The old model of democratic politics was that democracy, stable institutions, and the rule of law were mutually reinforcing. Democracy kept the system more or less honest, the stable institutions – basically the state, but going beyond that to civil society more broadly – ensured that political change could be delivered in gradual ways which avoided chaos; and the rule of law was a trusted final arbiter.
No one can say it’s like that now in many places right across the world. We may, in Britain for example, still have votes. They have votes in most countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. For a vote to be meaningful, it has to be practical. There has to be a link between what an electorate wants, who it can vote for, and the policies that result. Iran, or Russia, let people vote, but the range of available and viable candidates is seriously restricted to ensure that real change cannot occur within their systems.
Our problem is different. The malaise in our institutions has rotted the connection between votes and outcomes. The result is Brexit. Brexit is an ongoing case study in political failure.
Referendums have traditionally been frowned upon as not being consistent with the British constitution, and our form of representative democracy. We had the first in 1975, and a shabby thing it was, called only to manage an unruly Labour Party. The second, at the end of that decade, was on Scottish devolution. Hedged around with caveats and thresholds, it was scarcely a meaningful vote, and it led swiftly to the fall of the Callaghan government, as the SNP threw in their lot with Thatcher and the Tories to pass a No Confidence motion. Blair held two major ones, Cameron, Blair fan that he was, did likewise. Cameron, interestingly, held advisory referendums, choosing to disregard the advice given by voters when it was against local mayors, but respecting the outcome over AV, Scottish devolution, and EU membership.
Blair’s referendums were on clear constitutional questions, and voters knew what they were voting for. Cameron’s referendums were ‘easy’ ways to finesse political management problems – the AV vote to secure Lib Dem support after 2010, the Scottish vote to deal with what he regarded as a noisy distraction, and the EU vote as a copycat Callaghan tactic to neutralise divisions in his own party. But whatever the political motivations behind the deployment of the referendum weapon, the fact is that their disruptive arrival on the British political scene has been congruent with the decay in our democratic political culture.
On top of all this is the new form of warfare that has been facilitated by technological change.
We’ve always had propaganda. Governments have often sought, overtly, or covertly, to influence political events beyond their borders. There’s been the ‘soft power’ of bodies like the British Council, the Goethe Institute, and the diplomacy conducted by pandas and Bolshoi Ballet tours. But these things are overt, and subject to the law in the countries in which they operate. We know who is behind them, and for what purpose.
We are now in an age of disruption. Governments, and private bodies, may wage wars of chaos, deliberately designed to sow confusion, division, and fear. And, unlike the past, each and every one of us is in the front line.
Can I believe that ‘fact’? That graph look scary. Ha ha, share that funny meme! We are on our own in a sea of ‘stuff’, in which our trusted ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, bestowers of ‘likes’ and emojis, may be bots, or contract workers in disinformation factories, or bored teenagers in far away villages, in the pay of god knows who.
Faced with all this – the difficulty of being an active citizen when we can’t even reliably identify who are our peers; the problem of weak institutions; the lack of a direct connection between our votes and our lives – it is sometimes tempting to just give up.
But that’s the last thing we should do.
We need to build our resilience, maintain our scepticism, get better at distinguishing between truth and noise, and, above all, start demanding better from those who seek politically to represent us. In that way we can begin to see a way through to a new democratic settlement.
The truth is out there!