Democracy, Sovereignty and Leadership

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It’s been a challenging few days for democracy. In the United Kingdom democracy has been something we’ve taken for granted. Despite the oddly persistent fact that we’re mere subjects of a flesh-and-blood sovereign, sovereignty, in practice, lies with us, the people. The UK is a democracy, and when there’s a General Election we delegate our collective sovereign power to our Members of Parliament, who debate and vote in Parliament. What they decide, our Sovereign signs into law. So far, so simple.

But of course it’s not simple at all. Sovereignty is limited in dozens of ways: by the unelected House of Lords for a start, by the European Parliament, by domestic and international law, by the media, by treaties with other nations and supranational bodies, by the United Nations, and by the interconnectedness of the world’s economies and ecologies.

The events of the last few days, unusually, have brought many of these issues into the limelight:

The Brexit Referendum has, at least partially, been about ‘taking control’, clawing back sovereignty from the EU. Though, as many of us predicted, the Leave camp are now discovering that control of our borders isn’t possible as long as we want access to the single market. Is that ‘control’?

And then there’s the Referendum itself. Is it actually a democratic process? A Referendum is technically ‘advisory’ in the United Kingdom, though tradition demands that the people’s ‘will’ be respected. That said, Referendums are so rare in the United Kingdom that they end up being mere  travesties of democracy, at least if regarded as true reflections of the people’s will on a single issue. The Brexit choice was so complex, the ‘facts’ so unclear, the emotion so strong, that it’s hard to see the vote as reflecting a thoughtful view on a single issue, rather than expressing a more general dissatisfaction with the Government and the world.

We delegate complex issues to Parliament for a reason. Our MPs have the time, the knowledge and the experience to consider issues more narrowly. Perhaps if Referendums were more frequent (as in Switzerland) issues could be more coolly considered on their merits rather than, as last week, used as an opportunity for a splurge of misplaced emotion and hysteria.

And then there is democracy and party politics. The hideous wrangles in the Labour Party stem from differing views as to where power lies when it comes to determining policy and electing a party leader. Jeremy Corbyn is an old activist who sees the Party as the source of power, as the sovereign body when it comes to the exercise of power by elected Members of Parliament, though nearly all of his Parliamentary colleagues take a different view, and consider themselves as representing the wider body of Labour voters who elected them, and all their constituents whether they were Labour voters or not.

Democracy is difficult.

  • Is the EU undemocratic? (Everyone seems to forget that we actually vote for our unknown MEPs. It’s just a rather large institution and even the loudest MEP will rarely be heard.)
  • Should the leader of the Labour Party enjoy the support of the Members of Parliament that he leads? Or is it enough that he’s supported by tens of thousands of activists?
  • Do Referendums really allow ‘the people’ to express their views on a single important issue?

There is no single form of democracy. There’s no right way of doing it. Its various forms may reflect tradition and culture in different countries and regions.

In the end there is only one really important test of democracy.

I am reminded of a dispute between two different schools of Logical Positivism in the mid-twentieth century. Alfred Ayer, an Oxford philosopher, put forward the idea that meaning derives from the means employed to verify a proposition (an idea curiously incapable of verification itself, but never mind that for now), whereas Karl Popper, a London philosopher, put forward the idea that a proposition makes sense only if it’s capable of falsification. So, for example, when it comes to science, a theory can only be accepted if criteria can be defined for disproving it. Freud and Marx fail as scientist on this analysis.

In fact it is always easier to disprove than prove, and something similar is true of democracy. It is very difficult to define it, and everyone has different ideas about what it means, but there’s a simple litmus test that looks at the same thing from the opposite direction: a country isn’t democratic if its Government can’t easily be replaced. We shouldn’t always be considering how the will of the people can be expressed. Rather we should concentrate on how the will of the people can be thwarted.

 

Democracy

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If only David Cameron hadn’t promised a referendum (he might well have won the last General Election without it)

If only Jeremy Corbyn had campaigned for Remain more passionately (how different the outcome might have been if Gordon Brown had been in charge)

If only it hadn’t rained in London yesterday (turnout for Remain might have been higher)

If only Scotland’s political leaders had campaigned more passionately (turnout in Scotland might have been higher)

If only the referendum had been only about Brexit (it was inevitably an opportunity for the expression of other frustrations – a protest against austerity, authority, inequality, poverty and alienation)

If only Vote Remain had campaigned more positively (‘project fear’ was the wrong approach)

If only Boris Johnson was less ambitious.

If only MPs hadn’t lost the trust of the people during the expenses scandal (expert opinion is now routinely despised and all MPs’ sincerity doubted)

If only Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande had offered Britain more

If only the EU had been better at promoting its virtues and demonstrating its democratic credentials

If only the media had been more honest about the EU’s virtues and less intent on misrepresentation and the promotion of lies

Democracy is the least bad way of arranging human affairs on a large scale, and there is no purer form of democracy than asking the opinion of the people in a referendum, even if the question that is asked is more complex when taken in its full historical and political context than its simple form might suggest. But however we might analyse the reasons why Britain voted for Leave, the will of the people was finally expressed through a simple binary choice and it must be respected.

All the same, I think less of my countrymen for the decision they have made. It was a naïve, foolish, and selfish decision and I wish the question had never been asked, that the referendum had never been called. I hope that despite Brexit the EU will remain intact, but I fear that British parochialism may be contagious.

Not for All the Tea in China

Who would want to be a politician? The hours are long, the material rewards moderate, the responsibilities great and the scrutiny utterly relentless and unforgiving. Gone is the deference, as if towards our ‘masters’, that characterised the relationship between the media and the political establishment some decades ago. Today’s politicians are derided, harried, hectored, mocked, and despised as if their motives are always questionable, their judgement too often poor, their good faith always in doubt. We demand that they be selfless and infallible, but we treat them as less than human. They may never admit to tiredness, hurt or strain.

Why would anyone want to be a politician?

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I am far from being an uncritical fan of David Cameron and his Tory Cabinet, but I felt sorry for him last week, and sorry to see him stumble rather foolishly as he came clean too slowly, with a gradual drip feed of revelations about his shares in his father’s offshore fund. He’d done nothing wrong, as far as I understand, having paid the tax due on his income from the fund, and on the gain he made from the sale of his shares in the fund, early in 2010.

Offshore doesn’t necessarily mean dodgy. Of course, it can mean dodgy, if the beneficial owners of the fund conceal their earnings and gains. But those who do so are probably a minority. As many experts testified last week when asked sensible questions, most of our pension funds, and all sorts of other institutions, including trades unions, are invested in offshore funds. Such funds are sometimes set up to enable tax evasion, but the majority are set up because offshore funds are more flexible and easier to manage.

So, there was nothing dodgy at all about David Cameron’s ownership of shares in his father’s offshore fund. Moreover, he sold all his shares on becoming Prime Minister. I doubt that all Prime Ministers have rid themselves of vested interests so thoroughly and promptly.

And then there’s the issue of his mother’s gift of 200,000 pounds, a perfectly legal gift that any of us might make or receive. Nothing dodgy about that either.

David Cameron’s mistake was only in not explaining everything immediately, but rather in issuing guarded statements that sounded slightly evasive and that led, inevitably, to further more intrusive and aggressive questioning.

What makes politicians do the jobs they do?

The worst seek opportunities for personal gain through the corrupt and cynical abuse of power. Many politicians and leaders in the developing world, on more or less paltry salaries, are quite inexplicably wealthy. Here in Central and Eastern Europe the scandals are breath-taking in their cynicism. Too few of these corrupt politicians end up in jail.

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Others are driven by ideology, religion, or a wish to forge or save a nation. Too many of these end up as intolerant, repressive dictators with a sense of their own near-divinity and entitlement.

But in our more open democracies, where politicians are expected to be selfless, unrewarded, dutiful, humble and tireless public servants, subject to meticulous scrutiny, and exposed to relentless scorn, what makes it all worthwhile?

In all management roles there is a kind of pleasure in the exercise of power, in the wielding of influence and the responsibility that derives from it. We all like to get our own way with things. We earn respect in virtue of the responsibility we accept, especially if it’s wielded successfully, and this, I suppose, is reward of a kind. In politics, though, success is only ever grudgingly recognised and is always only partial. On the other hand, disrespect and disdain always follow from failure, and, as we are often reminded, most political careers end in failure .

Deriving satisfaction from the wielding of power should not in itself be a disqualification, and some are very good at it. I admire politicians’ capacity to consider issues from many different points of view, and decide, albeit on insufficient evidence, on the least bad course of action, sometimes even on a good course. I could not do it. I like to sit on the fence. It would be unreasonable to expect our politicians to be reluctant to wield power. The traditional dragging of the ‘reluctant’ Speaker to the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons after his or her election is symbolic theatre. A Parliament full of disinterested philosopher kings would be a tired, incompetent, ignorant and conservative body.

We want the impossible. We want our politicians and officials to be motivated only by a sense of public duty, but we also want them to be knowledgeable, clever, energetic, humble, perfect in judgement, never swayed by malign influence, unsullied by scandals past and physically in the prime of their lives. If they are also to be denied any form of satisfaction, what is to prevent them from pursuing lucrative careers in the private sector?

Self-belief is no sin (unless it morphs into pride), and without it no one could manage a household, or a company, let alone a nation. True, self-belief must always be tempered with humility and a sense of potential fallibility. The fawning respect of acolytes and the media are liable to discourage healthy self-awareness, but on the other hand, habitual contempt is undeserved.

Is it perhaps another symptom of the growing inequality of our societies that the ‘alienated’ poor automatically despise those with money or power, believing they can never get there themselves, and believing that those with money or power have no interest other than preserving it.

I was amused by an article I read yesterday on the few admissions of error made by Presidents of the United States. It was triggered by Obama’s admission that he screwed up the aftermath of US action against Libya. I admire Obama, and was delighted to read that he could be honest, even whilst still in office. But the writer concluded that it is never wise for a President to admit error – not ever. A political leader shouldn’t ever admit uncertainty or fallibility. We depend on our leaders being inhumanly perfect. We demand it of them.

In a good democracy we must maintain a healthy disrespect for politicians. When I visited India a few years ago, I was astonished by the noisy, cantankerous, disrespectful argument that characterised political talk shows. It took disrespect to a level even beyond the BBC’s Hard Talk or Newsnight. Compare that with the stage-managed personality-cult political debate of China and Russia.

But healthy disrespect should also be balanced with a little admiration and respect when it’s due. If not, there will be far too few of us willing to take on the dreadful task of governing others.

‘Poles of the Worst Sort’

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I dined and lunched in Warsaw with Poles of the worst sort on Thursday and Friday, or, rather, ‘Poles of the worst sort’, the description recently used by Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the right-wing Law and Justice Party, to describe all opponents of his party. These Poles of the worst sort have been my friends for between ten and twenty years, and I have never known them more anxious about their country than now. They are cultivated, intelligent, successful, secular, liberal friends who have enjoyed and been proud of the Poland that emerged from Communism in 1989. Two of them find themselves, for the first time in decades, marching again for a political cause, their freedom.

The Law and Justice Party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, but represented in Government by Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, now rules Poland. It had never before commanded a majority in the Sejm, but since winning power with an absolute majority, last year, the Government has set about building the kind of ‘illiberal democracy’ promoted by Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary. Together with Hungary, and perhaps Slovakia, Poland might yet form an axis of right-wing intolerant nationalism radically at odds with the founding liberal values of the European Union. Only the Czech Republic, one of the most secular nations in Europe, adheres still to the liberal values it embraced after the fall of Communism.

The Polish Government has moved so fast and so far in an illiberal direction that, following attempts to challenge the independence of the civil service, place the public media under Government control and attack the constitutional court, the European Union has begun to probe its undermining of democracy. What the EU might eventually do about it is questionable. There is no realistic option that sanctions might ever be applicable.

Poland’s economy is the 23rd largest in the world, and its estimated GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) of 27,654 USD places it 49th in the global rankings. The country was one of the few to continue growing during the recent financial crisis.

Poland has been conspicuously successful. My visit to Warsaw last week was my first for three years, and I was astonished by how the city has changed, even over such a short time, the centre now bristling with impressive high-rise offices. There is a feeling of power, prosperity and confidence to the city. The previous Government had not been notably incompetent.

Why, then, has the country lurched to the right?

It might be yet another case of popular frustration with the political establishment. Clandestine recordings of conversations at a restaurant frequented by ministers of the last Government apparently revealed a cynical contempt for the electorate amongst the ruling classes. This might have been a factor. My friends suggest that it is the young who have elected the new Government, and who most ardently support it, apparently attracted by its blunt, uncompromisingly Catholic, and occasionally xenophobic, attitudes.

Poland’s Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski, has worried about “a new mixing of cultures and races, a world made up of bicyclists and vegetarians, who … fight all forms of religion.”

This is unpleasant rhetoric, nationalist, and socially illiberal. It is ironic that the Government has criticised recent German commentary as Nazi in tone, when their own language hints at racism and the intolerance of minorities of all kinds. But even the Catholic Church, a keen supporter of the Law and Justice Party, offers no particular views on vegetarianism and bicycling.

Where, I wonder, would the Polish Government stand on such issues as gay marriage, asylum seekers, and abortion? I asked my friends when we might see legislation passed in Poland to allow gay marriage. Their incredulous laughter was answer enough.

Read more in this excellent commentary from the New York Review of Books.

A Note on UKIP and the Illogic of Voting for It

At least one of my friends and one of my relatives are considering voting for the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) candidate in next week’s General Election. As far as I can tell, both may do so largely as a protest against ‘interference’ from Brussels.

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But this doesn’t make sense to me. Never mind that UKIP has put forward some very unsavoury candidates, whom their ‘normalisation’ project hasn’t quite succeeded in disguising. Rather, I take issue with any argument based largely on ‘interference’.

Doesn’t all government ‘interfere’, whether at village, town, county, regional, national or supranational level. Isn’t that what we elect a government to do? There’s undue pettiness, admittedly, in almost every  human institution, and we should constantly reform the machinery of state wherever we can, not least at EU level, but better to get on with that than get out of it.

I fear and distrust UKIP and any party that represents a particular national interest. I see no reason to believe that interference at national level is acceptable and at supranational level not. It all depends, of course, on the extent to which you feel you belong at one level or another. I am English, British, European, and human, so I accept the legitimacy of ‘interference’ at all of these levels, including, at the highest level, the United Nations. I have great difficulty in thinking of myself as British alone.

True, I don’t fully know what’ it means to feel European, but don’t ask me to say how it feels to be British either. Both notions, I hope, will always defy definition. Define them, and you start to hear the baying of thugs. Don’t be fooled by the fact that Britain can be more easily geographically defined than most countries.

UKIP, with its little Britisher mentality is certainly not for me.

So, don’t pretend the argument is about ‘interference’ alone. If you don’t want ‘interference’ vote Anarchist, if that isn’t a logical contradiction.