The dangers of confusing democracy with populism

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Like everyone else in Britain, I received last week a communication from the Electoral Commission about the coming EU referendum. The pamphlet states the case for each side and gives instructions on how to vote.

At first sight that process epitomises democracy in action — informing public opinion in a balanced way and seeking its judgment. On closer examination the leaflet illustrates why momentous decisions should not be made this way.

The Remain and Leave camps were given a page apiece to set out the issues, with the result that each offers a list of unsupported and mostly unsupportable assertions. Britain benefits from the EU by £91bn a year, claims Remain. But Leave says the UK pays more than £350m a week to the EU, enough to hire 600,000 nurses. (There are almost 350,000 already working in Britain, so goodness knows where they would be recruited or what they would do.) We get back from Europe 10 times as much as we contribute, says Remain.

The manner in which both sides emphasise specious claims that their preferred course of action would benefit the National Health Service is a powerful illustration of an observation by Nigel Lawson, former chancellor of the exchequer (Leave), that the NHS is the closest thing the English have to a national religion.

Edmund Burke’s exposition of representative democracy in his 1774 speech to the electors of Bristol has never been bettered. “Government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment,” he said, “and not of inclination.” And so, he argued, “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment: and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

Now questions of whether Australia should remain a monarchy, or Scotland become an independent country, or New Zealand adopt a new flag, may properly be thought matters of “inclination” rather than “reason and judgment”. And the same might also be said of the question of whether Britain should seek to civilise those pesky foreigners or leave them to stew in their own juices.

But once the issues are framed in economic terms — what is the balance of net gains and losses from British membership of the EU? How many nurses should the NHS need or afford? — then we are in the realm of reason and judgment. And the proper means of decision-making is through representatives who will trouble to muster and evaluate the relevant facts.

Few people can be induced to take an interest in the mechanics, as distinct from the principles, of democracy. Yet the mechanics matter a great deal to outcomes. The institutions of representative democracy — their purpose to secure the election of people who command wide public confidence and who can be trusted with the honest pursuit of the public good — have been undermined by the development of 24/7 news coverage, the technology that makes online petitions and online polling possible, the professionalisation of political careers, the exigencies of campaign funding and the seizure of political parties by small but passionate minorities.

Believers in representative democracy think it a mistake to suppose that more extensive and immediate responsiveness to public opinion leads to outcomes that are more democratic. Consider the paradox of the American election campaign. Were it not for the role of the “super delegates” who will give the Democratic party’s nomination to Hillary Clinton, the American people could face a choice between two candidates — her rival for the nomination Bernie Sanders and the Republican Donald Trump — both of whom are plainly unacceptable to a substantial majority of voters. The founding fathers of the United States, influenced by Burke, saw the dangers of confusing democracy with populism. And so should we.

This article was first published in the Financial Times on May 25th, 2016.

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