Democracy, Virtue and Vice

Is democracy a good thing? Sure. Important for society? Yes.

So what is this post about, well I saw UKIP’s Manifesto and while it is nice to see a party defending Free Speech I have some issues with it.

Meanwhile, the unelected and appointed members of the House of Lords represent no one but themselves.

The House of Lords is a soft easy target and I find this a cheap blow. The House of Lords is nepotism embodied. Appointments are often rewards for friends, rewards for donations and favours and I would agree that needs a remedy (scrap it). But does that mean the entire chamber is detritus fit only for a cart load of explosives and a match? It is the season but that would be a drastic measure.

The House of Lords is now an affront to democracy. It consists largely of political appointees who represent no-one but themselves. UKIP favour a Second Chamber elected on some form of proportional representation.

Democracy isn’t just about elections and getting representation, the way for the vote and representation to mean anything is through legislation. Elected members tend to hold one thing in common, they write ridiculous legislation that is completely unworkable and prone to cause as many problems as it is intended to fix.

There is value in continuity and length of service. Not least of which is people who are experts in crafting workable legislation from the wording to the legal implications. Further to that where people have seen governments rise and fall, come and go, and sailed the seas of one populist rise after another. They aren’t beholden to a vote or too the fickle whims of a social media and tabloid led outrage culture and can hold governments who are beholden to account. They can reject and offer a balance to populist (which can encompass both good and bad) moves and they are another check and balance along with our independent judiciary.

MPs are accountable and driven by:

  • Voters

  • News Cycles

  • Manifesto commitments

  • Party Whips

A peer can table an amendment their counterparts wouldn’t get the chance too, these “probing amendments” can test ministerial thinking and the strength of the legislation.

"Funnily enough, the Daily Telegraph used to defend the House of Lords in the days when it was still crammed with hereditary peers, giving it a permanent Conservative majority. Yes, it is odd for parliamentarians to inherit their seats, I recall Telegraph people saying, but that is the point of British pragmatism. The House of Lords works, they would say: tamper with the gossamer webs of tradition at your peril."

I have listed the reason the House of Lords can do good. If we made them an electable second chamber we lose all these benefits. What do we gain? How is society doing right now, is it a hotbed of reason and rational debate or is it perhaps sliding towards polarisation that hints at pitchforks and a whiff of blazing torches.

Odd thing, ain’t it…you meet people one at a time, they seem decent, they got brains that work, and then they get together and you hear the voice of the people.  And it snarls.'
Terry Pratchett


I spend a lot of time complaining about the idiocy and social justice warriors (third wave feminism, post modernist marxists, call it what you will) present in society, through our universities - as this precious idiot on Twitter above demonstrates - our media and most worryingly our government. Where did this come from? One part of it is that we are churning these people out of university like a play dough stupid factory. It isn’t the whole reason though.


We have a mob mentality, if a politician steps out of line the media jumps on them and the twitter mobs form. Anyone can be made to resign, to be pressured out and there is the dreaded optics to bear in mind, and politicians are the most sensitive to this.

So what we want to do is enhance the power of social media mobs, of groupthink, of collectivism and worse still social media companies to influence our democracy. Is this progression?

We allow that democracy must be a cornerstone of society, a fundamental pillar but does that mean everything should be subject to democracy?

We should perhaps elect our fire chiefs, police chiefs, go american and elect our prosecutors, our judges because a simplistic slippery slope is that if democracy is good then democracy is an absolute good and must exist in every facet of life.

Our polity does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. It is called a democracy, because not the few but the many govern. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.

 ThucydidesPericles' Funeral Oration

But it is still definitely a good even a necessity, democracy is a Sine qua non. Despite all of its weaknesses the voice and social mobility and merit of having any man or woman to have a voice and be heard and represented is vital.

The dangers of not having a strong democratic element to society, of the diminished view of the importance of ordinary peoples voices can be seen in any society that becomes to technocratic. The very structure of the EU is built around technocracy and democracy by committee and legislation by the few, it is the great antithesis to Athenian democracy which sought as much engagement with the people as possible where any one of the assembly could propose legislation. They rule in what they deem to be peoples best interests even if its far removed from the peoples concerns. The result is a resurgence of nationalism, populism and even the growth of far right (actual far right) sympathies, never mind the casual flirting with nationalistic concerns and extreme patriotism. Technocracy doesn’t just give rise to a mob mentality it is a way to pour petrol on the flames.

Above I quoted Thucydides proclaiming the merits of Athenian democracy, which championed the ability and representation of the people. If an ancient greek politician visited us, he would not see a democracy but an oligarchy of the few ruling in favour of themselves. Of money and privilege and oratorical skill and structural barriers keeping the same voices in power in perpetuity.

The Athenian practice had been, even before Plato’s birth, precisely the opposite: the people, the demos, should rule. All important. political decisions—such as war and peace—were made by the assembly of all full citizens. This is now called “direct democracy”; but we must never forget that the citizens formed a minority of the inhabitants—even of the natives. From the point of view here adopted, the important thing is that, in practice, the Athenian democrats regarded their democracy as the alternative to tyranny—to arbitrary rule: in fact, they knew well that a popular leader might be invested with tyrannical powers by a popular vote.

So they knew that a popular vote may be wrongheaded, even in the most important matters. (The institution of ostracism recognised this: the ostracised person was banned as a matter of precaution only; he was neither tried nor regarded as guilty.)The Athenians were right: decisions arrived at democratically, and even the powers conveyed upon a government by a democratic vote, may be wrong. It is hard, if not impossible, to construct a constitution that safeguards against mistakes. This is one of the strongest reasons for founding the idea of democracy upon the practical principle of avoiding tyranny rather than upon a divine, or a morally legitimate, right of the people to rule.

Their solution to this was to have an active diverse attendance but it was an engaged vibrant engaged democracy, but it wasn’t the whole populace. They didn’t have the more developed options afforded by a large nation like multiple houses of government and independent judiciaries but they did have a council chosen by sortition or “lots” where 500 members of the city would be chosen to deal with all affairs not dealt with by the 40 or so annual meetings of the assembly. They recognised the power of oratory and money and accounted for it rather than relying on the ability of one charismatic man to sway a crowd, it was not in fact pure direct democracy but a generous mixture of democracy, sortition and meritocracy.

The Middle Path, between feast and famine, between unbenevolent dictatorship and mob rule

The Middle Path, between feast and famine, between unbenevolent dictatorship and mob rule

Meanwhile, the unelected and appointed members of the House of Lords represent no one but themselves.

I didn’t really refute this idea. I mentioned the good things they do, but that is a fraction of them. This is largely true. I think the House of Lords needs major structural reform, but the last thing we need is more democracy.

What if instead of being appointed by the ruling party they were appointed in a variety of other ways. They currently represent no one but themselves what if they represented the best and most knowledgeable of our society in a more reasonable number for a fixed long term that is not subject too elections.

  • The best politicians first and foremost, always something that would be contentious as to what makes them “best” but generally the frontline politicians and minsters or longest serving. Politics is the business of the day and legislative expertise should be valued.

  • The best scientists, doctors, engineers, businessmen (not donors), religious leaders, charitable workers, IT specialists, writers, artists and yes even the odd celebrity. Anyone who has excelled in their field and would wish to contribute for modest expenses only.

  • The public, anyone who has qualified through some form of nominal political testing and educational process and indicated their willingness to serve should be randomly chosen to give the common man a better voice.

That and dismantling and breaking up the internet companies, while we are fixing society could we get that done?