Why have Brits given up on democracy? Credit: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images

November 5, 2021   17 mins

Towards the end of his long life, John Adams, one of the founding fathers of American democracy, became increasingly gloomy about its prospects. Writing to the Virginia politician John Taylor in 1814, he observed that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

When Adams chose the word “suicide” to describe the death of democracies, he was making a deliberate and important point. Democracies fail from within. They are not usually overwhelmed by external forces, such as invasion or insurrection, or overthrown by internal coups. They fail because people spontaneously turn to more authoritarian forms of government.

Adams had in mind the democracies of the ancient world, the only precedents available before the foundation of the United States. According to the orthodox narrative, the democracies of the ancient world had died because people succumbed to the appeal of demagogues, who promised them security at home and triumphs abroad in return for their acceptance of autocracy. People simply lost interest in democratic government.

John Adams’s sombre prediction did not come true in his own day. The question I want to address is whether it is becoming true in ours.

The Pew Research Centre has been tracking attitudes to democracy in different countries for some 30 years. Dissatisfaction with democracy has been rising in advanced democracies for most of that time. This is especially true of young people living in the oldest democracies: the United States, the United Kingdom and France. In the most recent survey, the United Kingdom has had one of the highest levels of dissatisfaction in the world, at 69%. It seems that only Bulgaria and Greece think less of democracy than the British.

Dissatisfaction with democracy does not necessarily imply a preference for some other system. But more disturbing findings emerge from the regular surveys of political engagement conducted in the UK by the Hansard Society. In the 2019 survey, the latest available, 54% of respondents agreed with the statement that “Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules”. Only 23% disagreed. Nearly half of those who wanted a strong leader willing to break the rules thought that he “shouldn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament.”

Polling evidence is not infallible, but these polls track attitudes over a considerable period of time, and indicate the direction in which we are travelling. They are consistent with the historically high levels of electoral support for authoritarian figures such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the leading lights of Alternative für Deutschland.

The first thing that we need to be clear about is what we mean by democracy. We are so familiar with its use as a general hurrah word that some definition seems necessary. What I mean by democracy is a constitutional mechanism for collective self-government. Democracy is a way of entrusting decision-making to people acceptable to the majority, whose power is defined and limited, and whose mandate is revocable.

But the institutional framework is not enough. Plenty of countries have the institutional framework of a democracy without being one. This is because democracy can only work in a legal and social culture where there is freedom of thought, speech and association, uncontrolled access to reliable information, and a large tolerance of political dissent. A culture of this kind is fragile. Where democracies fail, it is not usually because the institutional framework has failed. It is because the necessary cultural foundation has gone.

The opposite of democracy is some form of authoritarian government. It is of course possible for democracies to confer considerable coercive power on the state without losing their democratic character. But there is a point beyond which the systematic application of coercion is no longer consistent with any notion of collective self-government. The fact that it is hard to define where that point lies does not mean that there isn’t one. A degree of respect for individual autonomy seems to me to be a necessary feature of anything which deserves to be called a democracy.

The polling evidence which I have cited suggests that democracy is now increasingly vulnerable in the very countries that gave birth to it. Why has this happened?

The chief enemies of democracy are economic insecurity, intolerance, and fear. Let me first address economic insecurity.

Historically, democracies have always been heavily dependent on economic optimism. Except for two short periods, the United States has enjoyed continuously rising levels of prosperity, both absolutely and relative to other countries, until quite recently. Britain’s economic history, like that of other European countries, has been slightly more chequered. But the trajectory has generally been upward.

Today, the outlook is darker. We face problems of faltering growth, relative economic decline, redundant skills and capricious patterns of inequality. In most western democracies, including ours, GDP is still rising, albeit slowly. But people measure their wellbeing against their expectations. 60 years of post-war expansion have raised those expectations to a very high level.

Economic misfortune usually bears hardest on the poorest members of society. It marginalises them, and makes them feel that the current organisation of their country has nothing to offer them. But in a more fundamental sense, the impact of economic hardship is likely to be felt at every level of society. The shattering of optimism is a dangerous moment in the life of any community. Disillusionment with the promise of progress was a major factor in the 30-year crisis of Europe which began in 1914 and ended in 1945. That crisis was characterised by a resort to totalitarianism in much of Europe. Britain, the United States and France escaped that fate, but in all three countries there were powerful authoritarian movements of Left and Right which drew their strength mainly from economic misfortune. Russia and Germany were widely regarded as the models which showed the way out, just as China sometimes is today.

The second of democracy’s great enemies is fear. People who are sufficiently frightened will submit to an authoritarian regime which offers them security against some real or imagined threat. Historically, the threat has usually been war. In the two world wars of the twentieth century Britain transformed itself into a temporary despotism with substantial public support. Wars, however, are rare. This country has generally conducted its wars at a distance. It has not faced an existential threat from external enemies since 1940, unless you count the high point of the nuclear threat in the 1960s.

The real threat to democracy’s survival is not major disasters like war. It is comparatively minor perils, which in the nature of things occur more frequently. This may seem paradoxical. But reflect for a moment. The more routine the perils from which we demand protection, the more frequently will those demands arise. If we confer despotic powers on government to deal with perils, which are an ordinary feature of human existence, we will end up doing it most or all of the time. It is because the perils against which we now demand protection from the state are so much more numerous than they were that they are likely to lead to a more fundamental and durable change in our attitudes to the state. This is a more serious problem for the future of democracy than war.

It arises because of the growing aversion of western societies to risk. We crave protection from many risks which are inherent in life itself: financial loss, economic insecurity, crime, sexual violence and abuse, sickness, accidental injury. Even the late pandemic, serious as it was, was well within the broad range of mortal diseases with which human beings have always had to live. It is certainly within the broad range of diseases with which we must expect to live with in future.

We call upon the state to save us from these things. This is not irrational. It is in some ways a natural response to the remarkable increase in the technical competence of mankind since the middle of the nineteenth century, which has considerably increased the range of things that the state can do. As a result, we have inordinately high expectations of the state. We are less inclined to accept that there are things that it cannot or should not do to protect us. For all perils, there must be a governmental solution. If there is none, that implies a lack of governmental competence.

Attitudes to death provide a striking example. There are few things as routine as death. “In the midst of life, we are in death,” says the Book of Common Prayer. Yet the technical possibilities of modern, publicly-financed medicine have accustomed us to the idea that, except in extreme old age, any death from disease is premature, and that all premature death is avoidable. Starting as a natural event, death has become a symptom of societal failure.

In modern conditions, risk-aversion and the fear that goes with it are a standing invitation to authoritarian government. If we hold governments responsible for everything that goes wrong, they will take away our autonomy so that nothing can go wrong. We have had a spectacular demonstration of this during the pandemic, where coercive measures with radical effects on our lives were made by ministers with strong public support but minimal parliamentary input. A minister told me some months ago that he thought liberal democracy an unsuitable instrument for dealing with a pandemic, and that something more “Napoleonic” was needed. He was making a more significant point than he realised. Whatever one thinks about this — and my own views are well known — it unquestionably marks a significant change in our collective mentality.

The quest for security at the price of coercive state intervention is a feature of democratic politics which was pointed out in the 1830s by the great political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville in his remarkable study of American democracy, a book whose uncanny relevance still takes one by surprise even after nearly two centuries. His description of the process cannot be bettered. The protecting power of the state, he wrote,

“extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered. But it is softened, bent, and guided. Men are seldom forced to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes. It stupefies a people until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

In many ways, the biggest threat to democracy is not oppression by the state, but the intolerance of our fellow citizens. In the early years of British democracy, the great apostle of Victorian liberalism John Stuart Mill foresaw that the main threat to its survival would be the conformity imposed by public opinion. Roger Scruton once wrote that “the freedom to entertain and express opinions, however offensive… [is] the precondition of a political society.” Roger had more personal experience of this than any of us. He was a persistent, and joyful dissentient. In the same article, he identified the problem with unerring accuracy. To guarantee freedom of opinion,” he wrote,

“goes against the grain of social life, and imposes risks that people may be reluctant to take. For in criticising orthodoxy, you are not just questioning a belief — you are threatening the social order that has been built on it.”

The deliberate campaigns of suppression conducted by pressure groups against politically unfashionable or “incorrect” opinions on, for example, race, gender reassignment, or same-sex relationships; the attempts to impose a new vocabulary which implicitly accepts the campaigners’ point of view: these things are symptoms of the narrowing of our intellectual world.

The tests recently imposed on freshers at the University of St. Andrews and the campaign against Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex suggest that intellectual persecution is alive even in our universities, for the first time perhaps since Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake just 200 yards from here. Demonstrations, such as those organised by Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, are based on the notion that the campaigners’ point of view is the only legitimate one. It is therefore perfectly acceptable deliberately to bully people and disrupt their lives until they submit, instead of resorting to ordinary democratic procedures. This is the mentality of terrorists, but without the violence.

Democracy can only survive if our differences are transcended by our common acceptance of the legitimacy of the decision-making process, even when we disagree profoundly with the outcome. This implicit bargain breaks down if a society repeatedly finds itself resorting to coercion to enforce the majority view about controversial moral issues. It breaks down if people feel more strongly about the issues than they do about democratic procedures for settling them. The result is the abandonment of political engagement and a growing resort to direct action of one kind or another.

Direct action is an invitation to authoritarian government, because it implicitly rejects diversity of opinion. It assesses the value of democratic institutions by one criterion only, namely the degree to which the activists’ program has prevailed. Those who engage in direct action instinctively feel that the end is so important that it justifies the means, but they rarely confront the implications of their acts. What holds us together as a society is precisely the means by which we do things. Since we are never likely to agree on controversial issues of principle, what holds us together is not consensus, but a common respect for a method of resolving our differences, whether or not we approve of the resulting decisions.

Conflicts of opinion and interest are natural features of any free society. The task of a political community is to accommodate them so that we can live together in peace without systematic coercion. This is necessarily a political process, which is why the contempt for politics expressed by so many people is potentially a mortal threat to our democracy.

The successive surveys of the Hansard Society paint a picture of a society in which interest in public affairs is strong, but willingness to engage actively in politics has declined. The Conservative Party has been the dominant party of government for the past century. It obtained 43.6% of the vote at the last election. Yet its membership has declined from about 2.8 million in the mid-1950s to about 180,000 according to the latest (three-year-old) figures. Labour party membership is larger, at about 430,000, but still a long way below its earlier peak.

This pattern is fairly typical internationally. The membership rolls of established political parties have declined steeply in most European democracies. By comparison, support for new parties dedicated to the wholesale rejection of normal party politics has increased, jerkily but noticeably: La Republique en Marche in France, the Five Star Movement in Italy, and Podemos in Spain have all presented themselves as representatives of a new electorate, spontaneous expressions of the popular will and not as traditional political parties. Podemos has declared that there is no left or right. There is only “the people”, identified with Podemos itself, versus “the caste”, that is to say the caste of professional politicians. In Italy, the Five Star Movement claims not to be a political party but a movement, and has promoted direct democracy with electronic voting. Remarkably, lack of political experience was a central part of the successful candidates’ pitch in the US presidential election of 2016, the French Presidential election of 2017 and the Italian legislative elections of 2018.

These facts reflect a fundamental problem about democracy, which was pointed out more than two millennia ago by Aristotle. Democratic representation creates a class of professional politicians. Aristotle regarded professional politics as an evil because he thought that any political elite would end up serving its own interests. This has been the received opinion for centuries, from Aristotle to Noam Chomsky. In my experience it is untrue. Professional politicians can never be intellectually pure. They are constrained by the need to compromise in order to build majorities. But the great majority of them are public-spirited individuals with a genuine ambition to serve the interests of their country. Most of them would achieve a great deal more money and status by pursuing other careers. Nevertheless, the old trope that politicians are a bunch of corrupt, self-interested and power-crazed hypocrites is deeply embedded in the public mind and always has been.

Aristotle’s solution was to abolish the political class, and replace it with a system in which public offices would be held for short periods by men chosen by lot or serving in rotation. Everyone can then feel that they were at least potentially engaged in a system of self-government. This is hardly realistic in an electorate of 47 million or so. But Aristotle had put his finger on the reason why many people reject democracy. They feel alienated from the political class which democracies inevitably generate. They do not regard politicians as representative of themselves, even if they voted for them.

There is no cure for this condition. Successful politicians are in the nature of things unlikely to be representative of the electorate. They require an altogether exceptional degree of ambition, application and intellect. Those of them who are in government have to apply themselves to complex issues with an intensity for which most of us have neither time nor inclination. If one object of representative politics is to choose politicians who are best-qualified to perform the exceptionally difficult job of governing, then our representatives will always be unrepresentative.

None of this has stopped enthusiasts for constitutional innovation from exploring a variety of ways of side-lining the political class. Referenda are one possibility, but Britain’s experience with referenda has not been entirely happy. They only work if people are voting about precise proposals (necessarily formulated by politicians) whose acceptance or rejection by the electorate will resolve the whole issue. Otherwise, they are simply the prelude to further rounds of political infighting, as we have seen.

Citizens’ Assemblies are the current favourites. They are the modern equivalent of Aristotle’s selection by lot. They seek to substitute for our semi-permanent political class a succession of focus groups. They are chosen to be socially representative, on the assumption that each individual will be politically representative of the categories to which they belong. That assumption seems likely to be wrong. Groups such as manual workers, members of particular ethnic groups or over-65s are no more uniform or consistent in their political opinions than the electorate at large. It is therefore largely a matter of accident whether our divisions are replicated in a Citizen’s Assembly of, say, 100 people. But the fundamental problem about these assemblies is that they have not been chosen by the electorate and are not answerable to anyone. They have no democratic or other legitimacy.

There are measures which might palliate the current problems of democracy, but without solving them. Foremost among them is proportional representation. Proportional representation would probably create a multiplicity of political parties. That would more fairly reflect the diversity of opinion among the electorate than the current two-party system. It would also, partly for that reason, increase the degree of participation in the political process. It is not going to happen, because it is contrary to the interests of the two major national parties and there is no real demand for it among the electorate. The alternative vote referendum of 2011 suggests that the British prefer the crude simplicity of first-past-the-post to anything more elaborate. The critical point for present purposes is that it would do nothing to address the alienation of the electorate from the political process. Indeed, it might well increase it, since it would lead to less stable governments and more political infighting.

I am not about to suggest my own solution to that problem, because I do not believe that there is one. Whatever we may think of our politicians, it is an inescapable truth that we cannot have democracy without politics or politics without politicians. We have to learn to accept the vices and virtues of professional politics, because they are inherent in the whole nature of government. Getting rid of professional politics would almost certainly lead to the replacement of the current political elite by a different one, which would be more permanent, more authoritarian and less representative. Ultimately all political systems are aristocracies of knowledge. Democracies are no different, except that the aristocracies of the moment are removable — something which profoundly affects their exercise of power.

A generation ago, the enemies of democracy were small groups of cranks and extremists of Left and Right. But today democracy needs a coherent defence, not just against those who would like to dispense with it in favour of more authoritarian models, but against those who would like to redefine it out of existence. We have to say something to the 54% of our fellow-citizens who would apparently prefer to be ruled by a British Putin. Why are they wrong?

The simplest thing to be said in favour of democracy is that it is an efficient way of getting rid of unsatisfactory governments without violence. But there are at least three other more profound reasons why people living in a country like ours ought to believe in democracy.

In the first place, it is the best protection that we have for liberty. Since a large measure of individual autonomy is a necessary condition for human happiness and creativity, this is a consideration of some importance. I am well aware of the oppressive possibilities of democracy. I do not doubt that democracy has an immense potential to oppress not just ethnic or social minorities, but political or moral minorities — people who believe something which majorities object to. That was pointed out by Madison and Mill at the birth of modern democracy, and indeed by Aristotle more than 20 centuries before that.

In most periods of history, the best guarantee of liberty has been the powerlessness and ignorance of the state. Historically, it was relatively easy to escape its scrutiny, and take shelter in the domain of private life. The immense power of the modern state, and its almost unlimited access to information, makes it harder to hide. Access to the levers of state power by democratic majorities is therefore potentially more dangerous today than it has ever been before. But democracy at least offers the possibility of redemption. Its values can be turned against those currently in power. By comparison, authoritarian states entrench themselves in power. They institutionalise repression and cultural control in a way that is more difficult to reverse.

Secondly, the creation of a political class, which Aristotle regarded as the great vice of democracy, may well be its chief merit. Political parties operate in what I have previously called the political market. They are coalitions of opinion, united by a loose consistency of outlook and the desire to win elections. To command a Parliamentary majority, parties have traditionally had to bid for support from a highly diverse electorate. Their policy offerings mutate in response to changes in the public’s sentiments which seem likely to influence voting patterns. Their whole object is to produce a slate of policies which perhaps only a minority would have chosen as their preferred option, but which the broadest possible range of people can live with. This has traditionally made them powerful engines of national compromise and effective mediators between the state and the electorate. It has also served as a good protection against extremes. Autocracy offers no protection at all against extremes.

Thirdly, democracy is more efficient in implementing policy choices. There is a common delusion, which I suspect is shared by many of the 54%, that strongmen get things done. They do not waste time in argument or debate. Historical experience should warn us that this idea is almost always wrong. The concentration of power in a small number of hands and the absence of wider deliberation and scrutiny enables authoritarian governments to make major decisions on the hoof, without proper forethought, planning, research or consultation. Within the government’s ranks, it promotes loyalty at the expense of wisdom, flattery at the expense of objective advice, and self-interest at the expense of the public interest. The want of criticism encourages self-confidence, and self-confidence banishes moderation and restraint. The opacity of authoritarian governments is a standing invitation to corruption.

These have always been the obvious advantages of representative democracy, and they are just as obvious today. But will they prevail? I am a natural optimist, but I have to say that I am not optimistic about the future of democracy, in this country or elsewhere in the West. All of the threats to democracy discussed above seem likely to intensify in the coming years.

The essential problem is that the public attitudes that I have been talking about are all too natural to human beings. Democracy has existed for barely two centuries in Europe and the United States, less time in other places. It was the creation of an exceptional combination of political and cultural factors, which would never have been easy to sustain and whose impact is now fading. The craving for security is too deeply embedded in human nature to go away. Three centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes made it the foundation of his case for absolute government and it is certainly stronger in out day than it was in his.

Fear will never lose its capacity to distort our collective judgments. The decline of political tolerance and the rise of moral absolutism are trends which are just as unlikely to be reversed, for tolerance too is not natural to mankind. Again, it was Hobbes who expressed it best. People, he observed, are too fond of their own ideas, for they see them from close quarters but other men’s at a distance.

The major challenge to democracy in the coming years will, I believe, be climate change. Climate change will be the main generator of collective fear in the decades to come and quite possibly the main temptation to direct action. It is of course possible that we will do nothing very much about climate change and simply chug along dealing locally with the consequences as and when they arise. But I do not doubt that measures to deal with climate change are necessary, and on the assumption that some action is taken, it is likely to run into strong democratic headwinds. Most of the measures to deal with climate change involve curtailing economic growth. This will not be popular and may not be accepted by democratic electorates, especially if groups come forward to offer easier and perhaps specious alternatives.

The main problem is that climate change can only be dealt with at an international level. This will require major decisions to be made internationally, in a world where democracy is still national. That will be hard to square with traditional notions of democratic accountability. Democracy depends on a common sense of identity and a large measure of mutual solidarity, a feeling that we are “in it together”. Otherwise people are unlikely to feel a common loyalty to the decision-making process, which is strong enough to transcend their disagreements about the issues. At the moment this sense of solidarity exists, if at all, only at the level of the nation state. We have had a stark reminder of that in the Brexit referendum.

Perhaps in future, climate change will generate a measure of international solidarity, but I would not count on it. National identities are becoming stronger, and climate change is likely to make them stronger still. This is because although all humanity has a common interest in dealing with climate change, they do not have a common interest in the measures necessary to do it. We have seen this on issues like fossil fuels and deforestation. Countries like India, China, Malaysia and Brazil are not likely to accept measures which will restrict their ability to achieve the same standard of living as the West. Especially when they reflect that historically the West has to some degree achieved that standard of living by polluting the world. Countries like the United States and Britain are not likely to accept a disproportionate reduction of their own standard of living as the price of international agreement. The logical outcome of the threat of climate change is not international harmony in the face of a common danger. It is a world of competitive despotisms.

The transition from democracy to authoritarian rule is generally smooth and unnoticed. It is easy to sleepwalk into it. The outward forms, the language of politics, are unchanged. But the substance is gone. These things do not happen with a clap of thunder. Democracy is not formally abolished but quietly redefined. It ceases to be a method of government, and becomes instead a set of political values, like communism or human rights, which are said to represent the people’s true wishes without regard to anything that they may actually have chosen for themselves.

Historically, the default position of human societies has always been some form of autocracy. The world is full of countries which have reverted to type. The democratic label is still on the bottle, but the substance has been poured out of it by governments, usually with substantial public support. Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Hungary, Egypt, Turkey, Russia. The list gets longer every year. Will Britain will end up on that list? A generation ago, it would have seemed strange even to ask the question. But I think that I have persuaded you that it is a real issue.

This is the fourth and final lecture in the inaugural series of Sir Roger Scruton Memorial Lectures delivered at the Sheldonian Theatre on 27 October 2021.

Jonathan Sumption is a former Justice of the Supreme Court, and a medieval historian.