Tag Archives: eureferendum

That “demos” thing

Sooner or later, every Brexit debate hits the “demos” wall. The following conversation is a classic example:

 

Its critics will say that the European Union is not democratic, and therefore lacks legitimacy. Its defenders will contest this, as I did in this post. We claim that, actually, it has all the characteristics of a healthy democracy, and arguably then some (compared to certain EU Member States). No no, its critics argue, none of these characteristics count because they are meaningless without a “demos”. The EU, they say, doesn’t have a demos; and so it can’t be a democracy.

This is a tautology and a circular argument. They criticise us for not being democratic while in the same breath arguing that we cannot be democratic by definition, and that we should therefore not even try. The very fact that we try seems to be what infuriates them. The more the EU attempts to advance its democratic credentials, the more state-like it seems, the more we anger those who insist that sovereignty and statehood must be limited to existing nation states. Why? we ask. BECAUSE DEMOS, they yell, as if this is self-evident (which to them apparently it is).

For a long time now I have wanted to tackle this argument, but I have never found the right way to come at it. I think it’s because we are simply talking past each other, in different languages. Theirs is the emotional language of nationalism, I think, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. What defines a “demos”? The Oxford English Dictionary definition says that a demos is “the populace as a political unit, especially in a democracy”, which hardly helps – what defines a “political unit”? If the EU has all the trappings of a political unit, then isn’t it one? By specifically excluding the UK from the quest for “ever closer political union”, has David Cameron effectively excluded the UK from an EU demos and thereby validated the “out” camp’s argument in a bizarre form of Pyrrhic victory?

We need to dig deeper. What makes people feel that they belong to a political unit? Is it language? Several EU Member States have more than one official language and all certainly have citizens whose first language is not the majority language – are those citizens excluded from the national “demos”? Is it a shared history? Clearly not, I won’t even bother dismantling that argument but will simply point to Norman Davies’ excellent book Vanished Kingdoms. Perhaps it’s shared culture? That’s also hard to argue in our multicultural and yet monocultural modern world. I’ve come to the conclusion that a demos is self-defining and therefore largely meaningless unless you are already part of that self-selected demos. Playing the “demos” card is like playing the joker, it only works if everyone playing the game has agreed a common set of rules.

I could end this post here. But that would be a touch too dismissive. Clearly, this does mean something to lots of people, and I have to try to understand. Many people feel disconnected from the European tier of government and have no sense that they belong to a continental “demos” or political community. Evidence for this is the poor turnout at European elections, with many of those who do vote tending to do so on national issues. Clearly, many of us in Brussels feel defensive about this and so we invest a lot of effort in creating democratic institutions and attempting to communicate more effectively with citizens. (On this subject, see Jon Worth’s article on the EU’s efforts at comms.)

Not having a magic solution to offer, let me instead offer these thoughts, in no particular order:

  • The harder we try to legitimise EU government by giving it the trappings of democracy, the less people seem to like it. So why do we bother?
  • Are we not falling into the populist trap of fetishising democracy? (By which I mean misrepresenting our representative democracy as a direct one, and glorifying the people’s actually rather limited though important safeguarding role in the complex process of modern government – which I talk about here.)
  • In a functional, modern state there are multiple tiers of government which each have legitimacy with a given ‘political unit’ (or demos), and we are all as citizens members of more than one demos. The trouble with the people who claim that the EU has no demos is that they actively choose to exclude themselves from that demos; and I think that these are generally the same people who dismiss the other tiers of government too. These are the Westminster exceptionalists who get in a tizzy over the West Lothian Question. They cannot see the wood for the trees. I can’t lose any sleep over their inability to see the bigger picture, and it would be a crying shame if they took the UK out of the EU because of their tunnel vision.

The referendum’s silver lining

Still early days, but so far I’m finding this referendum campaign less of an ordeal than I expected.

This morning, a friend said to me “this whole farce must be very frustrating for you.” But it isn’t. Negativity, misinformation, and ignorance has long been the norm when it comes to the UK’s public debate about the EU, and I am used to it. Refreshingly, we are now also hearing the other side.

I blame the media far more than I blame politicians for the years of toxic negativity. There are many principled British politicians who make the case for the EU but who have not been heard because the media does not give them a platform. There are principled politicians on the ‘out’ side too, who truly believe that the UK would be better off outside the EU (I am quite sure they are wrong, but I respect their opinions and am happy to debate them). But these are not the politicians to whom the media gives a platform, either.

Seen from an outsider’s perspective, the UK’s mass media seems to have lost touch with the principles of sound journalism, confusing business imperatives with journalistic imperatives. What matter are circulation figures, viewer figures, listener numbers, page hits. EU-bashing sells papers, therefore it must be right. We are reaching the logical conclusion of our fetishisation of democracy, interpreted in a literal and simplistic fashion. People power is what counts. Have your say! Vote in our online poll! The results of which become the news.

Chris Morris beautifully skewered the vox pop as a news tool in The Day Today, but twenty years later it has become a core ingredient of modern ‘journalism’. In a world where focus groups and call-in shows set the political agenda, it’s small wonder that we now refer complex and weighty policy decisions on the future of our country to a referendum.

murdoch

This is the world of the Daily Mail and UKIP; this is why Nigel Farage appears on Question Time more often than, say, Catherine Bearder, or Douglas Carswell for that matter. Euromyths sell newspapers; fearmongering generates page hits. Demonising the EU makes business sense for the red tops (and some of the broadsheets), and in our confrontational, bipolar, first-past-the-post beauty contest of a democracy, the market leader is also the opinion leader. There may well be more sinister reasons for press barons to denigrate the EU, but regardless of this, our system is skewed towards populism. This is why we are having a reckless and risky referendum on the UK’s future; and incidentally it’s why our cousins across the pond are now presented with the real risk of a populist President.

trump

Donald Trump – popular

My critics will tell me that I am guilty of paternalism and elitism. This is a lazy defence of populism. We live in a representative democracy, not an Athenian-style direct democracy (thank God). General elections are there as a safety valve, so that the people can remove an executive which seriously underperforms. But we appoint an executive to govern on our behalf – we do not govern directly, because as ineffective as that was in an ancient agrarian society it would be simply ridiculous in a complex modern society.

So where is the silver lining? Here it comes: this referendum has finally given a platform to the moderates. The media’s obsession with ‘balance’ can be infuriating when we see a swivel-eyed climate sceptic given airtime alongside scientists; but in this referendum campaign we are finally hearing from the ‘pro’ side of the argument. After literally decades of overwhelming negativity, the UK media is at long last also giving coverage to the people who are making the case for the EU. Personally, I am finding it wonderfully refreshing.

There is another upside to what I guess we should call the popularisation of the news: the rise of social media. As our society has careered from one extreme (elitism) to the other (populism), the undue weight given to poorly-informed popular opinion is balanced to a degree by the decline in relevance of the mainstream media. The Daily Mail might sell the most papers, Question Time might have Nigel Farage on again, but we are using Twitter and Facebook and we see that we are not the only ones who have a problem with what we are hearing on the television and radio and reading in the press.

Boris “Outs” himself as a fan of electoral reform – or is he just a massive hypocrite?

So it seems that Boris will be the figurehead of the Out campaign. Today he writes in the Telegraph that:

That is what we mean by loss of sovereignty – the inability of people to kick out, at elections, the men and women who control their lives. We are seeing an alienation of the people from the power they should hold, and I am sure this is contributing to the sense of disengagement, the apathy, the view that politicians are “all the same” and can change nothing, and to the rise of extremist parties.

Boris

I love this new Boris with his passionate concern for citizens, his belief in democracy, his frustration on our behalf at our inability to kick out our rulers. I have every confidence in him that he will carry on from here to crusade for electoral reform and rid us of the wicked First Past The Post system which disenfranchises the vast majority of British voters. Good for you Boris!

 

btl

 

I mean, he must mean FPTP, right? He surely can’t mean the EU…