Ministers pander to a misguided populace

by Matthew Parris

All that can be said about Brass Eye has been said. The episode will be forgotten. The gutsy little satire on our paedophilia-obsessed media will also be forgotten. And I shall carry on shouting at my television screen then gardening furiously until the anger passes.

What does not pass has been a worry quietly growing in my mind ever since my days in student politics. The worry resurfaced as I watched ministers and MPs making idiots of themselves pandering to the public mood on Brass Eye , and as I listened to BBC Radio 2 listeners’ contributions after Austin Mitchell, MP, had dared to suggest to Jimmy Young that those ministers were being silly.

It is a worry about democracy.

Now if you think I am about to complain about waves of disproportionate public alarm, hold your horses. With these we can more or less deal.

We are all familiar with the problem a fickle public can pose for democracy - indeed the public themselves understand the danger - and we are familiar, too, with the remedies. Any democratic constitution worth its name builds all sorts of checks and balances into representative government. We provide mechanisms for delay, for second thoughts, for expert revision and, in general terms, for the quiet lapse of time and opportunity to think things through which even the electorate is mature enough to know needs to be interposed between a volatile public mood and a settled legislative programme.

Even the readers of the News of the World do not want to be ruled by the News of the World, and when we get things wrong and lynch a few suspected witches by mistake, we are pretty shamefaced about it afterwards; lessons are learnt; Kenneth Baker does not boast about his Dangerous Dogs Act.

My worry is not about the unsettled but the settled opinions of the public. On a range of questions central to the working of a free market liberal democracy, the general public, if asked, will consistently give the wrong answer. These are neither illiterate nor capricious people. They understand the questions and have thought about them. And they keep reaching the wrong conclusions. They therefore have to be ignored. This is an uncomfortable conclusion for a democrat.

Here are ten examples:

  • The populace do not believe in free speech.
  • They do not believe in freedom of movement.
  • They do not believe in adversarial politics.
  • They do not believe in an adversarial legal system.
  • They do not believe a man is innocent until proved guilty.
  • They do not believe the market should determine prices.
  • They do not believe the market should determine wages.
  • They do not believe anyone should profit from scarcity.
  • They think increased productivity will increase unemployment.
  • They do not believe an immigrant should take a job for which there is already willing indigenous labour.
Many of these arguments are perfectly absurd; others are superficially attractive but dangerous; others are workable but only in a fascist state. But if you believe that you could persuade a town hall full of ordinary voters to reject any one of the contentions I have summarised above, then try it. I have.

Take the first. For many years, both as an MP and as a columnist, I have tried to persuade myself that people do understand why, however distasteful or dangerous, opinions should be publishable without fear of censorship or prosecution. But five minutes listening to Jimmy Young’s programme (let alone my five years on the Broadcasting Standards Council) leave me unable to persist in that illusion. On the BSC it was our chairman’s habit to break the silence that would follow the council’s viewing of any complained-of sequence on television with the question:

“Was that necessary?” Her inquiry more or less mirrored the approach of most of the public we served.

The view is that no right attaches to the saying or showing of anything unless it is accompanied by a justification for doing so. Give most of our fellow citizens a card on which is printed “I’m all in favour of free speech generally, but XXX is too important/sensitive to be discussed without restriction”, and offer a long list of possible words to insert in place of XXX - words such as “drug-taking”, “race”, “the Holocaust”, “child abuse”, “satanism”, “sex”, “suicide”, “the Royal Family” - and you will discover to your dismay that the public view of freedom of speech is that this is desirable wherever the subject is not important or sensitive.

Or consider freedom of movement. You will not need to tarry long in discussion of compulsory identity cards to discover the people’s view: nobody going about their lawful business has anything to fear from being stopped, asked the purpose of their journey and required to produce identification. If and when it becomes possible to track each citizen at all times in public, there will be surprisingly little public disquiet at the idea. If the State has good reason to restrict (or inquire about) people’s movements, they will say, then “law- abiding” citizens should have no objection to co-operating. Is your journey necessary? No MP who is honest will deny that a political system that divides the legislature into “Government” and “Opposition”, and encourages the latter to attack the former, finds little favour with the electorate.

Chant “Why don’t reasonable men and women all just sit down together ...” at any longstanding MP, and he will chant back “... and decide what’s best for the country” at you. He has, after all heard it a million times.

This is equally true of our courtroom prodecure. As any criminal barrister will tell you, the public have never understood and will not accept that a barrister who is pretty damn sure that his client is guilty should be paid taxpayers’ money to help the man to maintain his innocence.

You can argue until the cows come home (Socrates did) about the creative and truth-finding result of exploring a question by adversarial means - prosecution versus defence, government versus opposition, thesis versus antithesis - and people will say “I see, yes . . .”; but they don’t. The idea in law, that a man is innocent until proved guilty, outrages them: why, after all, did the police arrest him in the first place? Why can the jury not know, before making their decision, about previous convictions? With regards to economics, I hardly need to elaborate what the overhearing of people on buses will anyway confirm: that in the face of all the evidence and all economic theory since Adam Smith, ordinary people persist in believing that there is a “fair” price for any item, and a “fair” wage for any service, and that this is determined by the intrinsic nature of the item or service and by the needs of the worker rather than the state of supply and demand for either. To profit from scarcity (a backbone of our whole economic system) is thought immoral; to profit from anything by more than “reasonable” margin is “greedy” and to “line your pockets” from another’s “need” is wicked.

It also “stands to reason” that labour-saving devices (such as computers) will reduce the need for labour and, in the future, “we shall all have a lot more leisure time” and must “learn to share the employment that there is” so that there is something for everyone.

Through all the Thatcherite market reforms, all the shake-outs in the labour market leading to the present unprecedentedly high levels of employment, all the invigorating results of immigration, in the face of all evidence that our adversarial systems of justice and politics produce a better rule of law than the cosier alternatives, in the face of Rousseau, Voltaire, Smith, Hume, Paine, Mill, Bentham and Russell and all the arguments about the benevolent effects of freedom, the public remain quite unyielding. At the core of their beliefs lies this simple philosophy: right is right, wrong is wrong, fair is fair, these things can be objectively established, and those in charge ought to work it out then lay it down - and insist on it.

The philosophy is hollow and stupid; its attempted application is pernicious. The people are wrong. They probably always will be. It follows that in a democracy any responsible political leader must throughout his career spend much of his time and creative genius in finding sneaky ways to block the settled public will without becoming too unpopular for it.

Does that not worry you?

This article first appeared in The Times in August 2001

The copyright of Matthew Parris and Times Newspapers Limited in this article is acknowledged

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