A few weeks ago in the Speccie Matthew Parris came right out and said that the government should ignore the people:
Oddly, then, this column is not really about Brexit, but about trusting the people. I don’t. Never have and never will…
Tories like me, and I think we used to be in the majority, see good governance as an effort to live with democracy rather than to an effort to live by democracy. It is why we were so chary about referendums in the first place. We are wary of the populace and instinctively hostile to the instincts of the mob. We see the popular will as a sometimes dangerous thing, to be handled, guided, and on key occasions (and subtly) thwarted.
The rest of the article is mostly an admission that he and his fellow Tories deliberately deceived the public on a daily basis:
at the idea that the people should dictate the policies of government on a daily basis, we shudder
in 1977, it was commonplace among us Tories to see and describe ‘the will of the people’ not as our mentor but as a rock to be navigated.
The analogy is telling. When you navigate around a rock you aren’t ‘engaging’ with it. You’re sailing on by and leaving it behind. You’re avoiding it, and having nothing to do with it. Once past you continue to your destination at the speed, and in the direction, you desire, and the rock can be safely ignored; it has no more influence on you.
So although Parris says that “the people’s will cannot be overlooked”, and “we see it as a corrective to the over-mighty and a warning to those who govern not to lose touch with popular feeling”, this analogy is basically an admission that Parris thinks that the ‘public will’ is to be generally ignored and ‘(subtly) thwarted’ (his own words). It isn’t something you let steer the ship. It’s the rock that threatens the ship.
There’s no great argument given by Parris for why it is right to ignore the popular will. The closest thing to an argument given is that the public used to be in favour of hanging, and as that is, in Parris’s mind at least, self-evidently wrong, then the public should not be trusted. He doesn’t show any understanding that the same logic will also lead to the conclusion that as most of the worst atrocities in history have happened as a result of governments, states and rulers deciding that they were right, we should never trust our rulers with decisions.
But let’s acknowledge that all of us may be tempted to feel and act like Parris in some situations. Suppose the majority wants to set up Gulag system where right-wingers will be imprisoned and worked to death. Wouldn’t you resist that? Sure. But just as hard cases make bad law, so do extreme situations make for bad general political principles. Parris isn’t talking about situations where the public wants something highly immoral, even evil. He’s happy for the public will to be routinely overriden, on most things, just because he’d prefer things to be done his way. That just isn’t democracy, and any system that allows that needs to be overhauled.
It’s one thing for the elected rulers to make the occasional decision to overrule something which the public desires but which is manifestly wrong, but you can’t be doing it all the time on every routine matter. That’s a society run by a ruling class, not the people. You certainly can’t override the popular will when it concerns whether we are to be ruled by a foreign oligarchy. How is wanting to leave a trading bloc that has overreached its powers akin to, say, killing the Jews? That’s exactly the sort of decision we should leave up to the public rather than the MPs and the Establishment, especially when so many of those people have massive conflicts of interest.
(Thanks to commentator Pcar for the sending me the text of Parris’s article.)