Can Europe Make It?

Democracy and the populist idealism of right and left

Is ‘the will of the people’ a myth in British democracy? What do we learn from Brexit?

Paul Dixon
25 February 2020
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during PM's Questions in the House of Commons.
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House of Commons/PA. All rights reserved.

Democracy is in crisis again. In the US, questions are raised about whether democratic institutions can withstand Trump’s presidency and the possibility of a second term.

In August 2019, the Conservative party – historically, the party of ‘law and order’ and defender of the constitution – acted unlawfully to suspend parliament. They claim to be taking the side of ‘the people’ against parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law.

This indicated that many in the Conservative party have a highly conditional approach to the rules of the democratic game.

Paradoxically, it was Jeremy Corbyn, the radical leftwing leader of the Labour Opposition and strong supporter of extra if not anti-parliamentary struggles, who defended the sovereignty of parliament.

Corbyn criticised Boris Johnson for trying to shut down parliament and called on him to resign. “The democracy that Boris Johnson describes as a ‘rigmarole’ will not be stifled and the people will have their say.”

It was Jeremy Corbyn... who defended the sovereignty of parliament.

Idealists, deliberation and the ‘people’s will’

From the Radical Left, George Monbiot, a Corbyn supporter, suggests ‘deliberative democracy’ as a complement to representative democracy. He argues that ‘the will of the people’ is a myth in the UK. British democracy ‘does not permit any popular engagement other than an election every few years, and a referendum every few decades’.

Representative democracy is adversarial and ‘a remarkably blunt instrument’. A ‘lively, meaningful democracy’ would achieve a balance between parliamentary and popular sovereignty.

‘Deliberative democracy’ brings citizens together to solve problems. He advocates creating deliberative forums such as in Porto Alegre, ‘The Better Reykjavik’ programme, the Irish citizens assembly on abortion law and Canada’s constitutional conventions.

These produced better, more considered and progressive policy outcomes. Citizen deliberation would lead to the expression of the ‘People’s Will’. This could inform or even decide policy.

Radical Idealists against democracy?

George Monbiot’s Radical Idealist critique of representative democracy and his championing of ‘deliberative democracy’ displays four persistent problems that Idealists have with democracy.

First, ‘deliberative democracy’ can be supported because it represents a fairer and more authentic process than representative democracy. This is debateable, but it is unfortunately undermined by Monbiot’s suggestion that it should be supported because it leads to Radical Idealist policies.

This raises the question as to whether the deliberative process can reach conclusions, such as on Brexit, that its Radical Idealist proponents disagree with? If it can’t, then is deliberative democracy a meaningful democracy or rigged to produce Idealist outcomes?

Or do deliberative democrats and populists agree that ‘real’ democracy only exists when it comes to conclusions that they agree with?

Second, the assumption that deliberation will lead to consensus and the ‘People’s Will’ is problematic. This is because it suggests an intolerant refusal to accept the persistence and legitimacy of pluralism and disagreement among the people.

Third, even if the ‘People’s Will’ can be discerned through the deliberative process, then what happens if, like direct democracy and the Brexit referendum, this clashes with the will of parliament?

Fourth, ‘deliberative democracy’ appears to reinforce ‘anti-politics’. There is no need for politicians and political judgement if a process has been found to express the ‘People’s Will’.

Ira Katznelson argues, ‘When backs are turned on legislative representation, when alternative instruments are deployed not as partners but as replacements for electoral competition and parliamentary lawmaking, and when the institutional dimensions of democracy grow hollow, the risk of illiberal authoritarianism grows.’

Radical Idealism and Brexit

Radical Idealists, of the left and right, are unable to anticipate, imagine or accept that people acting and deliberating in ‘good faith’ could come ‘rationally’ to different conclusions.

This failure is a key feature in the ‘debate’ between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’ over Brexit. Hardliners on either side cannot imagine why anyone could disagree with them. Each believes that they are justified by ‘democracy’ – parliamentary democracy or direct democracy – and the ‘People’s Will’ in dismissing the claims of their adversaries.

This failure is a key feature in the ‘debate’ between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’ over Brexit. Hardliners on either side cannot imagine why anyone could disagree with them.

While all invoke democracy there do not seem to be many democrats. The Conservative government’s suspension of parliament indicated a contempt for parliamentary democracy. Fundamentalist Remainers proposed to revoke Brexit without allowing a vote. According to opinion polls, both Brexiteers and Remainers believe ‘social unrest’ would be ‘worth it’ if their goals were achieved. Paradoxically, it was Jeremy Corbyn, a Radical Idealist, who has tried to find a compromise formula that would manage the issue.

The influence of public opinion

Radical Idealists also underestimate representative democracy and the influence of the people. Politicians are often, but not always, forced to take public opinion into account. The Conservative’s ‘front stage’ commitment to the NHS probably does not reflect their ‘backstage’ preference for privatisation. But it would be very politically dangerous for the Conservatives to be too obviously hostile to the NHS.

Public opinion did not stop the invasion of Iraq or the escalation of Britain’s role in the Afghan war. But it did constrain Britain’s military and political role in those wars. The attempt to secure UN resolutions to justify the invasion was largely an attempt to persuade British, US and world opinion of the legitimacy of the invasion.

Prime Minister Blair’s Foreign Policy adviser told the Americans, “I said that you [Blair] would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different [from] anything in the States”.

Public opinion was also a strong constraint on the conduct of Britain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was considerable concern that casualties would lead to a growth in support for withdrawal.

Representative democracy is influenced by public opinion, but it is also enriched by political movements – such as ‘Extinction Rebellion’ – that have successfully shifted the political agenda in Britain.

Paradoxically, it was Jeremy Corbyn, a Radical Idealist, who has tried to find a compromise formula that would manage the issue.

Anti-politics, anti-democracy?

Idealists have been strongly critical of ‘politics’ and representative democracy for their lack of popular participation. This anti-politics led them towards arguing that ‘civil society’ and ‘direct democracy’ could produce more ‘authentic’ representations of the ‘People’s Will’ because, they believed, the outcomes were likely to be ‘progressive’.

The ‘Civil Society’ of campaigning groups was, they argued, more in touch with the grassroots and better capable of representing their interests than politicians. ‘Direct democracy’ would complement this because it offered a means for bypassing the conservatism of representative democracy.

The Radical Idealist refusal to accept that ‘the people’ may disagree with them was given a rude awakening with the rise of ‘Authoritarian Populism’ and the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Cosmopolitan Idealists had indulged in ‘wishful thinking’. They believed that ‘globalisation’ was transcending nationalism and leading towards a federal Europe and a global democratic state. They ignored the history of ‘direct democracy’ which suggested that it did not necessarily lead to ‘progressive’ outcomes.

A progressive realism?

Left Realists argue that power, conflict and dissensus are inevitable. Pluralism is the lifeblood of a vibrant democracy. But politics and democracy are there to manage this pluralism in, hopefully, non-violent ways. A democrat welcomes pluralism and accepts that a consequence of this is that sometimes we win and at other times lose.

From this perspective, the aspiration to a deliberative, ‘rational consensus’ of the ‘People’s Will’ is impossible and dangerous. This is because it can only be achieved by denying, rather than encouraging, the pluralism and debate essential to and the reason for democracy.

Populist Idealists are optimists and ‘wishful thinkers’. They assume that ‘the pure people’ agree with them against the ‘corrupt elite’.

Since Realists accept the reality of pluralism they tend to be, by contrast, more pessimistic. There are perfectly legitimate reasons for voting leave or remain and ‘deliberative debate’ is unlikely to ‘resolve’ these differences.

Realists also acknowledge that there is a history of ‘Authoritarian Populism’ on the Right going back to Margaret Thatcher, Enoch Powell and beyond. But they are also fearful of Radical Idealists, who also have an authoritarian tradition of acting on behalf of the ‘People’s Will’ against the people and democracy.

From this perspective, representative democracy and parliamentary sovereignty are bulwarks against the rising authoritarian tide.

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