THE idea of liberal democracy is broadly the notion that the people choose the government, who enact policies in their name. We are used to hearing about the democratic voice of this or that people – most recently of Ukraine – and rather less of that of our own. How true is this claim that democracy is indeed the enshrinement of the popular will? Secondly, do we have a political class who can be trusted with safeguarding and enacting it?
We vote, someone wins, the votes of the losers are irrelevant to the composition of the government, having marginal influence, if any. The majority ‘wins’ – the party for whom they voted proceeding to govern by the principle of ‘presumed consent’. This is the principle which legitimises government and justifies its power.
What is the nature of this consent? Here I present the slender pole of legitimacy upon which the authority of our government rests.
Presumed consent is the only thing that justifies the authority of the government to make laws which change your life. It means this:
· You cast your vote
· One or the other side wins
· If yours loses, you are in the minority whose consent is forfeit
· If yours wins – they proceed to govern for five years as they please . . .
· . . . based on the ‘presumed consent’ suggested by your vote
So – putting an X in a box indicates consent for everything they do afterwards. This sounds too wacky to be true. These days, nothing is true about government that is not completely insane, so you know in your bones that this four-to-five-year permission in an X is actually the basis for state authority.
In political philosophy this question is about whether authority can be justified, and, if so, how. It can’t, really, and there is no way to justify state authority without the appeal to ‘presumed consent’. This is such an obvious botched job that it beggars belief that it is all we have. Yet there it is.
People who discover this argument usually go one of two ways. You can start composing paeans to natural rights and the minimal State. You can refuse to take part in the pantomime.
Are we at the moment in history where the middle classes drop out and revolt against government altogether? Much of the working class ignores politics completely, and for obvious reasons. Politicians hate working class Britons because they are embarrassing, because British.
We can’t, sadly, get to a minimal state whose legitimacy is derived from the protection of natural rights. We can’t even get a government that cares about common sense. Our state is deeply sick, its institutions rotten, its economy ruined. The governor of the Bank of England says he is ‘powerless’ to halt inflation and that we face ‘apocalyptic food shortages’.
Britain isn’t working. It’s a mess.
As any student of Meat Loaf will be painfully aware, you can’t have it all. We may want a government – we may need one – but there ain’t no way we are ever gonna love this one. But don’t be sad, ’cos two outta three ain’t bad. The appetite for order is what is at the root of outrage, an order that makes sense and not nonsense of the world. We clearly cannot trust government to respect this presumed consent. How many who voted for this government would find themselves in agreement with its actions? It is fair to say the government has abused the trust of the voters. It is arguable that we expect no better from any government any more. This is not an accident – it is routine.
Consider, for a moment, the calibre of the people who would wield the right to rule. We have Lockdown Mopclown and on the other side, people who think men have babies. These are not serious people and they don’t care about your life.
Our rights don’t mean anything to a party duopoly that abolishes freedom and mortgages the country to hand billions to billionaires. What the country needs is a politics which means something to them, which doesn’t require some tortuous Powerpoint presentation to justify its wacky policies, which isn’t rooted in hysteria and crisis-mongering.
We need a politics of confidence, not of ‘presumed consent’ – where the X bloc does what it likes in the name of your vote. Our system does not simply consign the loser to the consolation of majority rule – in our politics, even the winners lose. There are no promises kept by these people. No one even remembers the manifesto pledges. Who can talk of ‘levelling up’ when you can’t afford your central heating?
The political class is bankrupt. They are unserious people with no plan for the nation. They simply want to audition for the top job. Liz Truss likes to dress up as Mrs Thatcher. The Tories are so desperate that they are talking once more about national euphemism Jeremy Hunt.
Keir Starmer is willing to kneel at any passing idol. This is government by Netflix, as demonstrated by Ben Wallace, who last month compared the Russian situation to something he had been watching on his phone. To these people politics is nothing more than a show for which they themselves are the trailer for a hot new season. Rather than show any concern for popular consent, they seem to pay more attention to popular entertainment tropes and treat their appearances as a perpetual screen test for more power.
The show must not go on. It’s time for a politics that is more than performance. The nation needs a plan, not a pantomime, because there are dark times ahead which will test its very fabric.