14:04
Thursday, 24
October 2019


14:04

Liberals against democracy?

by Peter Franklin

A magnificently provocative essay from John Gray in the New Statesman. It’s entitled ‘The closing of the conservative mind: politics and the art of war’. However, it’s the liberal mind that he’s really concerned about.

It’s not just that the liberal elite snobbishly pins the blame for the rise of populism on rabble rousers and voter ignorance (as opposed to any failures on their own part). That’s bad enough, but worse is a growing disregard for democracy itself:

The key feature of this liberalism is that it transfers decision-making from political to judicial institutions. Liberals are turning to law to entrench values and policies for which they cannot secure democratic assent.
- John Gray

Witness the sheer delight taken in Boris Johnson’s humiliation at the hands of the Supreme Court. Lady Hale’s famous brooch has literally become an icon — with spider emojis appearing all over Twitter. It’s an apt symbol of the entanglement of democracy in a thickening web of rules designed to constrain the actions of elected governments.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the now irrelevant prorogation controversy, Gray correctly identifies the real consequences of the judgement:

By setting a precedent for further judicial intervention, the ruling has initiated a fundamental shift in British government away from the executive and towards the legislature and the courts.
- John Gray

For legalistic liberals this is a feature not a bug. It’s also why they don’t care about the EU’s obvious democratic deficit — and why they’ve turned a blind eye to the thuggery of the Spanish police against Catalan protestors. All that counts is the inviolability of the systems that entrench liberal interests against an unreliable electorate.

There’s a lot more to Gray’s argument and I’d urge you to read the whole thing. But is the key proposition — that liberals are turning against democracy — really credible? Isn’t democracy an integral part of the liberal tradition?

Yes, but then so was nationalism. The great liberal movements of the 19th century, which rose up against the reactionary empires of the era, stood for nationhood as well as democracy.

Having renounced the first part of the formula in favour of federalism, European liberals are losing their faith in the second.

It brings a new dimension to the idea that you can’t have a democracy without a demos.


Today on UnHerd

20th November 2019