I think you can dismiss it because it is a suggestion that does not contain a solution. If moneyed interests, vigorous charities, charlatans and media barons can manipulate the present, why should they also not be able to manipulate this imagined future?

But perhaps I am victim of our times. Descriptions of the failures of democracy feel alive and true in the present age. Evans’s polemic is no exception. Proposals for reform, by contrast, seem a waste of breath.

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