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On Destroying Democracy

21/06/2016 15:15 | Updated 21 June 2016

"Why is that b..... lying to me?" A meta-question for journalists. But one that has an easy answer in the context of the EU referendum: they don't care how they make the argument as long as they win it. Or perhaps, they have actually begun to lose track of the distinction between truth and falsehood.

This attitude is tacitly excused in wartime hence "in war truth is the first casualty". In wartime, shoring up morale by pretending that victory is in sight or at least obscuring defeat is a patriotic duty. But a referendum, for better or for worse, is a peace-time process of direct democracy, and democratic societies rest sovereignty in the will of the people. If that will is informed by propaganda, lies, half-truths, dog-whistles, nudges, inducements to fear, them-and-us reduction of complexity, democracy is in jeopardy. Not a bad description of the effect on opinion of some parts of the tabloid press.

Citizens cannot be expected to hold informed opinions about the key political questions of the day if they are systematically misinformed, or, in the case of the EU left uninformed for decades. Xenophobia is the easiest emotion to whip up in times of economic austerity when scapegoats are sought. Government cannot be solely dominated by the politics of the wallet. The pressure on democratic parties to tack into the prevailing wind to hold onto their voters quickly becomes overwhelming, and prejudices are reinforced.

Referendums are rare, representative democracy is the norm. Sovereignty is normally exercised by citizens' elected representatives and thus becomes the sovereignty of Parliament. But the distinction becomes blurred since the same representatives, in association with the media, play a dominant role in steering public perceptions and thinking about the core question of referendums. In this case of membership of the European Union it has meant them dwelling repeatedly on the utilitarian consequences of each course of action for the British economy and for immigration to Britain from EU countries. This line of argument has effectively marginalised ethical judgements about what is sometimes called "the global common good" or about considerations of any vision for Britain's and Europe's role in the world.

The tragic, poignant and very public murder of Jo Cox, the 2015 elected representative for Batley and Spen, understandably brought the dire public discourse to a shuddering, if temporary, halt. Her short life and shorter time as a parliamentarian threw into sharp and unfavourable contrast the conduct of key players in the political and media establishment. Her brutal death seemed a parable of the worst, violent tendencies of our society eliminating the best, the peaceful and most virtuous.

How can our democracy be repaired after such a prolonged and, now, sharp decline and in the context of the world's largest population of refugees ever? The conduct of this referendum - and to a lesser degree those during the Greek crisis - would suggest that a great deal of democratic maturity is a prerequisite for referendums. You can't vote the British people out of power, though I sometimes think the far Left and Right would like to. You can intermittently get rid of their elected representatives, and punish in the polling booth lying, greed and xenophobia.

We are left with representative democracy. It is not in good shape. Why is this so? Voters say they do not like personalised slanging matches and politicians who don't answer the question. But this is the price for uncontrolled media ownership by a handful of enormously powerful media barons. Voters can say what they like, they cannot easily dislodge this key part of our contemporary power structure, and, to survive, their representatives have a reasonable fear of what the media can do to them. In consequence there is a public space for the unscrupulous who know how to pluck at the emotional heart-strings and thereby to assume a media-induced leadership of opinion and elected, high political office.

The surprising thing is that we still think we are in a position to make the export of our democratic system a core element of our foreign policy. We berate the lack of democracy of the European Union. We even imagined until recently that we can do away with repressive States in the Middle East and their military apparatus and plant our democracy in the ethnic and religious chaos that ensued. When it comes to democracy, perhaps we should humbly agree with Gandhi when he allegedly said of Western Civilisation: "I think it would be a good idea".

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