Richard Kelly is co-author of ‘Political Ideas’ and a contributor to ‘Retrieving the Big Society’.
For much of the post-war era, the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ have been synonymous. Indeed, ‘liberal democracy’ has been the accepted description of most western states, while few have questioned the logic of parties calling themselves ‘Liberal Democrats’.
Yet a basic study of political theory tells us that liberalism and democracy is a far from inevitable coupling, that about 200 years elapsed before the two were intertwined, and that the marriage itself was a forced one. So why has the lib-dem relationship been so fraught? And why has this been underlined by Brexit? A quick glance at liberalism’s history is a good place to start.
Liberalism’s roots lie in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, when scholars like John Locke sought an alternative to traditional, absolutist government. Locke, and later the US Founding Fathers, duly argued that political authority should be fragmented and dispersed via a codified constitution, and that liberty required “power cut into tiny pieces”. So far, so democratic….
But the issue gets more complicated when we recall liberalism’s fundamental principle, viz., that each individual is endowed with ‘natural rights’. According to Locke, a man’s freedom of speech, freedom to own property and freedom to realise his potential are God-given and non-negotiable: innate liberties that no state (and no other man) should deny.
As Locke explained, a state where power is exercised autocratically or arbitrarily is a threat to such ‘rights’ and must be averted by assorted ‘checks and balances’. Yet implicit to Locke’s thesis, and liberalism generally, is a fear that the people’s ‘natural rights’ are threatened not just by the wrong kind of state, but by the people themselves. And it is this assumption that makes liberals so wary of democracy.
Power to (some of) the people
Politics students are routinely told that liberalism has an optimistic view of human nature. Yet, in many respects, liberalism’s view of human nature is rather distrustful and less relaxed than that of conservative thinkers like Michael Oakeshott. One early indication of this was the insistence, by early liberals, that votes could only be given to property owners – the fear being that a landless majority would disrespect the notion that property was a ‘natural right’.
Even then, classical liberals were taking no chances. To guard against what John Stuart Mill termed ‘the tyranny of the majority’, liberal constitutions would empower non-elected judges to strike down ideas which, while popular in elections, might infringe ‘natural rights’ – such rights being enshrined in a Bill of Rights that transcended election results. Consequently, liberal states aimed not just to promote but ensure liberal outcomes – irrespective of what most voters wanted. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted, individuals in an enlightened state should not merely be ‘free’, but ‘forced to be free’ via the sort of constitution Locke prescribed,
Educate first, democratise second
By the mid-19th century, liberals like Mill acknowledged that an extension of the franchise was inevitable and that voting could no longer be confined to the propertied. Yet, here again, we see evidence that, while liberals wish to disperse power, they only wish to disperse it to the right kind of person.
As such, Mill argued there should be no votes for the ‘unschooled’, as such individuals would be ‘irrational’ and therefore illiberal. By contrast, Mill argued that bonus votes should be given to those who – like Mill himself – had been ‘schooled’ all the way to a degree, and who could therefore be considered especially rational/liberal. Mill was confident that, once universal education was established, there would be a universal acceptance of liberal values, at which point it would be ‘appropriate’ to grant universal suffrage. In the meantime, though, liberals judged Disraeli’s advice – “trust the people” – as irresponsible and downright dangerous: a judgement reflected a century later by architects of European Union.
Liberalism and Europe
By the early 1940s, continental nations were not exactly liberal in their government and politics. Yet, by the early 1950s, many of those same nations were a lodestar for liberals in Britain, with post-war plans for European integration enthusing many soi-disant progressives.
Given liberalism’s historic resolve to secure liberal outcomes irrespective of public opinion, the nascent EU, with its implicit aim of mitigating national elections, was bound to attract liberal interest. Small wonder as well that the first UK party to endorse European union was the 1950s Liberal Party – its zeal increased, no doubt, by the threat of electoral extinction it was then facing.
However, in Britain liberal ideas have seldom been restricted to Liberal parties; and the idea that ‘Europe’ could copper-fasten capitalism (qua economic liberalism) soon detained many Conservatives. Partly to offset their worries that UK elections might produce Clause IV socialism, Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath thus sought membership of the ‘capitalist club’ emerging in western Europe, while Margaret Thatcher campaigned to ‘remain’ during the 1975 referendum.
Only when capitalism seemed secure, following the end of the Cold War, did most Conservatives become worried about Europe’s democratic deficit. Meanwhile, many anti-Conservatives, whose defeats after 1979 gave them a sour view of UK elections, began to admire things like the EU Social Chapter (qua social liberalism) and its capacity to blunt further Tory victories. Once again, a supra-national liberal project was engaging those with an ambivalent view of democracy.
It’s the rules, stupid
Brexit has shown us that the divide between Remain and Leave is not about social and economic policy. Both George Osborne and Boris Johnson actively detest racism and sexism. Both Anna Soubry and Daniel Hannan back free-market economics. Both Tom Watson and Kate Hoey support more public ownership.
Instead, the Brexit divide concerns the very rules of political engagement – or, more specifically, the extent to which they should be liberal rules.
In this respect, UK politics is back in the land of Locke. Should the values we cherish require ongoing consent at the ballot box? Or, like Locke’s, are they too sacred for the rough and tumble of elections?
Should ‘enlightened’ policies be regularly subject to democratic scrutiny? Or, as Mill insisted, should they be guaranteed by constitutional backstops?
Should democratic procedures be paramount? Or are they less important than liberal outcomes (a notion that might also explain liberalism’s qualified support for free speech – hence its connection to PC, safe-spacing and no-platforming)?
In liberal circles, Brexit has also prompted a return to Mill’s concern about universal suffrage. Is it right, wonders Polly Toynbee, that the votes of the young should carry no more weight than those of their ‘reactionary’ elders? It is sensible, asks George Monbiot, that on a vital issue like Brexit the votes of graduates can be negated by the ‘less educated’? Classical liberal concerns about ‘the tyranny of the majority’ are clearly alive and kicking.
A dying doctrine?
When defending their corner, liberals might remember that, while ‘the tyranny of the majority’ can be unpleasant, the diktats of an unelected liberal minority – be it Supreme Court judges or EU Commissioners – can be much more offensive to modern voters. Furthermore, at a time when trust in elites is declining, and when ‘ordinary’ people are increasingly vocal via social media, it is anyhow unclear if the recurrent liberal dream – state-guaranteed capitalism and individualism – is really sustainable. If not, then far from being the ‘end of history’, liberalism could soon mark the end of an historic conceit.
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