This is a wise and thought-provoking read, whatever position on the political spectrum you inhabit – apart from the far extremes, of course. I enjoy reading A.C. Grayling’s books much as I enjoy George Orwell’s essays – I would happily read them on a beach rather than a page-turner novel.
The book starts with Plato’s oft-quoted worry about democracy – that it can be controlled by a hidden oligarchy, or, worse, descend into mob rule with order being restored by a strongman ruler who eventually becomes a tyrant. In Plato’s view too many voters were too ignorant, selfish and prejudiced to make a rational decision. Plato’s solution was rule by an aristocracy of philosopher kings. Aristotle argued that this was impractical as it ignored human nature. He had a point. One can only imagine what would happen if this country was ruled by the likes of Prince Philip and Prince Charles. Though Harry isn’t that bad. Come to think of it, they might do better than the current lot. Aristotle’s solution was to nurture the virtuous citizen, reasonable and informed, and encourage a polity in which no single order of citizens can override the interests of others.
Grayling takes us from Plato and Aristotle, through the peasant revolts, Machiavelli, the English civil war, Locke, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, and the American and French revolutions to arrive at the present day with Boris, Farage and Trump. A bit of a come down that. Sometimes you have to concentrate to follow the arguments but that can only be a good thing if you want to be an informed voter.
I liked the section on the English civil war and especially the description of the Putney debates when the Levellers (men who had just risked their lives in a brutal war) debated their idea of democracy with representatives of the propertied class. And there was me thinking that the Levellers were a rock group. Only joking. This reminds me of my dad’s descriptions of the debates that were held in the British army towards the end of the Second World War. The soldiers had risked their lives and were fed up with the ruling system. They wanted change. And they got it with a Labour landslide and the creation of the Welfare State.
Grayling reaches the present day and wonders where everything went wrong. He points to the steady erosion of the checks on the power of the executive in the UK, the lack of a written constitution, the practice of whipping MPs to vote against their real wishes, the iniquities of the First Past the Post electoral system and the fake news and propaganda dispensed by certain newspapers.
I was taken by his quote of Hannah Arendt’s distinction between the ‘masses’ and the ‘people’. The latter wish to see their views and wishes make a difference; the former hate the society which has marginalised and excluded them. Now what does that remind you of? Any televised interview with a redneck Trump supporter or with one of the ‘left behind’ pro-brexit voters in northern English towns such as Stoke-on-Trent. It’s not so much ‘Democracy and its Crisis’, more ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’.
Finally, Grayling summarises his own remedies, which include; compulsory voting, rigorous probity in election funding and media reporting and lobbying, avoiding referenda and separating the legislature from the executive. Two appendeces cover brexit and Trump. Even if you disagree with some of Grayling’s solutions, it is important that you know why you disagree.
And my final thoughts? It’s a fine mess we’ve got ourselves into. Many will be familiar with Churchill’s comment that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ Fewer will know of Churchill’s other comment that ‘the strongest argument against democracy is a few minutes’ conversation with any voter.’
But, it’s the best we’ve got and we’ll just have to keep trying to make it better. And a careful read of this book might help us along the way.