Will the Trade Unions defend democracy?
Many early trade union pioneers were drawn from the ranks of Primitive Methodist Preachers, and a basic ‘welfare state’ used to operate among chapel-goers, their neighbours and families. They were founded out of a Christian concern for the underprivileged, outcast and disenfranchised. It is wholly consistent with their founding principles that today some of them will vote on whether or not to demand a referendum on the EU’s ‘Reform Treaty’. And yet there remains a dilemma at the heart of this campaign.
In the context of the EU seeking to discourage plebiscites, and Prime Minister Brown reneging on a manifesto pledge to let the British people decide their destiny in Europe, His Grace has been dipping into Plato’s Republic once again. He is minded to recall Winston Churchill’s assertion that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.
Plato asserts that people are bad judges in many political matters, principally because the ordinary man has no experience or expert knowledge of such things as foreign policy or economics, or the complexities of constitutional minutiae. Therefore to expect any very sensible judgement from him on such matters is to have an expectation of the highly improbable, if not the impossible. He will judge on impulse, sentiment or prejudice, and though the heart may be sound (and on this both Plato and Christ cast profound doubt), his head is invariably muddled.
Democracy may even encourage incompetent leadership. It is bad enough that the people’s judgement of their leaders is not always good, or that they cannot be trusted to make the best choice, but the popular leader, dependent as he is for his position and income on popular favour, is under constant pressure to retain their favour by the easiest means. He will play on the likes and dislikes, the weaknesses and foibles of the public, will never tell them an unpleasant truth, or advocate a policy which may make them uncomfortable. He is simply another salesman, obliged to emphasise the comforts at the expense of the truth.
Politicians are sophists and salesmen, and popular leaders are as devoid of true knowledge as are the people they lead. According to Plato, the salient characteristic of democracy is liberty – ‘every individual is free to do as he likes’ – which gives democratic society diversity and variety. Yet herein lies the seeds of its destruction, for democracy and liberty are disintegrating precisely because ‘the minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable’. There is a breakdown of social cohesion, struggles between competing factions, irreconcilable assertions of mutually exclusive rights, and a consequent necessity to move towards authoritarian rule in order to maintain peace, stability and security.
It all sound rather familiar, does it not?