The fundamentals of democracy: a response to John Palmer

Roger Scruton
12 December 2005

John Palmer’s advocacy of European democracy in his openDemocracy reply to Gisela Stuart (“The ‘nation’-state is not enough”) owes its appeal to an important observation: that many of the issues that most nearly affect the people of Europe are not easily resolved by national parliaments but require negotiations in which the whole continent is, or ought to be, involved.

In such circumstances many are tempted to think that continental sovereignty is the answer, and hence that continent-wide democracy must be instituted, lest the European institutions lose all legitimacy. Palmer laments the abandonment of the European constitutional treaty, and looks forward to a renewed attempt to inject democratic procedures into the European Commission and its subordinate institutions.

Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher, and frequent contributor to openDemocracy. His website is here.

Roger Scruton is responding here to the article by John Palmer, “The ‘nation’-state is not enough: a reply to Gisela Stuart” (December 2005).

This forms part of a debate on “Opening democracy”, consisting so far of these articles:

Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton, “Democracy and openDemocracy"

Roger Scruton, “Democracy or theocracy? A response to Barnett & Hilton”

John Dunn, “Getting democracy into focus”

Anatol Lieven, “Democratic failure: festering lilies smell worse than weeds”

Mishal Al Sulami, “Democracy in the Arab world: the Islamic foundation”

Fred Dallmayr, “Mobilising global democracy”

Thomas Cushman, “Democracy and its enemies: a response to Barnett & Hilton”

Gisela Stuart, “The body of democracy”

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What he fails to see, however, is that the European institutions have never had legitimacy, and that the constitutional treaty was rejected in France and the Netherlands not because of some misunderstanding but because the people of the European nation-states, offered for the first time the opportunity to say what they think of the European project, made clear that they reject it. Behind Palmer’s argument I sense the old leftist fallacy which tells us that since we on the left are the true democrats the people who don’t vote for us have made a mistake. We are therefore entitled to rule in any case, since a mistaken vote is not a vote.

This reasoning has animated the European project from the beginning.

If people reject it, Jean Monnet and his followers thought, then that is only because they lack the education to see that it is in their interests. So let’s not give them the opportunity to reject it. The result is the growth of a vast network of institutions, none of which has the slightest political legitimacy – not even the European parliament, filled as it is by people for whom the mass of European citizens have not had the heart or the interest to vote.

Gisela Stuart is surely right to emphasize the importance of nationality in underpinning democratic procedures. Democracy depends upon one thing above all others, which is the ability of voters to accept being governed by those with whom they profoundly disagree.

This extraordinary state of mind does not exist in many places in the world: but it does exist in Europe, largely because we have ways in which people can feel solidarity with their opponents, and forgive them for wielding power, just as I forgive Tony Blair and Gisela Stuart, among others. And I extend my forgiveness to Gisela, as she might one day to people like me, because – her German origins notwithstanding – she shares my loyalty to the British inheritance, and recognises common cause with me in working for the survival and prosperity of our country. We can agree to differ, precisely because we have a fundamental loyalty in common.

Ever since Immanuel Kant’s advocacy of cosmopolitan politics, intellectuals have dreamed of another and, in their eyes, superior way of ordering the future of mankind, through global institutions that discount all the divisions and discords of history. Intellectuals easily think in this way, especially if they have been educated by the Enlightenment curriculum which tells them that no national or religious culture has a monopoly of the truth.

But ordinary people are neither the beneficiaries of that kind of education nor able to offer their sparse supply of charity to all-comers. They feel solidarity with what is close to them, historically bound up with them, and trustworthy because self-evidently beside them on the sea of fate. That is the feeling from which national loyalty arose, and which made it possible to put nationality above religion in the allegiances of European people.

Religion, after all, is no foundation for democracy, and we should be thankful that European history has made nationality available to us, since that is what made democracy possible. And – to return to Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton’s article which opened this debate – it seems to me that they did not emphasise, as they should, the real threat to democracy that is now posed, by the steady capture of social territory by the Islamists, for whom national loyalty, which tells us to tolerate religious difference, is an offence against God.

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