In The Return of the Native Eustacia Vye is one of Thomas Hardy’s most vividly-drawn characters. It was this imperious beauty who in Scripture lessons at school had wondered ‘if Pontius Pilate was as handsome as he was wise and just?’ The Roman Governor of Judea found Jesus of Nazareth to be innocent of the charges against him, but he gave in to the crowd’s demand for a crucifixion. It may be wise to consult the people, but justice comes from a governing inner conscience not from visceral impulses.
The voice of the people is the voice of God is an age-old notion of uncertain origin. The scholar Alcuin of York, the most influential mind of his times, advised Charlemagne against that alluring phrase in all its apparent benevolence. It was not a plea for autocracy but against the surrender to uninformed and incoherent emotions coursing through the streets like a crazed beast. Demagogues arouse and manipulate popular feeling. Good government mediates the higher aspirations of commonwealth. If you do not know the difference read no further.
In our age good government is generally accepted to be democratic, with formal elections and open debate. The government is accountable to the people occasionally through elections and continuously, especially through the scrutiny of legislators, the judiciary and a free press. This civic democracy functions within a liberal culture that accepts and absorbs a range of opinions. The debate on the nature of society and how best it may develop is both extensive and continuous.
This debate cannot be confined to the formal governing process. The lifeblood of democracy is the informed and considered contributions made by a network of commentary that moves through society especially in the lecture hall, the journal and the broadcast. These categories are discrete but not mutually exclusive.
A commentator’s career may see an interchange of roles. [The newspaper columnist who is a visiting professor and a regular broadcaster typifies this interchange]. We read these commentaries and respond by voicing our own contributions, perhaps casually and socially or in a more formal sense. [Letters to the Editor are an invaluable source of useful responses].
Democracy works as an extending process, reaching into the network of society, especially in the workplace. Democracy in our time cannot be a matter of choosing between two similar groups of patricians. Decision-makers only have a right to decide if they respect, consult and defer to the people in whose interests they decide things. Our leaders must be our servers not our masters.
However [with a capital H], we are talking about civilized and benign processes. We are all invited to contribute. But there is a caveat that the responses articulate an arguable and credible position in a reasoned way. That does not preclude intense feelings vigorously expressed. Impassioned dissent is permissible in challenging the complacency of consensus and the insolence of office. It is not only permissible: it is necessary to ensure the debate is genuine. A leavening of unfettered feeling is a guarantor of free speech. There are bounds but they are subject to change according to circumstance.
Yet we are talking about those who know the difference between opinion grounded in fact and unfounded and febrile emotion. Truth is not obvious and simple; always there is room for doubt in a democracy. To ensure against bland conformity there is a place reserved at the table for other ways of looking. All are invited to the table, but the stewards have the right to exclude malign intentions. There are those who by their wilful ignorance and conscious obstruction exclude themselves. Society always contains such a substratum, an inarticulate rage against life, a level of crude and raw instincts waiting for the opportune moment.
To permit [in the name of freedom and democracy] the base level to take the leading role in determining society’s direction is unthinkable even as we see it gain an ascendancy. Guided by vengeful spite rather than by conscience, populism voices rumour, wishful-thinking, and prejudice, rather than anything that could be deemed an opinion.
The higher aspirations of commonwealth do not come from the lower depths. The dynamic of change may be found in that great and under-used national resource, the informed and articulate young. Many feel a justified alienation from a polity that perpetually promises what it clearly has no intention of delivering.
The governing principles of society no longer work. The political climate feels directionless. Rather than conversation, a cacophony of voices reveal their latent hysteria and violence. The established frame is seen not to meet the needs of those beyond the charmed circles of money and influence. The free market does not offer the cohesion and direction of a socially responsible polity.
The increasingly hard and ruthless right justifies its rule by identifying only one possible alternative, a failed collectivist bureaucracy. Trite polarities simply stated replace the contribution of all the credible possibilities available. What works is money, the basis of society. You don’t have money? Then you don’t belong.
Every day of their lives ordinary people in the UK are told they are inferior. The ‘South’ has everything. The ‘North’ [ie everywhere beyond the metropolitan circle] has nothing. ‘But don’t worry because you have a strong sense of community.’ Those communities, north of, east of, west of, have received the message, and voted in large numbers for a rejection of all that is not immediate and known and local. Keenly aware that provincial is invariably a term of disdain, they have lost faith in the metropolitan arrivistes. But they have no faith in any radical trajectories stigmatized in the media as failed Victorian illusions, like spirit-messages. What remains is an idealized, nostalgic, introspective picture of a heritage denied to a people deprived of their native soil.
Although metropolitan culture is rejected as inaccessible and alien, the heroes of popular culture are considered kindred spirits. They are not seen as rich and different, but as successful versions of people like us. And they are there for us. We can be like them if we try. Well, we can watch the DVD, anyway.
The contradictions are transparent, but instincts are not governed by reason. They are not restrained by reason. What begins with resentment ends in the adulation of a messianic inadequate. It is acceptable now to say what has long been held beyond the pale. The anecdotal evidence of xenophobic mania is overwhelming.
The movement towards chaos accelerates. Governments of the far right [including Britain’s] face a growing challenge from the extreme right. The heirs of liberalism cannot find much common ground with the radical left. And even if a popular front were possible it would find the formal electoral processes favouring the right. Other ways, informal but no less decisive, must be explored. Campaign as if your life depended on it, because it does.
In the meantime there is a crisis of democracy. It is not a crisis in one country. The peace dividends we were promised have been squandered. For some time now successive waves of reaction have flooded the world. It is a change in the global political climate, a rejection of ideas, a rejection of ethics and reason, a rejection of history, and in the end a rejection of everything. The burning cross, the burning book – these are the images returning to haunt us. Next comes the child behind the barbed wire. But that’s already happening, isn’t it?
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall