It seems, and certainly feels, like the commencement of another campaign for Scottish independence. Hardly a surprise given the surge in the polls, driven by Nicola Sturgeon's handling of the pandemic. Whether or not there are significant differences between Scotland and England's management of the crisis in terms of outcome, Boris has been shambolic. Still, it's not without some foreboding that yet another great exercise in democracy is anticipated. I'm not against independence as such, but nervous that a protracted, tribal campaign for and against remaining in the union will savage further an already internecine political culture.
With these gloomy thoughts in mind, I picked up the book Against Democracy
. Intrigued by the title, the political philosopher Jason Brennan's broadside against idealised accounts of the democratic process that bear little resemblance to democracy in the real world, is sobering. Unlike other authors on the issue, J S Mill and Schumpeter for example, Brennan's polemic is for our own troubled times.
The romantic view that democratic politics brings us together, educates and civilises us – makes us 'civic friends' – is a myth, says Brennan. Instead, it does the opposite: 'it pulls us apart, stultifies and corrupts us, and makes us civic enemies'.
On the evidence of the last two referenda in the UK, it is hard not to agree. Nonetheless, I thoroughly reject his epistocratic solution: that some people ought not to have the right to vote, or ought to have weaker voting rights than others with greater political knowledge. Like many democratic theorists, Brennan's diagnosis might well be right, but the prescription less so. As some wag had it (source has never been found) democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others – as Belarus is currently demonstrating.
There will be no hooliganism?
Brennan outlines three conceptual archetypes of democratic citizens. Firstly, we have the hobbit
. In brief, hobbits are apathetic and mostly ignorant about politics. Often, they have no political opinions at all. They get on with their lives without strong, fixed opinions about most political issues, with little, if any knowledge of social science and the evidence needed to evaluate and understand current events. In fact, hobbits rarely give politics much thought at all. I must confess to a growing respect for the hobbit, often found enjoying life, and unlikely to be obsessing angrily on Twitter.
Secondly, there is the hooligan
. Described as a 'rabid sports fan of politics', hooligans have fixed and strongly held worldviews. They tend to seek out political information in a biased way, i.e., they look for information that confirms their opinions while ignoring, evading or rejecting evidence that contradicts their pre-existing views. Thus, the hooligan is inevitably overly confident and zealous in their views. But worst of all, their political opinions form part of their identity. Their tribe matters to their self-image as much – if not more – than the objective merits of their policies. And this means they tend to despise people who disagree with them.
Political parties are packed with hooligans, their internal tribes often at war. Reading book extracts from Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn
, and observing the current strife between battling factions in the SNP, it's obvious that hooliganism does terrible things to people. And let's not forget, Twitter is dominated by them.
Brennan's third and final type is the vulcan
, who thinks dispassionately, scientifically and rationally about politics. Strongly grounded in social science and philosophy, they are self-aware, and only as confident as the evidence allows. They actively try to avoid being biased or irrational, and do not think everyone who disagrees with them is necessarily stupid, evil or selfish. Hooray for the vulcans! Mind you, on Twitter, finding a true vulcan takes the dedication of a trainspotter.
Most political folk think of themselves as vulcans, even those in political parties. I'd say that any member of a political party is, by definition, a hooligan. One or two of them are closet vulcans, who have to behave like hooligans to keep their tribe happy. I think of myself as an aspirational vulcan,
too often a reluctant hooligan
, with a determination to become a hobbit
Brennan's point about democracy is that the electorate is overwhelmingly made up of hobbits and hooligans. Not ideal unless you are Trump or Johnson.
Talking of hobbits, I'm enjoying Times Radio and the LBC radio station. James O'Brien of the latter, almost single-handedly, was an articulate, furious yet reasonable, late morning voice on the insanity of Brexit. It's a great pity he did not influence the muddled Labour Party of the time. If he had, we'd likely still be in the EU.
Discovered recently, I listen to Nick Abbot of LBC on a Friday and Saturday night. He is articulate and with caustic wit, very funny. Last week, Abbot raised the troubling possibility that most governments (except Sweden) have overreacted to the coronavirus pandemic. In the UK Government, he blames Johnson and Cummings (who he fittingly nicknames 'Gollum').
Pondering whether Abbot might be right, I didn't need to search far for evidence. Last week alone, we were informed that due to lockdown and its restrictions, the UK is facing a 'tsunami' of cancer deaths, and thousands of abandoned clinical trials. The economy is tanking (especially in Scotland), mental health has deteriorated, and many more 'unintended' consequences are unfolding.
If government's response to the pandemic has indeed been an overreaction, to the detriment of millions of its citizens, will political leaders have the courage to admit it and learn lessons for future pandemics? I doubt it, somehow. We are all hooligans now.
I've given up all hope of a holiday this year. As a shielding patient, I'm not alone in lamenting my house arrest for nearly six months. One of the positive aspects of social media, however, is watching other people's trips to foreign climes beamed back to my phone, whereupon, I wistfully daydream.
My friend David Forrester and his husband have been sending photos of their glorious time in a relatively tourist-free Venice. Beautiful shots of canals without monstrous cruise ships as a backdrop, magnificent palazzos, fascinating frescos, exquisite architectural details, and of course, Instagram photos of their colourful Venetian tea of an evening.
Instead, my husband and I explored the possibility of a safe Scottish staycation. Since caravanning in Girvan as a child, and Aviemore as a teenager, it is with some shame that I admit to not taking a summer holiday in Scotland since then. As we searched for a suitable location, the reasons became apparent. It's cheaper to fly to Pisa than to Stornoway, accommodation is as cheap in Tuscany as it is in the Scottish Highlands, and even cheaper in Portugal. The single, blood-sucking mosquito is less bothersome than a swarm of midges, and the Scottish weather is horribly unpredictable. Ach well, Venice it is then. One day.