The tyranny of the minority in the age of technology

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All British politicians are aware that, on election night in 2001, a promising political career came to an abrupt end. The member of parliament for Wyre Forest in England’s Midlands was overwhelmingly defeated by a retired doctor campaigning on the single issue of the closure of facilities at Kidderminster hospital. The lesson has been learnt; when any similar proposal is made today – such as the rationalisation of England’s National Health Service hospitals – the local MP will be at the head of the protest demonstration.

Stanwell Moor is a postwar housing development at the edge of Heathrow airport. The estate is bounded by car parks, reservoirs and the M25 motorway, one of the UK’s busiest. The residents could be accommodated in three jumbo jets. They often are, since the airport is the principal source of employment. Last week the suggestion that the development of a new runway might encroach on this traditional English village created a furore there. Boris Johnson, the ubiquitous mayor of London, was quick to jump to the villagers’ support.

As the age of democracy dawned, wise statesmen feared the oppression of small groups. Edmund Burkebelieved that “the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority”. America’s founding fathers – men such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – expressed similar concerns. The bold ambitions of the French revolutionaries quickly degenerated into mob rule and terror. The French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, reviewing democracy in the fledgling American republic, coined the phrase “the tyranny of the majority”.

Yet the tyranny of the minority seems a better description of democracy today. Because most people have little time or energy to devote to politics, small groups with a strong commercial, personal or ideological motivation exert disproportionate influence. This gives free rein to paid lobbyists, and to individuals and organisations obsessed by a single issue.

I have watched, over the years, the successful progress of various attempts to extend the term of existing copyrights. These measures plainly do nothing to stimulate the creation of new works. Their effect is to impose a modest tax on consumers for the benefit of a small number of media companies. But the public interest is diffuse and has little by way of resources or leadership; the private interest is focused and well funded.

The public interest in adequate airport capacity for London, and an effective NHS, is similarly wide but shallow. As a result, it makes less political impact than the loud complaints of the few who are adversely affected – or have persuaded themselves they might be.

As I write this in the (real) English countryside, I am surrounded by invitations to protest against the planned development of new houses on an unremarkable field adjoining a local village. To refuse to support the petition from indignant residents would appear unneighbourly, or lead to a fruitless argument I would prefer to avoid; and I too would prefer that the houses were built somewhere else. So I shall sign, and so will many others, and a few irrationally angry people will probably get their way.

The most perceptive of those statesmen of history understood these problems far better than today’s advocates of internet petitions. Madison provided a powerful defence of federalism for the US. He feared that in a democracy local politics would fall under the control of factions rather than a search for the public good.

The contributions of Burke to political thought have recently been eloquently restated by Jesse Norman, a Conservative MP. Burke expressed the requirements of a genuinely functional democracy in his address to his electorate in Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it for your opinion.”

Burke asserted that parliament was not a congress of advocates of competing interests, but a deliberative assembly seeking to identify a common interest. Vulnerable to the exigencies of campaign funding, besieged by lobby groups and obsessed by news headlines, the modern politician has drifted a long way from that ideal.

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