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When fear leads to tyranny Democracy is being quietly redefined

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

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 fĂŒr 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.


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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

Why do you say that the Le Pens, the AfD and co are “authoritarians”? Is it not rather their opponents, the establishment Left, who wield unaccountable power, and do so in spite of popular discontent? You may disagree with these people – although why objecting to transformational levels of migration is so wrong remains a mystery – but at least describe them with accuracy.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

“high levels of electoral support for authoritarian figures such as Donald Trump”
I thought that was the response of ordinary people who finally realised that that their government had been taken by stealth by a cabal comprising an over powerful state, big tech the main stream media, left wing educational institutions and a professional political class..
And look how they all responded when they did not get their way for once and Trump won the election
So who are then the anti-democratic authoritarians?

Last edited 2 years ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I excellent point Simon (and others writing comments to this silly article). If Trump were authoritarian (I’m a yank now living in Brazil), he would not have followed the dictates of the Supreme Court (and lower) courts – including the Supreme Court citing a technicality to block his attempt to undo Obama’s illegal DACA diktat (which Obama admitted was probably illegal without Congress). See Biden extending benefits this summer explicitly against the ruling of the Supreme Court. In general, see John Yoo’s book about the many ways that Trump acquiesced to the rule of law.

In addition, the enemies of Democracy (Aristotle also talked about a polity which is essentially a constitutional republic like in the US) is not frightened voters – more likely it is the relentless pressure of left-wing, crypto-Marxist culture warriors (see Soros’ financing of attorneys general and prosecutors in US States and cities who refuse to prosecute many criminals) who are eager to destroy the cultural foundations required for a constitutional republic (thus Spake John Adams) , to change the way we vote so that fraud is easier to commit, etc, etc. etc.

This Lord What’s-His-name even brings in climate hysteria as a reason to deconstruct capitalism – the grandest prize of all. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?)

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

it is far from being a silly article. I would not say I agree with 100% of it but the only reason you regard it as silly is because it had a different view of Trump to you.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

Dude! I’m specifically responding to a post that quotes something particular, and provided evidence.

I also noted that the focus on frightened people and the author’s citations about Aristotle’s Politics distort what Aristotle actually said (he thought Kingship and aristocracy consisted of people with noble virtues, we’re better than democracy, and that Democracy was the worst since the poor would redistribute the property of the wealthy) – he wasn’t talking about what we think of as democracy.

Then he introduced climate hysteria requiring limiting the free market etc as something we really need to focus on. Clearly the author lumped Trump in with strongman authoritarians without providing evidence – the convenient defense mechanism of the left.

So, if he actually”disagrees” with me about Trump, then he should have made his point with evidence of his global statement about how democracies fail (first, read books 5-7 of the Politics) without the obligatory hit-and-run reference to Trump. Só isso.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

authoritarian figures such as Donald Trump” – who among many boasted a lot and used power sparingly. His utterances rarely resulting in harmful policy action.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

If you know nothing about Jonathan Sumption’s subtle and well-argued views – for example a strong and principled critic of draconian covid restrictions – then perhaps you could find out more.
As so often on here, you swerve from the much bigger (and more interesting) issues relating to the decline of democracy to a favoured narrow partisan position of whether in this case you love Trump or hate him. Sumption argues against the position, shared on both sides of the culture war, that due process, politics and shared culture are unimportant or even suspect, the other guys are just the enemy who need to be destroyed. (Also, endlessly going over the same ground of US politics, as if this were the only nation of the world worth talking about, is tiresome in itself).
And I I don’t THINK Sumption is one of the global conspiracists trying to ‘deconstruct capitalism’, but perhaps you could provide any evidence you have on that front. He said the issue of climate change and government’s response to it, whether or not Anthropogenic Global Warming is as big a threat as some believe or not, will pose a real threat to democracy, and in that he is absolutely right.
How exactly inciting a mob of people to ‘march on’, ‘fight’ or do whatever at the Capitol is compatible with the claim that Trump was willing to support constitutional methods is beyond me, but this is now a well-worn argument. Dragging in the usual Right wing bogey George Soros does nothing to strengthen your case either.
Trump may have been an incompetent and trammelled authoritarian, but in my view authoritarian is a pretty good description of his conduct, and, not a minor matter, the crudity of his language and style of government. But of course he is far from being the only or even major danger and much of the current identitarian Left is indeed a real threat.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Perhaps it might be more accurate to describe the Le Pens and AfD as authoritarian in nature, but unable to practice their authoritarianism due to their failure to achieve power.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

Other than exercising legal authority over illegal migrants by requiring them to leave, wherein do they propose coercive measures? Coercion is the endless speciality of the left, permanently in power thanks to the gradual infiltration and takeover of institutions – witness the National Trust; and a raft of laws which criminalise dissent – certainly as given utterance amongst the majority. You deny this with a snort and a shake of the head, of course – complacency being the stock in trade of persons who either benefit from current conditions or who lack the backbone to confront them. But were a man with a Bible to take to the streets with denunciations of the love which now screams its name from the rooftops – to take a random example – he would be arrested; were he brandishing another equally famous compendium of religious principles, he would be left in peace. The various voices of the left, whether snooty, wheedling, bossy, lachrymose or smug neither convince, nor deceive, nor impress anybody now. You will doubtless find your place on that unlovely spectrum.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago

An absorbing and persuasive article until he got on to the subject of “climate change”. He accepts the elite’s selfserving consensus with their pie-in-the-sky remedies that are solutions in search of a problem.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Bell
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

It was not a story and I petered out half way and skimmed, and then just quit.

It is a list of 100 vignettes and aphorisms and opinions backed by charming quotes and references – but is just really a very long and vague apologia of the state of affairs. There is no plan, strategy, fight, just a long amble down the path to destruction…

It is Chamberlain in 1939, not Churchill.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

Interesting article, but a hairball with too many threads to disentangle. The great political inventions are the separation of powers – recognising that conflict and struggle is part and party of public policy making. Secondly freedom of speech – that anyone should be able to be heard. And thirdly that decision making should be a participative act.
All three are under serious attack, but not by faux authoritarians. Our primary problem is the capture of democracy by the administrative state – particularly in the US. Democratic oversight no longer controls or constrains the actions of the state. Instead the state sees itself as overseeing ‘democracy’, able to mandate, command and investigate the behaviour of citizens who question it (eg Assange). It decides which laws to pursue, and which to ignore, and increasingly who to pursue, and who to ignore.
In place of laws, duly debated and passed, we have regulations, directives and interpretations. We have career civil servants who table policies their departments would like, with never a mandate or vote from the public. What we, the people, are told to believe is directed from on-high – can’t question climate change. If the people enact laws, the administrative state itself sees no problem in challenging those laws in the courts. And in many countries the party system had ossified to become another administrative branch, part of a jobs merry-go-round to administration, public office, consultancy, think tanks and academe.
However, I’m not so gloomy about where we are. The internet is working around the problem. Public scrutiny (particularly in the US) is probably higher now than at any point in history – it no longer relies on intermediaries like journalists or academic experts. It gets things wrong, but at least it’s looking now. And while people will comply with emergency measures, I think we’ll get a further blossoming of anti-authoritarian action, like those gave rise to new political parties in the past couple of decades. Grassroots impatience and frustration is probably as high as it has ever been. Perhaps stronger democracy will emerge as a result.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

More likely the internet will give you several competing groups each with its own sacred cows, its own facts, and its own loyalties – and zero sense of having anything in common with the others. That way lies not democracy but tribalism.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

Creating new political parties may be well and good but ‘belling the cat’ requires the ability to elect them.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

Democratic oversight no longer controls or constrains the actions of the state. Instead the state…decides which laws to pursue, and which to ignore, and increasingly who to pursue, and who to ignore.

This is an important point I think given that “the state” and “the elected government” are no longer synonymous.
The Trump presidency was assaulted throughout by the embedded left. In the UK, Insulate Britain wreckers are comforted and facilitated by the police. Protesters against lockdowns and vaccinations, in contrast, are rapidly dispersed by them.
The police bit of the state clearly has a political opinion of its own that informs operational decisions, from what crimes to investigate to how to staff itself. Cressida Dcik is still in her job only because she is a lesbian, a reason to keep her in post that only a thoroughly infiltrated force would consider persuasive.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

In a short space, you demolish the article. Not necessarily the internet but the public seems to be awakening to a need for an overhaul in government. It remains to be seen if that is possible in a mono-voice media.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

The people: ‘Here is something amiss. The government must do something about it.’
The government: ‘But we are doing something! Look at how much money we’re spending.’
Repeat, ad infinitum.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

A waste of an article as it chased all hundred of the wild gees one at a time till there were so many threads all listed that a cohesive story was totally lost.

I would tell the writer to pick one goose and tell us all about it, and leave the other 99 for another story that we learn something instead of just nodding along with endless points and gaining no actual understanding.

Also a load of points are given as truth, which are not al all true – and then used as a basis for other points. Like this one which I disbelieve 100%

“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.”

No, some are, the minority, and the least powerful. The majority who rise have sold themselves to the Donor Class, those who pay for their campaigns, who allow then the seal of Party Backing, and the Lobbyists who both give something to them, and apply almost total coercive control over the Politician by the pressures they hold over the higher offices, who are all psychopath personality types to have risen so high up the dirty greasy pole of party politics.

No, in modern politics it is the Elite who run things, for the elite. Both Left and Right serve the same masters ultimately – ones so above normal society it does not matter who is in office – the elites of the Military Industrial Complex, the Pharma Industrial complex, the Financial, Education, MSM, Entertainment, Social Media, Tech, – Industrial Complexes. We are a Plutocracy, an Oligarchy – behind the scenes Soros, Zuckerman giving 425 Million $ to elect Biden campaigns, Gates creeping like a shadow behind all the doors of power, and the hidden super powerful families of global finance, the WEF, Davos, Bielenberg, IMF, BIS, FED, BoE, ECB, and so on….

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

A good well-argued piece generally, except for two observations the writer is inexplicably careful not to make.
One is that literally all of the intolerance of our fellow citizens is the intolerance of those on the left for dissenting opinions, exactly such as those he articulates: campaigns of suppression conducted by pressure groups against politically unfashionable or “incorrect” opinions on, for example, race, gender reassignment, or same-sex relationships. All the opinions in question are those with which the left disagrees. Why so coy? Why not say it like it is and say it’s the left that’s doing this?
The other problem is that, apparently unwittingly and despite what he has previously written, the author has still totally fallen – hook, line and sinker – for another of exactly these bits of leftist thought control, namely climate change. No dissent is tolerated. You’re either for the left’s entire agenda or you’re a denier.
The problem is always the left. It takes different forms, and can perhaps be described as the author might as another of these “coalitions of opinion, united by a loose consistency of outlook”, but leftism, always and everywhere, is a movement that panders to the basest human instincts of envy and greed. It can never be a force for anything but net bad.
These leftist wreckers who’d like us to end up with our own Stalin should be careful; we’re much more likely to end up with our own Mussolini.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

People on the right seem to be intolerant of a few things as well:

  • The idea that Trump lost the election
  • Having to take some minimal precautions to fight a pandemic
  • Any limit to their right to bear arms

The left does not have a monopoly, unfortunately

Last edited 2 years ago by Rasmus Fogh
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

They may feel strongly about those points, but do you see any evidence of the right
resorting to coercion to enforce the majority view about controversial moral issues
in the same way? For example, has the right attempted to ruin the career of anyone who suggests that Trump might have won the election? Have Brexiteers tried to ruin the life of anyone who said that Remain might not be wrong?
I don’t think so, and furthermore, there certainly is no instance of the right insisting on the truth of anything that is manifestly nonsensical. There’s no right-wing cause akin to that of the gender nutters.
There is simply no comparison. There may have been times and places in the past when the right has behaved as the left is doing now, but “the right” is largely a fiction invented by the left anyway. There are conservatives, but they’re not the same.

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

The right is anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the latest leftist diktat. Which means that individuals previously viewed as on the left are instantly vilified as extreme right if they express a nuanced opinion on issues such as gender identity.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

This is asymmetric warfare, so the two sides do not fight ‘in the same way’. The right is not in a position to get dissenters fired or frozen out. So they go for doxxing and rape threats (Gamergate, though trans women do that too), with the odd, rare murder thrown in (McVeigh, Breivik, Jo Cox)). As for resorting to coercion to enforce the majority view about controversial moral issues, how about abortion? I was going to skip that one, since the two sides are about equally fanatical, for equally understandable reasons (and because I am anti-abortion myself), but you have to admit that it fits to a T. As for manifest nonsense, I would like to agree with you, but it all depends on who gets to define the sense. Much aggressive right wing talk bout US elections, COVID or climate change sounds like manifest nonsense to me.

Anyway, we might be doing better at the moment (I say we, since I am a conservative, albeit a very soggy one), but you cannot make a stink about the beam in your brothers eye unless you are at least wiling to consider the mote in your own.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

So with your logic all other recent terrorist attacks must be the work of Islam and all those of the faith must share responsibility.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

In the right’s defense, it does have to contend with the persistent logical fallacies of the Rasmus-like.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

Do you want to spell them out, and discuss them? I am game.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Sure, bubba. I’ll Venmo you a dollar if you can identify the logical fallacy in the following statement (I’ve paraphrased for clarity). You can choose more than one, of course.
People on the right seem to be intolerant of taking minimal precautions to fight a pandemic.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

Nope. I cannot see anything wrong with it. You point it out to me, instead of giving it out as a student exercise.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Of course you don’t see anything wrong with your comment. You violate the most basic safeguard against cognitive bias: don’t believe every thing you think.
You’ve conjured a straw man and in the process have made a ham-fisted effort to impugn the character of half the population. What you’re unwilling or unable to explain is why disagreement with some government policies and mandates is equivalent to rejecting *any* precautions and, as you implied, demonstrating indifference to the pandemic altogether. That’s the kind of argument we’d expect to find in a freshman dormitory. Is this your freshman year?

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

OK, you do not want to discuss the logic. Maybe you simply prefer to exchange insults, and maybe you lack the necessary intellectual equipment. Either way, I am not playing. May I suggest, with all due respect, that you go play with yourself instead?

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I accept your surrender. It’s the wisest thing you’ve done today. If the Left didn’t have straw men they wouldn’t have any men at all.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

And you are both guilty of ad hominem!

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

I would say hasty generalisation rather than straw man. Either way, there are worse fallacies.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

I like self-serving generalization better. In other words, the kind of raw material out of which one might make a straw man.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

May I rephrase your statement?
People on the right are generally intolerant of taking ludicrous precautions that do nothing but continue a fraud.
If a bloody cloth sock wrapped around your face gives you comfort, then by all means, do it. And if a real mask provides the security you seek, then wear one and feel secure. If neither work for you, then stay home.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Mussolini would of course be much preferable to Stalin!
Reading many of the the remarks on here, the problem is certainly not ONLY the Left. The lack of self-awareness is at times quite staggering! Elected governments not to the taste of our armchair army of right wing culture warriors are routinely demonised in the most extreme terms, as are most politicians.
The ultimate choice, where I agree with Sumption, is whether we support a representative democracy (reforms are of course possible) or some sort of overt authoritarian rule, which has been the norm through most of history. This means a lot of compromise, frustration and an inevitable, albeit removable political class (a direct Athenian democracy not really being practicable). Much greater use of referenda is also possible, although of course even here, the losers in a polarised society find ways of delegitimising the process, calling for re-runs etc. And the public can often support contradictory policies, such as high social and health spending and low taxes.
It is true that Left have keenly taken on the issue of climate change as their own; even the anti-capitalist language of groups such as Extinction Rebellion often give this away. In my view there is no real doubt that it is occurring, that humans are responsible for rising CO2 emissions and therefore likely to be responsible for at least some of it. Margaret Thatcher certainly thought so, for what that is worth, she was certainly not on the Left. Capitalism is a successful economic system and certainly it doesn’t logically depend on the use of fossil fuels. Whether state mandated reductions in the use of fossil fuel in the short term is a sensible approach is quite another matter however.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Christopher Gelber
Christopher Gelber
2 years ago

I strongly agree with Simon Denis below. To label Trump or AfD as “authoritarian” is a typical bien-pensant slur without foundation. So provide the foundation, please. AfD is a popular right-wind party in Germany set against uncontrolled immigration and hostile to Islam. It is right to be so in both cases. It is also economically liberal, pro-NATO, pro-US and pro-Israel. And Trump is the opposite of an authoritarian: to take just one example, when Antifa/BLM were torching US cities and killing people in riots (yes, they did, many times), he did not exercise federal authority to intervene. To the surprise of many, he respects federalism. Why oh why do I need to say these things? I respect Sumption greatly, but he seriously errs in casting such unwarranted aspersions.

Last edited 2 years ago by Christopher Gelber
Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

Thank you, Jonathan. I hadn’t read anything from you for ages and have been concerned that you were unwell or had been “cancelled”!
This is such an important subject. I think a study of three contrasting systems might be illustrative:
Victoria in Oz where ‘Chairman Dan’ seems to have gained untrammelled personal despotic power.
Switzerland where direct democracy does seem to work: how has that success happened?
Singapore where a semi-authoritarian party has been in continuous rule and has presided over an economic miracle in a country with no natural resources.
How could the UK improve rather than disintegrate as this article suggests could happen?

Trevor Law
Trevor Law
2 years ago

An even more frightening thought: what if the people who wield the formal power in a democracy, our elected representatives, represent merely a delivery mechanism downstream of the real decision makers? Namely, those who control the narrative? Who are they? The MSM (end especially the BBC)? NGOs and pressure groups? Big Tech? Powerful corporate interests (like the pharmaceutical industry)? Universities and schools? Or is it the general public, exchanging views and coalescing around majority viewpoints in the digital sphere (or in the pub, or in the workplace etc)? If it is not the latter, we might need to redefine our whole concept of what democracy means. 

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  Trevor Law

Between “The MSM” and “Schools” you appear to have missed the most obvious of all groups – our so-called Civil Service.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

Very convincing and thought-provoking article.
One very minor quibble: The 2019 survey that gave 54% of Britons in favour of a strong leader that can break the rules and override parliament, happened right in the middle of the fight between the Brexiteer government and the more multi-opinioned parliament. One could hope that belief in strong leaders might fade a bit now that is over.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
2 years ago

The “authoritarian” Donald Trump who deregulated more than any president in history and refused to impose national mask or vaccine mandates? You lost your credibility right there.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

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.
Lot of material here. As a Yank, I don’t live in a democracy. Some would define a democracy as a constitutional framework where voters select their elected officials. In the US, elected officials select their voters. Think I’m kidding? Look up gerrymandering! Consider the (uniquely?) American concept of “safe seat.”
Re-election rates in the US would make the Politburo blush. Many, such as John McCain, die in office (RBG too, though slightly different, not elected). Joe Biden?
American democracy is over. America is governed by a cabal of evil political hacks that tyrannize the majority. Barriers to entry are extremely high, and only a certain sort of person–usually with great flaws–has the ability to get in. That’s why a Civil War is coming.
Lock and load!

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

I would have agreed with you last week. However, with the recent elections of more conservative leaders in many States on Tuesday, including several minorities, who happen to be Republican, I have a renewed sense of hope.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

With respect, I think your hope is misplaces. I see no future for the United States. I welcome this, as I don’t want to be a citizen of a country where I do not share the most basic common values and traditions of my fellow citizens. US is just too big. Time for a change!

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Where to then?

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Does your hope extend to NJ? Election “called” w/o all the votes being counted. Democracy?

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

All votes are hardly ever counted before the call is made. Pretty normal process.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

With respect, I completely disagree. Maybe if 60-40, 55-25, but when the R was ahead by a few hundred votes, late in the day, or maybe the next day, I forget, and I have a big time difference here, and then it changes but is still w/in 1%, I think it wrong to call it before ALL the votes are counted. Is that wrong? Many states call for an AUTOMATIC recount if w/in a certain %, certainly 1% would qualify.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Civil war isn’t coming, nobody believes it apart from a few keyboard warriors such as yourself and the woke left on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Most people are much more centrist, leaning slightly one way or the other and only taking an interest in politics occasionally on certain hot topic issues, such as Brexit in the UK and the current spat over schooling in Virgina. After a bit it all settles down again and gets forgotten about as people go back to being interested in their day to day lives of jobs, family or the football.
A noisy minority on various internet chat rooms aren’t indicative of society at large, most of which are quite mixed. The only people who say they’ve lost friends over politics are those that don’t normally have many to begin with

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Keyboard warriors? Come on mate, you can do better! Give it another go! I may be early, but I’m not wrong. Lock and load!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Do you have a better description of the fools who populate social media and message boards spending their days abusing those who they disagree with, or promising revolution?
How about the other points I made? Do you disagree with my view that the vast majority are centrist, only leaning slightly one way or the other, and it’s only the noisy minority at either end of the spectrum that we hear from constantly?

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

What majority is being tyrannized? National elections mostly run close to 50-50. Loud, enthusiastic minorities get disproportionate attention; so what’s new about that? Gerrymandering is named for a politician who lived about 200 years ago. This last election resulted in a shift wherein enough voters recognized that the fabulous ideals of diversity, equity and inclusion was having real consequences in denying their basic values and screwing up their children. So, in practice democracy is messy. The sky has been falling forever in the opinion of many in every generation but we’re still here.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Holmes

Points for you for correct history–well done! My point is that if Ds are 30%, and Rs are 30%, then “independents are 40%, more or less. And the trend is accelerating. Maybe Ds are now 25%, Rs now 25%. That leaves “independents” @ 50%. Whom do we vote for? Third parties face a tough time in the US.
But as you correctly point out, most elections run close to 50-50, which DOES NOT reflect the people, the majority, a significant plurality, take your pick, I won’t fight you on that.
I’m basically Libertarian, VERY liberal on social issues (I just don’t care much about gay, transgender, other issues, leave me alone), VERY conservative on fiscal issues. I hate the Rs almost as much as I hate the Ds, but the Rs don’t hate straight white people so, for now, I hate them a bit less.
I stand by my position: I may be early, but I’m not wrong.
Lock and load. And Let’s go Brandon!

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
2 years ago

The list of enemies of democracy in this article effectively blames everything on the plebs: they are just ingrate who insist on feeling “insecure”, “intolerant” and “fearful”. But a threat to democracy is also posed when the elite (which exerts substantial control over mainstream political parties and the media) is so aloof that it loses visibility of what matters to the plebs.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

Unlike Lord Sumption, I would never call France, Bulgaria and Greece democracies. They are at best partial democracies whose laws are made and controlled by the unelected EU Commission and ECJ respectively.

Their citizens have no way to influence their national monetary policy, trade policy, immigration policy, fishing rules, business rules, agricultural policy, industrial subsidies, appointment of judges(as seen in Poland) and vast swathes of social policy. As a result of the pan-EU COVID response they will lose control of borrowing and some spending decisions as well. Setting tax rates is increasingly constrained. If Macron gets his way, defence will also be gone.

They are democracies akin to our County Councils – limited carve outs for local decision making. But they bear no comparison to full democracies like the UK, Canada, the USA, Australia, Japan, India etc.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Snake Oil Cat
Snake Oil Cat
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

The citizens of France, Bulgaria etc elect members of the European Parliament, and they elect their governments which meet as the Council of Ministers, and appoint the EU Commission. County councils do not send representatives to Westminster.
What’s more, EU citizens are free to vote with their feet, which is something which has been taken away from UK citizens.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Snake Oil Cat

The EU Parliament (which is elected on 40% turnout, if they are lucky) selected the last EU Commission president. They were then told that the president-elect was the wrong sex and Ursula VdL hastily replaced him. The EU Commission is the only body that can create EU law and the president is all-powerful. The Parliament cannot propose laws – only rubber-stamp them.

A Frenchman is powerless to change the law in any of those areas I listed above. A Brit or a Kiwi, could vote for a party which offered say, 500k work visas a year or another that offered zero. A Frenchman has no voice in the matter. As far as immigration is concerned he is disenfranchised.

He can only walk, as you put it, to another politicallly-neutered EU country. Or he could try to emigrate to a Democratic country but he would have to comply with their democratically- decided immigration rules.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

Aristotle also noted a key positive feature of democracy that it is the “most friendly polity”.
Friendship is key to value, and nurture, because it is goodwill for others, even across difference. Plus it is a school for virtues in individuals – who might then have personal, not just state, resources to draw on in the face of inevitable insecurities (more courage, better judgement, a measure of resilience, capacities for love etc).
Apart from neglect, an enemy of civic friendship is over-weaning bureaucracy and over-extended law – the hyper-rationalisation of society – which fosters the feeling that relationships should be conducted primarily by rights, outcomes and calculation. “Follow the science” as the sole imperative comes to mind.

Last edited 2 years ago by Mark Vernon
D Hockley
D Hockley
2 years ago

“Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules”.
 
I strongly believe this. Not because I want an authoritarian government, but because I want an independent UK government free from the clutches of the UNDEMOCRATIC BRUSSELS mincing machine and other unelected supranational organisations that have invaded our sovereign territory and that have hamstrung our ability to self-govern.
Democracy is being eroded by the Davos set, who have set themselves up at the high table of the world, assuming themselves to be as a bunch of latter-day Greek Gods.

Last edited 2 years ago by D Hockley
Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

“If we hold governments responsible for everything that goes wrong, they will take away our autonomy so that nothing can go wrong.”
Holding government responsible for saving the planet is a perfect storm to usher in tyranny.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Democracy has changed because of the Internet. 50 years ago, the majority of people in the UK just did what they were supposed to do. They worked and kept their heads down. They had children and brought them up. If they supported a party it was Labour for a worker and Tory for the ‘Toffs’. No definitions were needed.

Today in the UK 65 million people have an opinion and they believe they are right. They automatically broadcast that opinion on social media. They want that opinion to be taken into account by the government. They probably believe that voting is a waste of time. Times have changed.

Democracy is so old-fashioned that it no longer works. The article above sheds a tear about this demise – perhaps it would have been better to look at alternative forms of government suitable for a new age.

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

It’s not the 65 million that are the problem, it’s the 2-3% of these who populate social media opinion: the activists, the obsessed, the uninformed, the woke, intolerant of other opinions, etc. A large proportion of the other 97% may be the “silent majority” who don’t care to express their private opinions or are just not interested in posting on internet. Pre-Internet and social media, those with the power and opportunity to spread their views were either politicians or people who had achieved something in life. The “silent majority” have their relatively meaningless voting rights with no real effect on what they may have hoped for by voting, meaningless in the sense that politicians aren’t an awful lot better than the obsessed and uninformed.

Last edited 2 years ago by stephen archer
Jacques Rossat
Jacques Rossat
2 years ago

One of the very best and honest texts I ever read about modern democracy. Congratulations to Unherd.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
2 years ago

I am glad to be in a country that can express its thoughts and even though I feel that we are in an unsatisfactory political party’s rule, it has come to power through democratic means. But by no means is it acceptable that that very party use undemocratic methods to rule the public in any shape or form. Under NO guise – be it safety or health or even war. Either you trust your public’s support & the democratic process or you don’t.

If the complex system of governance was algorithmised, computerised and politicians were only a figurehead , not to make decisions but perfunctory roles like International relations etc as and when required & ensure the computers were not compromised & the public could routinely vote in referendums, it would take any autocratic decision making out of the picture. It is not correct that the British public has lost its flavour for referendums in fact Brexit was its MOST successful outcome. Even though I voted remain, I understood what the public wanted. I respected & accepted the outcome . We all did. It may have been a shock to those who did not believe how most of the public felt about it. The more we do it the better we will participate.
It would also make the public more politically aware and responsible for our choices. It could lead to fatigue with endless decisions to vote on, but on very important issues you could get energised participation.
The current western political ruling class is NOT doing this with public service in mind. There will be a lot of lucrative deals after one’s been in power. And when one person thinks he knows what’s best for the public, that’s when he is most dangerous.
If Biden had stated his intention to bring in vaccine mandates prior to being elected, I doubt the outcome would have been the same. Even if it would have, at least we would have been aware of the intention. But today’s politicians can lie at will, change their mind and rule by authority.
Totalitarianism in the guise of democracy is unacceptable. Referendum could reduce the politicians power to do just that.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

I don’t believe referendums are the way to go on anything except the most important issues. To have constant referendums would be ruinously expensive, and apathy would set in for mundane policies so voter turnout would be minimal. Representative Democracy is a handy middle ground for me

Andrew Sainsbury
Andrew Sainsbury
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I suspect that turnout of the motivated would high as the contribution would be meaningful rather than more-of-the-same party political beauty contests. Having multi-issue referenda once a year could be highly efficient and digital as the system was perfected; exactly the sort of mechanism to formulate a constitution to constrain the wannabe career politicians.

Tony Lee
Tony Lee
2 years ago

For me the solution lies with the people. As Mohammed Ali would say “You ain’t as dumb as you look”. I’m recently returned from a trip around Greece and to Istanbul, before returning to the UK. In my experience, it’s not democracy that people are losing faith in (except in Istanbul, of course), it’s politicians who progressively are less and less connected to those they profess to serve, and also less and less honest. Would anyone seriously trust Johnson, Biden, Macron et al or indeed Starmer, Trump etc. But as is beginning to be evident in the US, the ‘stupid’ electorate is waking up to such as Biden and Harris’ dishonesty and incompetence, and an opportunity for someone with at least a modicum of integrity, emerges. Same here when (and its only a matter of time), Johnson is met with a night of the long knives, and with no effective opposition, someone in the Conservative ranks emerges. I refuse to be so pessimistic as to believe that we are incapable of finding a solution. To suggest that there isn’t one, strikes me as supremely arrogant of itself. That I don’t know what it might be or who, how or when, is really of no consequence at all, for there is more that we don’t understand than we do. Something that politicians might be well advised to both understand and accept, if they are to offer true leadership.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

Democracy has been turned into government of the majority by a minority and it is political parties that produce this result. George Washington was the only President not to belong to a party. He saw that parties created division and argument. It is time to banish the parties and have independent MPs and in much reduced numbers. But they must represent a majority of their constituents and the only way to do this is by a first past the post voting system requiring more than 50% of the votes determined by total number on the electoral register.

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago

An interesting and thoughtful article, but I have two quibbles:

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.”

At that time democracy – the greatest democratic vote in UK history – was being thwarted by votes in Parliament. No wonder people thought so poorly of them. 

[The polls] 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 fĂŒr Deutschland.

Trump was democratically elected, unlike his demented, hair-sniffing successor.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago

The first thing that we need to be clear about is what you mean by “authoritarian”.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

I’d argue both sides in the States have been guilty of authoritarian behaviour in the last few decades with their attempts to circumvent democratic results. George Bush’s election was dragged through the courts, Obama had to deal with the ridiculous birther movement, Trump had constant references about unsubstantiated Russian help, Trump himself still rants on about the previous election etc. I can’t remember the last time the losing party in the US simply accepted the result and vowed to win the next one

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
2 years ago

Jonathan Sumption: a rare voice of sanity during the pandemic.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

‘They are consistent with the historically high levels of electoral support for authoritarian figures such as Donald Trump.’ Absolutely no evidence for this. Donald Trump won the 2016 general election and became president. He then put up with four years of treachery and deep state shenanigans. What part of that makes him an authoritarian?

Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe
2 years ago

If democracy creates an elected aristocracy, it is a system of government that is confusingly misnamed.
The telling thing about the politician who spoke to Lord Sumption and who considered that ‘something more Napoleonic’ was needed is that the admired autocrat was one who countenanced the invasion of Britain. It’s clearly not only the demos that is attracted to strong men. Napoleonic, not Cromwellian. We can’t even have a lord protector who is one of our own.
The main thrust of Lord Sumption’s argument is that it’s the demos wot’s wrong. The political aristocracy are all very reasonable and moderate. Yet this aristocracy hold to a narrow range of political beliefs, many of which, such as same-sex marriage, that would have been regarded as revolutionary even thirty years ago.
If the demos are poorly schooled in the art of debate so as not to understand Scruton’s list of requirements for ‘democracy’, then the education system needs to be examined. Perhaps it’s not enough to teach children what to think, rather than how to think. Where what to think is, unsurprisingly, what the ‘aristocracy’ thinks.
The wars of democracies are crueller than those of kings. This is no accident. What the democracies did in order to survive in the world wars permanently destroyed their morality. The consoling myths held in Britain about aspects of Britain’s involvement in these wars are a necessary fig leaf to hide this moral nakedness.
Accompanying this loss of morality is the absence of both the practice of religion and an elaborate culture of mourning so that people no longer have a sense of the sacred, something Scruton thought was a necessity. Both these absences contribute to people no longer knowing how to behave in the presence of the dead, as demonstrated recently by two policemen.
Perhaps democracy is not confusingly misnamed, but cunningly camouflaged. The demos have been made to accept governance by an aristocracy on the claim that the members of the latter are ones like themselves. Therefore, unlike the hereditary aristos, the elected aristos aren’t likely to be sent to meet Mme La Guillotine. Rather like the rock aristocracy who, even though they are as rich as the perfumed and powdered French aristos of the 18th century, camouflage themselves by dressing like the poor.
Lord Sumption writes, “There is no cure for this condition (people feeling alienated from the political class). Successful politicians are in the nature of things unlikely to be representative of the electorate”.
Does this mean that democracies don’t fail? If the elected aristocracy is unrepresentative, is it a natural evolution for democracy to become authoritarian? Is it an inherent feature of electing a political aristocracy that the demos come to be attracted to strong men (or women), the latter being equally unrepresentative of the whole but who are only a higher member of this aristocratic stratification? ‘Successful’ democratic politicians are unrepresentative, that is, undemocratic by nature?

John Hicks
John Hicks
2 years ago

That Lord Sumption identifies climate change as the biggest threat to democracy, I found most difficult to follow. Having enjoyed his discussion with Freddie Sayers some time ago, and the relaxed rigour of his arguments, -this piece is a pale offering. This is the same Lord Sumption who developed an “evasion and concealment test” for interrogating corporations, but now baulks at the international concealment and evasion going on in the apocalyptic global warming industry. Awarding these jokers the “end of democracy” prize is neither deserved nor likely, in my view.

That Road to Damascus has captured a few strange ones. It is a surprise that His Lordship in retirement may be another.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Admirable but now you know why his history of the 100 yrs war comes in great tomes. Plenty of magisterial hindsight. When you’ve mentally ‘lived’ in the Middle Ages with pestilence and buboes, a few million deaths worldwide is a mere bagatelle. Of course the pandemic response was clunky and error prone…with hindsight. As to rules- we accept that we drive on one side of the road. It’s not tyranny. Sumption would then begin to use the lawyers’ trick term ‘reasonable’ but there’s the rub- how to balance public safety with loss of freedom. Always a compromise. Finally, the key issue was and is the exhaustion of NHS staff. Sumption and co should have done one shift during the crisis period. As the Ukraine minister of health said the other day- vaccine doubt seems to disappear inside the ICU. I did my isolating not for Johnson but for some medic who didn’t have to treat me and had a better day because I wasn’t intubated.

Last edited 2 years ago by Terence Fitch
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Wish I could upvote this comment x10.
Personally, I think many people right now are more afraid (of all sorts of things) than they will consciously admit. Unless you are conditioned to dealing with nasty shocks or even continuous low grade terror (anaesthetists, members of the Hereford Sports and Social Club, firefighters) it becomes difficult or impossible to think or articulate coherently when faced with such a situation – then it is either fight, flight, fawn or freeze.
There seems to be a lot of fighting going on, verbally, virtually, politically, and lots of coralling wagons into circles to protect the tribe. None of these actions are conducive to genuine listening or productive conversations.
So how to practically be less frightened and hence more cognitively and maybe even more politically engaged ? Maybe view other constituencies as a foreign country that you are visiting rather than an enemy ? Maybe view any change as an opportunity, to learn a new language / start a new business / test yourself in a new environment rather than something deeply uncomfortable and to be avoided at all costs. Maybe try baby steps.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

“Of course the pandemic response was clunky and error prone
with hindsight.””As to rules- we accept that we drive on one side of the road. It’s not tyranny.”

FFS! You justify a complete removal of freedom, of imprisoning the citizens, of destroying businesses, education, health of millions by shutting NHS to citizens other than covid, to printing Trillions to pay for it although it will likely lead to Depression – or at least inflation to steal all the savings of the working people, and on and on – as merely some reasonable rule to make society function??????

LOCKDOWN = Tyranny. And for no good, but HUGE damage.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

“by shutting NHS to citizens other than covid”
So what would YOUR triage criteria be for refusing admission to someone with Covid versus someone of the same age, with another condition who needed a critical care bed ? Or would you just triage for end of life care at home for anyone with Covid over say 70 years of age ?
Incidentally, The mean age of patients in critical care beds in the NHS in April 2020 was 60 years (now 52 as of September 2021).
The NHS was short of nurses, doctors and ICU beds before the pandemic started so there was really no spare capacity in the system.
Yes … the poiticans looked at the (partly faked) images from Bergamo and panicked.
As for shielding the vulnerable while everyone else gets on with their lives – well, there were / are 18.5 – 39 million vulnerable to serious Covid people in the UK (you know … obese, diabetic, immuocompromised, kidney problems, COPD, over the age of 65 etc. etc) and includes many who are economically active. The notion that ignoring Covid last year and just getting on with life would have resulted in no economic impact in the UK in 2020 is just wishful thinking. Maybe a policy like this would have worked in the US ? who knows – but then about 42% of adults in the US are obese aren’t they ? and then, there is the rest of the world and what they are doing.
As for restrictions, well New Zealand, Vietnam, S Korea and Taiwan, with very different strategies, seem to have weathered the storm, on the economic front, pretty well even with the fall off in exports and supply chain problems globally.

Last edited 2 years ago by Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago

It’s a shame that there will not be a fifth lecture on the rise of an unelected and unaccountable Administrative State — unless I missed something in earlier lectures. “America Transformed” (Ronald Pestritto 2021) is very engaging on this point.

Andrew Sainsbury
Andrew Sainsbury
2 years ago

The underlying thread that modern style politicians are benign and necessary for democracy is self-serving fiction. We have parked democratic progression in the UK for the best part of a century precisely because they prefer ‘electoral aristocracy’ against any challenge to their privilege. The faux definition of democracy used elevates the empowerment of politicians above the real purpose; power shifting from the few to the many. No career politicians or their parties required.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Cromwell’s argument to a tee. Put away that bauble? Didn’t end well. Always the siren call to decisive action vs messy compromise. Life is a messy compromise. Change to voting system? On who’s say so?

Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago

I’m beginning to see that more liberals are beginning to wake up to the fact that the woke are in fact not liberals, and more importantly getting the confidence to speak up aided by publications like Unherd. And speak up they should, since woke or anti-woke they’re both movements removed from the political centre and they’re moving the western world to dangerous levels of instability where democracy is running a real risk of unravelling for the first time in a very long time.

Peter MacDonagh
Peter MacDonagh
2 years ago

John Adams lived in a different world, I wonder if he would have the same opinion today. We will know by next year if democracy succumbs. Watch the struggle agains mandatory vaccines, I place my money on the people rebelling against heavy handed control but we won’t know until the spring perhaps, there is certainly a fight. Time is not on the side of the authority. When compliance turns from double jabbed to triple jabbed to annual jabs they will lose support. I could be wrong. People are flippant about democracy because they are secure that in their belief, perhaps mistakenly, that it will not be taken away.

Maxine Shaverin
Maxine Shaverin
2 years ago

Sumption has stated much of this previously but what did dishearten me about this piece is that whilst he can see the covid fraud and the power grab behind that, why is he so accepting of the lies re climate change or has he just not bothered to avail himself with any of the opposing arguments and fallen into his own trap of questioning nothing and accepting what told due to a level of fear?