The trouble with democracy is that you just can’ t trust it

By Matthew Parris (THE TIMES, 26/05/07):

The invitation to a public debate with a leading French intellectual last week put me in a dilemma. The motion I was asked to second was “Democracy is not for everyone”. That doesn’t quite represent what I think – but what the heck. The French intellectual was Bernard-Henri Lévy, famous for his passionate oratory and unbuttoned shirts – but, again, what the heck. So I trotted along on Wednesday to the Royal Geographical Society in London for a Times-sponsored debate organised by Intelligence Squared.

Debates are unsatisfactory, wonderful things. There’s never time – never the presence of mind – to organise an argument properly. Yet amid the posturing and pandering and a great deal of missing the point, it’s amazing how lines of argument do emerge. A careless, swashbuckling public debate may delineate better than a hundred pages of discussion the lie of the land.

Alongside Lévy to bang democracy’s drum was The Observer’s leftish (but pro-Iraq-war) Nick Cohen. By my side to help to blow raspberries was Edward Luttwak, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

We lost. Lévy, with his mane of black hair, his very French oratory and his wonderful bare chest, was lyrical and passionate, hailing democracy as an ideal: the Ark of the Covenant of the equality of Man.

In vain did Luttwak and I remind the floor that Man does not always vote for the equality of Man. With Gallic flourish Lévy conceded that people may vote the wrong way, but that the ideal remains unsullied: it’s just that voters sometimes lack “the necessary serenity”.

How important is language to thought. La sérénité nécessaire has such majesty. It cries out for capital letters. La Sérénité Nécessaire – why of course! We all need that, the pillar upon which the great hall of democracy rests. Make sure La SN is in place before you fit les RSJs. If universal adult suffrage leads to fickle or oppressive government, then it wasn’t really democracy at all: it must have lacked that magic essential, La Sérénité Nécessaire.

In English, though, the more prosaic cadences of “the necessary serenity” invite us to remove the expression from its marble plinth and ask what we mean by it. And what can we mean, other than that large numbers of people are apt to get carried away in the wrong direction? This is not a perversion of democracy: it is the problem with democracy.

Or one of them. Luttwak spoke persuasively of the difficulties of applying democracy to the Middle East, but the example I’d suggest is closer to home: Northern Ireland. The whole point of the peace process, and the settlement that it has pushed both sides towards, has surely been that the majority will does not supply the answer. Protestants there are in a clear majority. Yet it would have been as foolish to base the government of the Province on the brute power of this majority as it would have been foolish to ignore the central fact of the preponderance of Protestant citizens. I am not saying that the will of the majority doesn’t matter in Ireland, north or south. But where there coexist cultures with separate, sometimes conflicting, values and desires, democracy pure and simple can be as dangerous as ignoring people’s wishes altogether.

Democracy, I believe, should always be invited to the table but rarely left to dine alone. I mistrust the quivering, awe-struck deference to Demos as though to some sacred text or divine and inviolable authority. The popular will is one factor – one of many – that it may be wise to take into account.

Here are six circumstances in which democracy may not supply the answer. The first is where there are peoples within a people. If so, the “will of the people” may become a brutal idea.

Conversely, the secession of peoples from within a people may be equally unkind. Who defines the boundaries? A nascent sense of political community among Shetlanders is boosted by the knowledge that much of Britain’s oil would lie within their territorial waters. Catalonia’s sense of nationhood is genuine, but reinforced by the knowledge that Catalans pay more into the Spanish pot than they take out. With or without the necessary serenity, Catalans may contemplate this fact; but however serenely they contemplate it, they will still conclude they would be richer alone.

And how about divisions not within a generation but between generations? It may tempt the living to enrich their lives at the expense of the unborn, who have no vote yet. A logical conclusion of such thinking would be for the Government to take out a massive loan repayable over many generations, slash taxes, up spending, and call a general election. Private finance initiatives as a means of buying present benefits with tomorrow’s taxes is an example. It may be popular with this generation, but is it fair to the next?

And how about clashes of interest between groups and classes? Pitting an urban majority against a rural minority was a socially damaging feature of the long foxhunting row during Tony Blair’s decade, yet there was no question about the democratic arithmetic. France under Nicolas Sarkozy now faces clashes of interests – town and country, public and private sector, unionised and nonunionised labour – on a more ominous scale. Simple democracy has elected Mr Sarkozy to resolve them; but simple democracy will not resolve them.

A persistent worry about democracy relates to small, unpopular groups. In countries such as Britain or America, minorities such as Jews, Catholics, alleged witches, blacks, gays and communists have all, in their time, had their spell in the harsh searchlight of popular hatred. Yet they deserved protection. Even paedophiles have rights. Wise leaders sometimes have to do more than finesse or postpone the popular will: they may have to parry it, soften it, even defy it.

My final problem with democracy is rooted in the possibility that through ignorance or folly, the public may simply be wrong. There are issues (appeasement in the 1930s was one) where the crowd misunderstands, grabs the wrong end of the stick or wilfully refuses to meet its responsibilities. There are matters of great complexity where decisions may have to run ahead of public understanding: for or against nuclear power, for instance, or for or against GM crops. Sometimes people refuse to accept the inevitable, such as electronic road pricing. And, despite this Government’s squandering of public trust on security issues, there can be things government knows that the people cannot fully know.

These doubts about democracy are more pressing today then when I was a boy. It used to be technically difficult to consult the popular will, except every few years, at a general election. This rescued us from having to ask whether we would want to if we could. But soon we shall be able to. We can be accurately informed almost hourly about majority opinion. Do we wish to bring these techniques into government? I doubt it. Within the concept of focus-grouping lies a central paradox of democracy: ask a focus group if they respect a politician who consults focus groups, and they would say no.

My mother was born before universal adult suffrage reached Britain. Ancient Greek democracy was a fiction: the democracy of the boardroom, not the shop floor. Real democracy is a shockingly new idea, hardly tested. There are serious checks and balances still to devise. We should start from an acceptance that there is nothing sacrosanct about the will of the people.

To me the popular will is like the ocean. It may carry you far. Ignore it – its currents, its lulls and its storms – at your peril. But always distrust it. Learn when to fight it, when to run with it and when to stay in port while a storm blows over. And do not kid yourself, with phrases such as “necessary serenity”, that the democratic ideal is pure, sacrosanct and unimpeachable. Be honest. The majority is often wrong.

Gosh; that reads like a reprint of a speech. It is not in fact what I said; but it is what – on reflection, and with the necessary serenity – I should have said.