A valid test of any political method is the quality of those it elevates to government.
Looking at the parade of nonentities befouling modern cabinets, one can be justified in having doubts about our democracy run riot (if you don’t mind a little self-publicity, I express some of them in my book Democracy As a Neocon Trick).
Sir John Major is a case in point. That he isn’t exactly the sharpest chisel in the toolbox is widely accepted even by his friends. His morals were demonstrated when he stabbed his benefactrix Margaret Thatcher in the back. And his taste in women… well, say no more than Edwina Currie.
Now Sir John is actively campaigning to torpedo Brexit, referendum or no. There’s obviously an element of self-vindication there: it was Major’s signature that put paid to British independence at Maastricht in 1992.
That flourish of the pen damaged the sovereignty of Crown and Parliament more effectively than any other historical event that comes to mind offhand. If that’s not treason, I don’t know what is, although I’m sure casuistic loopholes prevent legal charges against Maastricht John.
That, having staked his whole political life on that act, Sir John now wants to prevent its unravelling is as understandable as it’s deplorable. His excuse is that he may not even understand what he’s doing – or saying.
There exists, Sir John declared yesterday, “a perfectly credible cause” for a second referendum. He then went on to prove that there’s no perfectly credible cause for Sir John. Here’s what he said:
“I hear the argument that the 48 per cent of people who voted to stay should have no say in what happens. I find that very difficult to accept. The tyranny of the majority has never applied in a democracy and it should not apply in this particular democracy.”
Sir John has heard the catchphrase, which is good, but I’m not sure he either understands its meaning or knows its provenance, which is unfortunate.
Actually, John Adams first warned against the tyranny of the majority during the debates about the American Constitution. Some 18 years later he realised with horror that his warning hadn’t been heeded: “I once thought our Constitution was a quasi or mixed government, but they had made it… a democracy.”
Thomas Jefferson agreed with Adams’s low opinion of democracy. Echoing Plato, he remarked: “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule [ochlocracy, to Plato], where fifty-one per cent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”
You’ll notice that the Founders were talking about democracy in general, not direct democracy in particular. Later “the tyranny of the majority” appeared as a chapter title in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, to be quoted later still in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.
Those gentlemen were absolutely correct in decrying unlimited democracy – and absolutely wrong in believing it was preventable by palliative constitutional tinkering, such as introducing an electoral college in America.
The only check on democracy proven effective is reducing it to just one of the mechanisms of power, counterbalanced by others. The proof was provided by England’s constitution, where the unelected power of the monarch was balanced with the elected power of the Commons, with the mediating hereditary power of the Lords making sure the balance didn’t tip too much one way or the other.
That was the greatest constitutional achievement in history, and it was wantonly undone by a succession of governing nonentities like John Major. Yet an argument can be made that removing checks on democracy is anyhow an ineluctable process, intrinsic to any practice of this system in our post-Enlightenment modernity.
One way or the other, given our existing conditions, it’s impossible to argue persuasively against the odd plebiscite, for example when an issue of constitutional import is at stake.
For democracy is self-nullifying. Unless people vote direct on every policy, which is patently impossible, “the tyranny of the majority”, so dreaded by the gentlemen above, is guaranteed to develop into the tyranny of a minority governing in its own interests but in the name of the people. A plebiscite can provide some check, however imperfect.
Every word in Major’s statement applies to democracy in general: in fact, considerably more people voted for Brexit in 2016 than for John Major in 1992 – and no one voted for him in 1990, when he became PM in the wake of a perfidious coup.
People had “no say” in anything he did, such as signing away 1,500 years of England’s constitutional tradition in 1992. One didn’t hear him object about the injustice of it all then.
While Major is intellectually and morally deficient, his successor, in addition to those attributes, is downright wicked. Blair avers we must have a second referendum if the British people decide that “the pain-gain cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up”.
To propose deciding the issue of British sovereignty on such criteria isn’t just ignorant, vulgar and crass. It’s evil, irredeemably so.
The two nonentities disagree on the value of arithmetic: one dislikes counting votes, the other supports counting pennies. But they converge in their obvious ignorance of, and contempt for, the best constitution mankind has produced so far.