Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.
– George Bernard Shaw
Shaw was, perhaps, a little on the cynical side but, nevertheless, there is a truth in his contention. Last time (14 August
) we considered three of the arguments given by leavers for departing the European Union and found them, although having some merit, generally unconvincing.
Recapping, they were the patriotic argument, that said we are British and do not need or want to have anything to do with the continentals; the immigrant argument, where leavers believe we are allowing in too many uncontrolled immigrants; and the economic argument, that considered we would be, in the long run, better off financially without being in the union. The critical argument though, in this writer's opinion, is the fourth one and that relates to democracy – so, on with it.
Two points about democracy: one is that democracy is not an absolute; there are degrees of democracy: the other is that it always comes at a cost as, perhaps, the quote from Shaw suggests.
Now Solon may even have been wiser than Shaw: anyway, way back in ancient Athens, he was one of the progenitors of democracy. He would have understood it was not full-blown democracy; after all and naturally, women were not allowed to vote and certainly not slaves; nevertheless it was a start. However, Solon also learned of the possible misuse of the people's right to vote.
One day, an excited friend came to see him. There was something wondrous occurring in the theatre. Solon went to see for himself. He saw Thespis, the very first actor, not talking through the explanations of the songs being presented but actually acting out the drama they portrayed. Solon was excited and he felt a surge of emotion within himself as he watched; later he grew very concerned. He had been moved by passion even though the situation was acted and not real. He saw how a crooked person could use acting techniques in politics; pretending to feelings and beliefs that the person did not hold to for the sake of gaining something of power. A good actor could fool people. Later, Plato was also to agonise over uneducated and ill-informed people making decisions within a democratic framework and being misled by the acting charlatans.
Anyway, after the great and glorious period of Periclean Athens, when Democracy (with a capital 'D') forever impinged itself on the world's collective mind, Alexander the Great turned up and thoughtfully put to death anyone with lingering democratic tendencies. After that, there was little in the way of democracies in the world – although some Italian republics played a little at it and Switzerland began to develop its system in the Middle Ages.
However, from 1781, the first truly modern democracy was developed in the good ol' United States of America. That nation's constitution ensured its power base was effectively divided into three – the judiciary, the legislative and the executive; the idea was that all three branches of government would control each other and none would become too powerful.
Of course, and naturally, the initial American system forbade mere women from voting and certainly not its slave population. There was also a property qualification; the assumption was that, if you owned property, you would be a more responsible person and have a greater understanding of affairs when it came time to cast your vote. Finally, for the post of president, there was the check point of the electoral college – a grouping of wise men who would ensure that, even after all the safeguards, if the electors had chosen an ignorant lout with possible criminal connections and who indulged in unacceptable social behaviour, the college would choose someone else.
In any event, the US Constitution was, first and foremost, designed to be a Republican one and, only secondly, a democratic one. And that left a gap. Although the vote spread before 1916 and in that sense America became more democratic, the true power in the States was revealed away back then. America had stood aloof from the first world war; the then American president (Woodrow Wilson) and the media all talked of it in pacific terms and the need to keep neutral; it was those horrible Europeans – would they never learn?
Then Germany knocked Russia out of the war and was thus able to move over 50 divisions from the Eastern Front to the West: it looked as though Britain and France and their allies would be defeated: and Wall Street had made massive loans to the allies on the assumption that they would win.
Suddenly the media and politicians changed tack; the kaiser was the embodiment of evil; and democracy itself was at stake. The Zimmermann telegram was merely the excuse for action. Behind the scenes, Wall Street had displayed its power.
By and large America has continued on that route there being not much difference between the policies of the Democrats and the Republicans with a slight change when Franklin D Roosevelt took over. The American system actively discourages the rise of small parties and with the ruling corporations of America funding the two large parties there is little chance for a change. In fact, some of the big corporations on Wall Street fund both
parties in order to assert their control.
Certainly, the rise of Donald Trump and the consequent rise of Bernie Sanders may, ultimately, bring about change but it is significant that Joe Biden has thrown his hat in the ring. Biden is a Wall Street man, a billionaire himself, and his task is more likely to stop Sanders than to defeat Trump. He is messing up though being soundly defeated in the televised debates and making inadvertent racialist statements: Wall Street would be just as happy with him as with Trump: Sanders knows what he is up against – so we live in interesting times in America.
But why America when we are concerned with the EU? It is because the EU is going down the same route. The corporate culture of Goldman Sachs is taking hold in the EU as well – helped by the ordoliberalism philosophy of Germany. The big corporations are exerting their hold on the EU. There has even been discussion of an EU Army (why would such be needed?) – encouraged by the arms manufacturers.
British democracy is flawed; too much control and influence lies with the upper and unelected house, too much subtle influence lies with the royals; but the UK is still in 14th spot in the world nations whereas, according to The Economist
, America does not rate in the top 20 democratic nations. But we can improve matters if we try. Democracy does come at a price but, significantly, the most democratic nations are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Canada and Ireland – and guess what nations also feature as the highest in quality of life?
So, the responsibility price for improved democracy may be worth paying – and that excludes the EU.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Caithness