Tuesday 26 September 2017

A blueprint for saving democracy

Politics: Democracy and Its Crisis, AC Grayling, Little, Brown; ­hardback, 419 ­pages, €18.99

Mob rule: Athen is the cradle of democracy yet many great Greek thinkers such as Plato thought democracy was a terrible idea
Mob rule: Athen is the cradle of democracy yet many great Greek thinkers such as Plato thought democracy was a terrible idea
Democracy and its Crisis

Andrew Lynch is unconvinced by philosopher AC Grayling's unoriginal solutions to repel the sinister forces out to destroy the greatest political system ever invented.

AC Grayling is not a man to sell himself short. The British philosopher, public intellectual and human rights activist promises readers of his latest book that it contains nothing less than a blueprint for saving democracy. This may be a tough job, but Grayling believes someone has to do it - because the advent of Brexit and Donald Trump have shown that sinister forces are rapidly destroying the greatest political system ever invented.

"While we look at the screens of our televisions and mobile phones," he writes in the introduction to Democracy and Its Crisis, "others with agendas have their fingers in the pockets of our democracy, on the steering wheel of our democracy, on the keys to our democracy, on the credit cards of our democracy."

It would be easy to dismiss Grayling's concerns as hysterical or elitist. At times he seems to be echoing Éamon de Valera's bitter complaint after voters had endorsed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922: "The majority has no right to do wrong." The satirical magazine Private Eye has suggested that this book should really be called When Democracy Fails: Why Highly Intelligent People Are Entitled to Ignore Popular Decisions They Disagree With.

Professor Grayling is unrepentant. He denounces Britain's vote to leave the EU as "a coup" carried out by racists and liars, while President Trump is to him "the least fit person ever to be elected to the White House". Any system that produces such obviously crazy results, he reasons, must be a system no longer fit for purpose.

Democracy and Its Crisis is a book of two halves. The first provides a potted history of the concept itself, which originated in Athens around the 5th century BC. Many great thinkers such as Plato thought democracy (a hybrid of two Greek words meaning rule by the people') was a terrible idea, since the electorate's natural ignorance and stupidity would quickly lead to mob justice.

For more than 2,000 years, in fact, 'democratic' was almost always used as an insult. When a radical group called the Levellers demanded votes for all men during England's Civil War (enfranchising women was clearly unthinkable), Oliver Cromwell had their leaders shot. Even John Adams, the second President of the United States, once declared: "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself."

Grayling's scholarly analysis shows how 17th and 18th-century philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, refined the idea of representative democracy, which effectively means that people should choose their governments instead of trying to govern themselves. At the height of World War II there were just 11 democracies left (including Ireland), but today the figure is an impressive 123 out of 192 countries. Winston Churchill famously claimed that democracy "is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried", although he also reportedly said the strongest argument against it was "a five-minute conversation with the average voter".

So what has gone wrong? The second half of Grayling's book is an angry polemic, mostly aimed at British politicians with a few sideswipes against their US counterparts as well. He identifies three main problems - parliaments are failing in their duty to hold governments to account, voters are not educated enough to make good choices and powerful interest groups can manipulate elections by spreading fake news on social media.

Grayling reserves some of his harshest words for the House of Commons' whip system, pointing out that the bullying and bribery involved would be illegal in any other workplace. He is also contemptuous of Westminster's 'first past the post' voting method, which has sometimes allowed the Conservatives or Labour to take power with barely 35pc support. He approvingly quotes the cabinet minister Lord Hailsham, who said in 1976 that Britain's lack of a written constitution made it "an elective dictatorship".

All these weaknesses, Grayling laments, have given us the Brexit nightmare. He accuses David Cameron of calling a totally unnecessary referendum to placate his party's right wing, argues that 16 and 17-year-olds deserved a vote because they had most to lose and thinks major decisions such as leaving the EU should require a two-thirds majority (according to that rule, same-sex marriage would still be illegal in Ireland). Most importantly, he thinks MPs are now abdicating their sovereign responsibility by implementing a policy that most of them privately think is suicidal.

When Grayling's proposed solutions finally arrive, however, they are disappointingly unoriginal. He runs through the virtues of school civic courses, proportional representation and compulsory voting in a rather sketchy fashion, perhaps because he believes each one is "unarguable". In fact, the whole book reads like an extended university lecture from an academic who assumes that only a complete moron could possibly disagree with him.

"Democracy must be reclaimed," he concludes, "in the form worked out by some of the best minds in the history of our civilisation, before the opportunity to reclaim it passes." It is an important message - but this pompous and self-important screed suggests that AC Grayling may not be the right messenger.

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