Friday, June 08, 2007


Like the changing musical taste of growing teenagers, we also move on in our political tastes. Until a few years ago, I couldn't read enough of Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer. Not any more. I have tired of him, too Blairite, too establishmentarian.I have a soft sport for Boris Johnson with his carefully-cultivated clumsiness. But nowadays, there is only one political writer for me. It's the London Times's Matthew Parris. He's the real deal as the Yanks say. Witty. Erudite. He can also make his prose dance. And never afraid to confront the bigger questions.

Parris is always worth checking out. Here's an extract from a fine column he wrote recently on the imperfections of democracy:

"My final problem with democracy is rooted in the possibility that through ignorance or folly, the public may simply be wrong. There are issues (appeasement in the 1930s was one) where the crowd misunderstands, grabs the wrong end of the stick or wilfully refuses to meet its responsibilities. There are matters of great complexity where decisions may have to run ahead of public understanding: for or against nuclear power, for instance, or for or against GM crops. Sometimes people refuse to accept the inevitable, such as electronic road pricing. And, despite this Government’s squandering of public trust on security issues, there can be things government knows that the people cannot fully know.

These doubts about democracy are more pressing today then when I was a boy. It used to be technically difficult to consult the popular will, except every few years, at a general election. This rescued us from having to ask whether we would want to if we could. But soon we shall be able to. We can be accurately informed almost hourly about majority opinion. Do we wish to bring these techniques into government? I doubt it. Within the concept of focus-grouping lies a central paradox of democracy: ask a focus group if they respect a politician who consults focus groups, and they would say no.

My mother was born before universal adult suffrage reached Britain. Ancient Greek democracy was a fiction: the democracy of the boardroom, not the shop floor. Real democracy is a shockingly new idea, hardly tested. There are serious checks and balances still to devise. We should start from an acceptance that there is nothing sacrosanct about the will of the people.

To me the popular will is like the ocean. It may carry you far. Ignore it – its currents, its lulls and its storms – at your peril. But always distrust it. Learn when to fight it, when to run with it and when to stay in port while a storm blows over. And do not kid yourself, with phrases such as “necessary serenity”, that the democratic ideal is pure, sacrosanct and unimpeachable. Be honest. The majority is often wrong."

You can read his full column here.

1 comment:

David Forsythe said...

As Sid Viscious said, "I've met the man in the street, he's a *&$^*!& @*&!".