Belfast Telegraph

Funny how everyone's a democrat until you try to vote for Brexit or Trump

Return of direct rule would be another example of outsourcing authority to an unaccountable institution, writes Mick Hume

Does the political impasse in Northern Ireland following the Assembly elections signal a local crisis of unionism and power-sharing or a wider crisis afflicting democracy itself?

For many years, particularly for those of us on the outside, political life in Northern Ireland has been seen as a thing apart. It's politics, Jim, but not as we know it.

Now, however, in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, some interpret events in Northern Ireland as part of a bigger problem of democratic politics.

In the words of one veteran commentator, the Assembly elections confirm that "Democracy is one of those things that is great in theory and absolutely useless in practice" - and that voters are largely to blame.

As proof of this, the columnist repeats the fashionable assertion that Adolf Hitler "was elected to office on a tide of popular support". In fact, Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933 by the aristocratic, democracy-hating German establishment, at a time when the Nazis were losing support at the polls.

Leave aside for the moment the vexed question of how far Northern Ireland can be described as a democratic state. The attempt to situate events in a wider crisis of Western democracy illustrates that we live in the age of 'I'm a democrat, but...'.

Our political and cultural elites support democratic rights up to the moment when voters make the 'wrong' decision, such as backing Brexit, electing Trump, or spoiling their plans for Northern Ireland.

As former Conservative Prime Minister John Major declared in dismissing the EU referendum, "The tyranny of the majority has never applied in a democracy."

Some of us might naively have assumed that majority rule was the essence of democracy (except under Northern Ireland's system of enforced power-sharing, of course).

Strangely, Major had no problem with the democratic tyranny of the minority when he was elected with 42% of the votes cast in 1992.

For perhaps the first time in history, every serious public figure in the West feels obliged to declare support for democracy in principle. Yet, in practice, the establishment is seeking to undermine democracy. They want further to separate the two elements of the original Greek word: 'demos' (the people) and 'kratos' (power, or control).

The outlook of 'I'm a democrat, but...' runs through Western public life. Hillary Clinton spelt it out during the US election campaign, telling an LGBT fundraiser: "You could put half of Trump voters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?"

She was criticised by top liberal commentators - for being too restrained in denouncing only half of America's allegedly lowlife racist, homophobic voters.

A top British writer on US affairs, Andrew Sullivan, won plaudits for baldly declaring that, "Democracies end when they are too democratic" and calling on Americans to defend "the political establishment" against Trump to "save democracy from itself" and "its own destabilising excesses".

To save democracy from itself, it seems, we need the elite to hold it in check. Which might sound like that US army officer in Vietnam explaining how, "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it".

Meanwhile, back in Britain, leading liberal intellectuals, such as Professor Richard Dawkins, denounced the 17.4 million Leave voters as "stupid, ignorant people" and "unqualified simpletons", unfit to make such an historic decision about their own society.

Emotional voters, we were assured, had simply been too gormless and gullible, led astray by demagogues peddling lies and post-truth politics. Better by far to leave these things to the experts.

It couldn't be that most UK voters had looked at the facts and drawn different conclusions about democracy and sovereignty than their betters, it had to be that the naughty children had let their feelings run away with them.

For a truly emotional response, see Gina Miller, the City financier who fronted the legal challenge to Brexit because, she said, the revolting voters' verdict had made her "physically sick".

The arguments about what American pundits call 'low-information (aka low-intelligence) voters being led astray by post-truth politics provide a convenient excuse for the elites' failure to get enough voters to do their bidding.

After all, what chance have you got of convincing people if they are just too uneducated and emotional to accept that a few experts know what's best for the rest?

These responses reveal the return of a number of age-old prejudices, peddled by every anti-democrat since Plato, about the people not being fit for our democracy, rather than the other way around.

Democracy has been under threat since it was first invented in ancient Athens 2,500 years ago.

Even 100 years ago, in the midst of the First World War, only 60% of British men aged over 21 and no women had the vote. Millions were sent to fight and die for a democratic state which still denied them the most basic democratic right (the distortion of democracy through gerrymandering and property qualifications lasted rather longer than that in Northern Ireland).

At its best, modern representative democracy has always involved restraining popular sovereignty. The constitutional systems of checks and balances we hear much about today were, from the first, intended to check the popular will and balance the demands of the people with the power of courts, upper chambers and other state bodies.

Even in modern times, the West's political classes have sought to insulate themselves from the demos by investing more kratos - power - in unelected bodies, such as the courts and the European Commission.

Their motives were laid bare by EC president Herr Juncker, in his previous life as Prime Minister of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (before becoming Duke of the Grand Duchy of Brussels): "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it."

The prospect of the return of outdated direct rule from distant Westminster might fill many in Northern Ireland with dread, but it would fit with the tendency to outsource power and authority to more unaccountable institutions today.

The popular reactions against unrepresentative political elites that burst forth (positively) in the UK Brexit vote and (not) in the election of Trump have brought the poisonous old anti-democratic prejudices bubbling back to the surface.

Democracy is about choice. That does not mean you get to pick and choose which bits of democracy you are prepared to tolerate, or cherry-pick which votes are legitimate.

The problem is not too much democracy, but too little.

The only way to defeat the likes of Trump and European reactionaries is through open democratic debate, not backdoor manoeuvres.

Of course, genuine democracy is a risky business. There are no guarantees that once the democratic genie is out of the bottle he will grant your wishes.

The 'safe' alternative would be a fixed election, in which one side is banned from speaking, or restricting elections and referendums altogether - an idea which might find quiet approval with the influential 'I'm a democrat, but...' lobby today.

Mick Hume is the author of Revolting!: How the Establishment are Undermining Democracy and What They're Afraid Of (William Collins, £6.99)

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