The end of civility?

Go to content

The end of civility?

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good thinking · Sunday 13 Nov 2016
Tags: Brexitdemocracy
I’m going to say something about fascism, by way of definition, and then something more interesting (I hope) about the place we find ourselves in.

The left tends to use the term fascist as an all-purpose insult, and that’s understandable given the history of the 20th century. Its vagueness is also understandable because fascism is not a coherent political creed. In truth it’s an incoherent creed, characterised by contradictions. It’s populist, but authoritarian, anti-Establishment, but favourable to oligarchies. It glorifies strength and power, while being rooted in weakness, a sense of helplessness in the face of things you don’t like. It doesn’t have to be racist, but usually promotes fundamentalist myths of national identity.

Donald Trump is an incoherent fascist, his appeal unequivocally to fascist mentalities. That doesn’t mean the US is about to become a fascist state (its self-image as a standard bearer for democracy is probably too important for this to happen), but fascism's resurgence in that proudly democratic country is a mark of the serious trouble in which the West now finds itself.

Definition matters. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst of all government systems, apart from everything else. This obscures the important truth that there are many ways of thinking about democracy, and structuring it. Politicians have for some time been abusing the practical vagueness of the word to suit whatever short term points they want to score, particularly in their use of the concept of a "mandate", so it’s not surprising that many people seem confused about how government and democracy work together. We urgently need to address that confusion.

The will of the people?
Government is a pervasive feature of human social organisation, reflecting a rational need to divide and allocate responsibilities as societies become bigger and more complex. In earlier times government tended towards autocracy, but even then depended on some form of popular assent, however passive. Since the American and French revolutions the concept of democracy has slowly taken hold, at least in the West.

Government cannot be about literally representing "the will of the people", when many (or most) of the decisions faced by governors demand specialised knowledge and expertise. The popular assent in a democracy must include agreement that the government will make informed decisions on our behalf. On the face of it this might seem paternalistic but in truth it should be no more than a sensible division of labour.

The point of elections is to ensure that those governors remain answerable for their decisions, which in theory at least should ensure those decisions are taken in the interest of electors. Edmund Burke, still an authoritative presence in British thinking about its unwritten constitution, was very clear about the duty of MPs to act according to their best judgement, whether or not we as electors agreed with that judgement. If time proved MPs wrong, we'd have our chance to throw them out.

When we speak of our "representative democracy", it means government which represents our interests, but not necessarily our views. It is of course unlikely that any democratic administration could last very long if it was seriously at odds with public opinion, but then it's also long been a role of good government to lead public opinion, rather than simply following it.

The widening gulf
These assumptions went largely unchallenged until recently. They're being challenged now for a number of reasons, including the rise of assertive individualism, but more seriously our democratic structures have failed to evolve in ways which can keep politicians properly connected to their electorates.

In the British system notably, for decades now governments have been able to secure working majorities based on a disproportionately small share of the potential vote. There's a chicken and egg effect here, as politicians schooled in spin have focused "scientifically" on the floating voter minority with a decisive influence on actual election outcomes, encouraging in everyone else the sense that their votes really didn't matter much, fuelling the frustration and anger that feeds fascism. The leading UK proponents of this kind of political wisdom, Tony Blair and David Cameron, learnt their arts from Bill Clinton, so maybe it’s no coincidence that our different democratic systems should be facing similar crises.

The EU referendum has highlighted a further problem. One of the reasons referendums don't feature much in our political history is that they enshrine an all-or-nothing, yes-or-no approach to electoral responsiveness, and that's simply not how our democracy is supposed to work. Cameron cynically deployed the referendum tactic hoping it would close down an argument he didn't want to have with his party, but when it returned the "wrong" result, he's been hoisted with his own petard.

The Brexit victors now say "the British people have spoken". Really? In its own terms the referendum result was a narrow victory for leave, but what has "the British people" said? By what arithmetical ignorance does a 37 percentage equate to "the British people"? What about the Scottish people? Does it simply not matter that a much larger majority of this geographically distinct group said something different? (It matters a lot.)

Government for all
One of the most important, if largely unspoken truths of democracy, is that the system needs to have enough checks and balances to ensure we don't have the tyranny of the majority, and that reasonable minority interests are properly accommodated. Whatever their political complexion, governments are supposed to rule on behalf of the whole country, and not just their core or floating supporters. (Even Donald Trump has gone through the conventional motions of acknowledging this in his acceptance speech.) Our democracy functions on the balanced poles of careful judgement (by governors) and accountability, the latter in place to keep those judgements careful.

It is entirely relevant not only that the referendum result was close, but that it also did not represent a sufficient proportion of the population for any government to be confident that what was "said" by that 37 per cent in June is still the case, or that it will be the case in two or three years' time when the UK might actually be in a position to withdraw from the EU.

In this light a second referendum on the actual terms of that withdrawal is the very least a democratic government should do. Here politicians have made a further mess of things by talking loosely of mandates, but whatever mandates our electoral system offer they are never for a particular policy; an electoral mandate is a much more general consent to govern according to your political values and apparent competence.

The wrong result?
This, a little ironically, is one of the reasons why it might be legitimate to hold a referendum on a single issue which could have a huge and lasting effect on the country. But if you’re going to do this you need to frame the referendum properly. You need to set a demanding threshold for voter participation, rather than a simple majority of votes cast, because a slender majority will be too easily subject to change or malign influence (for instance the blatant lies told during the referendum campaign). Such a threshold is the norm in other countries which use referendums more often, and it was used in the UK for Scotland’s devolution (if only once, in 1979).

Without this kind of rigour the claim “the British people have spoken” becomes no more than a bit of rhetorical posturing.

Indeed the problem with the EU referendum result is not that it’s the “wrong” result, but that it has no credibility, and it should not be the electoral rock on which the future of this country is built.

(We might ask the Brexiteers why they feel free to ignore “the will of the British people” as spoken in 1975? They could sensibly answer that things have changed in forty years, and I’d agree, but if things have changed again a year from now, or two years from now, why doesn’t that matter?)

It’s not a game
That this should have happened, and that political discourse routinely confuses ideas about mandates and winning, is hardly surprising, since Clinton/Blair and all those who have followed them turned politics into a game.

Representative democracy, with its checks and balances on power, evolved as a process, and elections, though important, are only part of that process. But in our debased model they are seen as the point of the process, as in a sport.

There’s a fairly obvious, important difference, because when you win in a sport, that’s it, but when you win an election, that’s only the beginning of the next period. And yet somehow these two ideas have been confused, not least by politicians themselves, who too often seem confused themselves.

A further problem with the idea that “the British people have spoken”: it rests on an assumption about identity, when our faltering democracies are making people question an assumed identity. When regions with a distinct geography, distinct culture and even distinct legislatures find themselves at odds with the majority of a different area (for instance Scotland, or California) who can blame them for withdrawing their assent from the process that claims to govern in their interest, and has simply failed them?

Or (should you be thinking that this is just another anti-Brexit rant) why were the only people who seemed outraged by Wallonia’s refusal to accept the CETA free trade deal with Canada the EU governments and officials who had negotiated the deal? Wallonia’s stance had broad support across the populations of Europe, support which European governments felt they could ignore (because they thought they knew better, and they are probably wrong).

The CETA deal has been signed, but it still seems unlikely to be ratified as long as the unaccountable trade disputes tribunals are in place, just as the TTIP deal would have been defeated if the negotiators had persisted with it. Neoliberalism enshrined the dominance of its dubious free market dogma above any other considerations, a dogma too often pursued by European technocrats. What's happened with CETA is a happy sign of the end of the hegemony of neoliberalism in the higher reaches of European government (nationally and within the EU). Although those governments hoped to sneak it through, however narrowly democracy finally asserted itself, which in itself should give pause to those who claim that the EU weakens democracy.

Managing conflicting interests
So let me be clear. I’m not arguing that governments are wiser than their populations, and should be allowed to get on with the job regardless of public opinion. On the contrary, if government is really about the management and reconciliation of conflicting interests (which I’d suggest is the heart of the matter), then keeping people with you, explaining what you’re trying to do, (questioning it too, which demands more thoughtfulness than blindly following focus groups) and so soliciting assent is fundamental to the functioning of democracy.

Manipulating select elements of public opinion in the short term (which is what you do if you think democracy is a game) is no substitute for this tougher work, but if you don’t put in that work you’ll be feeding the frustration and sense of disenfranchisement that breeds fascism.

This substitution of spin for engagement, and all the cynicism that underpins it, is why we are where we are in the US and the UK, and possibly the rest of Europe, with increasingly divided societies, and a resurgent, mindless nationalism.

Along the way, as so often in the work of administration, we’ve ended up confusing rules with the principles those rules were created to support. The electoral college system in the US was developed to protect the interests of smaller states, but if it’s now distorting general election outcomes it needs to be reformed. Here in the UK an increasingly fragmented cultural and economic geography is not being served by our archaic first past the post voting system.

Beyond the voting system
It’s not just a problem of electoral reform, though such reform would certainly help. The conflicting interests that produced the Brexit vote were certainly not defined by class. Although the anger of white working class men, apparently left behind by globalisation and new technology, was probably a factor (as it was in the US presidential election), most of the votes for Brexit came from older people, mostly in the relatively prosperous south, from people who too feel threatened by the rapidly changing present (it’s fair to say that their media organ the Daily Mail is an almost ceaseless howl of rage, unwarranted by reality, but that’s what happens when you feel threatened). This anxiety is a common feature of older generations, the fear that the world is changing for the worse, and certainly the speed of social and technological change in the last thirty years is unprecedented in human history, which makes such anxiety understandable, even as it may be often misplaced.

The influence of this anxiety could and should have been balanced by allowing younger people to vote in the referendum, but in any case it’s incumbent on government to give greater attention to all these constituencies, reassuring where there is ungrounded fear, but also acknowledging that the views of younger people might have a stronger claim on the future than those of us who won’t live to see it (anxiously or otherwise).

It’s not just a question of electoral reform, because the checks and balances which you need in any democratic system to ensure that governments govern in the interest of all go way beyond the voting system. They involve the role of the judiciary, the media, the relationship between free speech (highly desirable) and accountability to the truth (increasingly necessary), legislative scrutiny and devolution of powers, to name just the headline factors.I won’t presume to tell the US what to do, but here in the UK it is time to put the work into a written constitution, work which would force all these questions to the surface, and might give us a chance of coming up with some answers.

It is the surest means to address what is in effect the corruption of our political system. It is a ready means to restore an increasingly absent civility to our culture.

Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen when most of the machinery of government is tied up trying to strike a trade deal with East Timor.

There are no reviews yet.
Contact    +44 7798 913129
Back to content