Most of us are familiar with the famous quote of Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons in 1947:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…
He was obviously quoting someone else’s idea. The problem of course is the meaning of the word democracy, as Churchill expressed it in other speeches. There is of course the apocryphal saying attributed to him, which is more dubious:
The best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
It was said that Churchill could be extremely cynical, but not about democracy. At the time of his more profound utterances on the subject, he had only very recently seen the alternatives in Germany, Italy and Spain!
A lot of journalism these days is sensationalist and shoddily prepared and researched. As I have tried to inform myself as best as possible about the Brexit question, I have tended to find the Guardian and the BBC the most sober and objective sources. I rely on the internet rather than printed newspapers, and I admire the stand of the Guardian in asking for voluntary donations rather than put up a paywall. The Daily Telegraph has always been the mainstay of my family, but it has a paywall and many of the article titles are quite alarming as is the political tendency taking it somewhere to the Right of traditional English Conservatism. Much of Google News involves articles in the Daily Express and the Sun, promoters of bigotry and ignorance. The Daily Mail has been taken over by Remainers, but the audience it targets isn’t exactly me. Blogs and Facebook groups can feed us with things to read and add to the soup bubbling in the pot, but only so far.
The Freedom of the Press was one of the founding tenets of nineteenth-century Liberalism along with religious freedom, freedom of association, the separation of Church and State. The idea of a free press would serve to compartmentalise the political and social life of a country between the elected political parties and government, on one hand, and the legal system and press which would call political wrongdoing to account. Nowadays, with the Internet, we can all be journalists and pundits on the topics that interest us and our readers. Like good journalists, I try to be sober, objective and truthful – and all that depends on good sources of information and a critical mind – and above all, a “bullshit-o-meter”.
No single source is perfect, and we all tend to favour our own opinions and convictions. It is not without reason that there are four Gospels in the canonical Scriptures, three of them being called synoptic. There are also many other ancient writings, some also called gospels, notably in the Nag Hammadi collection of texts. Exegetes compare all these writings and arrive at a synopsis – something that is very helpful is establishing authenticity and objectivity, understanding the meaning of what Jesus and others said. The work goes on in comparison with other data and sources of information like archaeology and known Jewish and Roman texts. This is the way we should be reading sources and writings on current affairs.
A remarkable article is James Miller’s Could populism actually be good for democracy?
What I find remarkable is Miller’s depth of philosophical and historical reflection. I would go as far as saying that this is the best of journalism. The voter needs to be educated about the basics of political and social philosophy, questions like the common good, the purpose of law and how it works, questions of individualism and collectivism and how balance can be achieved. Much of our political philosophy and law is based on Christendom, but not all. Quite a lot is based on ancient Greek and Roman law, thus the need to have knowledge of works like Plato’s Republic. Obviously, this is out of the reach of most ordinary voters, but it would be unjust and unrealistic to make people sit examinations before being allowed to vote! In an ideal world, the press would educate the people according to their capacities and culture. I think this Guardian article goes a long way, though to a more cultured audience. The gutter press is a clear sign of the limits of the Liberty of the Press.
What is going on today? It is all very confusing, and when people feel that the wool is being pulled over their eyes, they become afraid. The conspiracy theory is often an attempt to understand clearly when there is nothing to be understood. When we read terms like National Populism, shivers go up and down our spines as we suspect a return of Nazism. Quite apart from the taboo put up by Godwin’s Law, the historical circumstances from 1919 to 2019 are totally different. The founding myths are totally different. We do not have the militaristic tradition of the Prussian army of World War I or easy credence in the many occultist themes that fascinated people in the late nineteenth century. There are parallels, however, like the rejection of mainstream party politics. Hitler rode piggyback on the failure of the short-lived Weimar Republic. We have to be critical if we are going to make any historical comparisons. However, I would give some credence to the idea that 1914 to 1989 was one long world war with two periods of truce and cease-fire. Nazism was discredited by the Nuremberg Trials, and Communism collapsed in 1989 (the iconic date). Men like Mélenchon here in France or Corbyn in the UK may have their activists still calling strikes and blocking roads, but their ideology is passé.
At the base of it all seems to be the idea that everything is the same whether the government is Conservative, Labour or Liberal. Unemployment, inequalities, law and order, economics and taxation, everything else. What about a revolution? Most people know that revolutions kill a lot of innocent people and bring out the worst in the dictators who rule the roost. Mob rule is even worse! Miller advances essentially the idea that democracy can be defended by challenging it. Human nature becomes complacent and corrupt until we know that we are worse off not having what we’ve got now.
Many political agendas are obviously illiberal, whilst being democratically elected. Eastern Europe is decreasingly tolerant towards Islam (which is understandable in view of the atrocities we read about, committed by Al Qaida, ISIS, etc.). There is a new push in the UK to bring back capital punishment, and the price of crimes like rape and drug dealing is going up. If a majority of people called out for re-establishing public executions by hanging, drawing and quartering or feeding them into a sausage machine between the west end of Oxford Street and Marble Arch, is that a mandate to the country’s government? Miller takes the logic to the reductio ad absurdam to bring us to question the limits of democracy. Tolerance is wearing thin with the erosion of law, order and decency.
This limit of democracy goes back all the way through history. It was opposed by some of the ancient Greeks as it was by Edmund Burke who called democracy “shameless”. The French Romantic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) idealised the emerging ideology in America, as
John Adams warned, “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”.
Democracy as an ideal is only very recent in history, forged under the shadow of the guillotine in France and “re-arranged” by the Romantics. When injustice went beyond limits, people would revolt and usually end up hanging from the gallows, but the message survived. These disorders would create a kind of tension against the status quo, a kind of Hegelian dialectic view of history: thesis-antithesis- synthesis. The famous liberties in the early nineteenth century expressed the will of the people. The difficult thing was linking these popular actions with the mainstream national government. From this came the system of voting for the most trustworthy politician to express this popular synthesis. The way it happened under Robespierre in France left a lot of people with very short necks! In many countries, dictatorial regimes would claim a popular mandate, giving rise to the Communist expression “enemy of the people”, an idea rendered totally meaningless.
Democracy, as Churchill observed, is weak and unstable, but what are the alternatives? That is a good question from a man who declared war on Hitler in 1939 and brought our country through the worst days of darkness.
The Brexit question has brought something home to me, just like so-called liberalism or traditionalist integralism. The two sides excite intolerance, anger and hatred. Wicked billionaires belonging to a sinister oligarchy or “human reptiles” are seeking their advantage from two contradictory positions. I remember my dogmatic theology professor mentioning in the 1980’s that the pope was being attacked by “traditionalists” and “liberals” for the same reason from two opposite viewpoints. I drew the conclusion of calling the two either Scylla and Charybdis in reference to the two ship-wrecking rocks in Greek mythology or Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The opposing forces actually seem to be representing the same agenda understood in different ways. This is one big obstacle to democracy.
What is liberalism? This is one that Miller takes to heart. To begin with, democracy is not liberalism. The two concepts are distinct. I sympathise with liberalism in its early nineteenth-century meaning in association with Romanticism, but not with contemporary movements using that word to mean the opposite – illiberal, intolerant. I empathise with that movement of two hundred years ago, as with some aspects of what I experienced as a child in the 1960’s. Liberalism must be linked to “nobility of spirit” as Rob Riemen coined it, because it was the only way in the 1930’s to avoid getting sucked into the Seig Heil fervour. There has to be something more than the intellect in humanity.
I belong to a Church whose entire raison d’être is the battle against liberalism, that liberalism being meant as the denial of the sacred, relativism in doctrinal teaching, the de-sacralisation of the liturgy, the overturning of traditional moral teachings and the ordination of women. This was in the 1970’s in America a religious populist reaction in the face of the vacuous complacency of the mainstream Anglican churches worldwide. I know of no Anglican Catholic Church bishop who would advocate being in a totalitarian regime under someone like Franco or Pinochet, resurrecting the Inquisition with the right to torture people, working towards a theocracy, etc. All the Anglican Catholic bishops are much more liberal (with the small “l”) than some of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditionalists you find on Facebook and elsewhere! The difference is felt, and I am at home in an Anglican Catholic Church that has become stable and peaceful. May it never become complacent and vacuous!
Back to secular politics, why entrust our fate to the idiotocracy of people who are stupid enough to support incompetence, corruption and self-destructive policies. That is transparently an idea from a remainer, but could have been one from a leaver two years ago.
What are the alternatives? Aristocracy and Monarchy? We have both in the UK, but the political system is run almost like a republic, with the Queen giving her Royal Assent to new laws. She has little choice about the matter unless she wants to create an incident like Queen Victoria did in her innocence. I have spent time with French monarchists, and I have even met the Duc d’Anjou at a ceremony in Paris. Dieu et la Roi! – in the late twentieth century… It just isn’t serious. In Europe, we were finished with dictators in 1945 and Franco went largely unnoticed outside Spain until he died his death in 1975. Again, I was on holiday with my family in Spain in 1969 and the police made everyone stop on the road. A convoy of big black cars with tinted glass passed by. Apparently Franco was in one of them. It was an amusing anecdote of my childhood. Well, what else is there?
Perhaps we can learn a lot from Plato and ancient Greece, the Philosopher Kings. How do you make sure they are lovers of wisdom and not using the words as a euphemism for something else? In the State like in the Church, there needs to be more participation to counter the tendency to clericalism and lust for power. The jury system in Crown and Assise courts is a leftover from this ideal, the final judgement being made by ordinary people without knowledge of law, and a summing up by a judge. Ordinary people need to have the power in a real way and not delegate it to those who are less and less trustworthy. The problem with this is the lack of education and training for the tasks in question. You have to know the law in order to administer it to punish a criminal or settle a civil dispute.
The idea attributed to Churchill seems to come from Plato. The crowd of people has no knowledge of justice and truth. There is little that is less intelligent than a crowd of people, for example at a football match. Some have come to the conclusion that human intelligence disappears when the group numbers more than three!
Miller tells us that
Polybius also argued that democracy had a potentially constructive role to play. He suggested that the most durable political regime would be a republic that combined the three pure forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy) into interlinked branches that would check and balance each other, enabling a well-ordered republic to navigate the winds of time “like a well-trimmed boat”.
Indeed, many factors contribute to the trim of a boat in the water and under sail. The mainsail and the jib exert contrary forces to give the boat lee helm and weather helm according to the point of sail and the strength of the wind. The UK has had this combined government for centuries, and it has given stability at times when European countries were constantly at war and rent by revolutions and riots. England always had the knack of avoiding revolutions by instituting reforms asked for by the people. This Pax Britannica is a gift that subsides even though we no longer have an empire. But it too is fragile, and we see the effect of our Queen is extreme old age and many incertitudes in her family and succession.
Rousseau came up with the idea of a social contract. This was unheard of in eighteenth-century France. Those in power could use force when necessary, but it was accountable to the ordinary people. A contract is bilateral, a binding agreement. He saw the writing on the wall already in 1763. The French Revolution needs a lot of study from different points of view, using historical methodology and trying to understand the different powers in play. It was a bloodbath, literally, but it gave us modern France. I have lived in this country for decades, but I still find myself not coming to terms with the mentality and culture of French Republicanism. I now confront it at the Mairie and the Préfecture as I go and sort out paperwork for my citizenship. Apparently, there will be an examination about our knowledge of the French Republic and its ethos. All I will be able to say sincerely is that it is something foreign to me, but I know of no viable alternative at present. One is usually rewarded for candour, because a candid person can be trusted with the noble ideas at the basis of what they are trying to do in their own French way.
I think I would feel even more at sea in the USA. I have come across nastiness on Facebook, gun-toting rednecks, people with such extreme opinions as would make us wince in Europe. How is that possible in a country that extols freedom, tolerance and the best of the human spirit? Over there, it seems so normal, and almost a natural check between the extremes of liberalism and demagogy. It works over there. For how long? There are people over there calling Trump “Hitler”, but it doesn’t wash. The ideologies are totally different as to the reason for authority, law and order. Trump is an American and was nurtured in that culture.
Public opinion is something that can be so easily swayed and manipulated by demagogues and others through a captive press and modern internet communications. The old films of German crowds in the 1930’s are impressive. Observe their expressions, not so much the leaders and military men, but the women and children. It all depends on education. But whose education?
Miller is of the opinion that modern democracy is a sham “whether liberal or socialist or nationalist”. However, any regime is accountable to ordinary citizens at the polls. How about this: we are in “a world in which faith, deference and even loyalty have largely passed away, and the keenest of personal admiration seldom lasts for long” according to the historian John Dunn, quoted by Miller. When democracy is threatened, people will cling to it, however fickle they show themselves to be in periods of peace and prosperity.
If someone like Hitler were to appear on the scene today, how far would he get? We like to believe that he would be dismissed as a crank because of our having learned the lessons of history. All the same, there are people reacting in the same way now as Hitler’s criminal cronies did in the 1930’s and during World War II. One idea that came into my mind was the possibility of a return to feudalism, but the old landlords had obligations to their serfs as the billionaire oligarchs lack them or the least amount of care. That could one day become something very messy.
We are just going to have to follow the movement, remaining awake and critical. How attached are we to our freedom? What does freedom mean? I arrive at no conclusion, any more than Miller or any honest thinker. It might go very badly or might lead to another reign of peace and freedom. It goes far beyond the European Union or the erstwhile British Empire. It goes far beyond Europe as populism spreads to South America and around the world. A fire has been lit. We can but pray lest we enter into darkness…