Liberalism versus Democracy

We live, we are told, in a liberal democracy. So do most people in Europe, in North America, and in several other parts of the world. Those two words ‘liberal democracy’ are presented as concomitants of each other, soldered together at birth. As if liberalism were a facet of democracy, and democracy a facet of liberalism.  

But this is not the case. There are illiberal democracies such as Iran, Hungary, Turkey and – if Donald Trump has his way – the USA. There have also, over the course of history, been some regimes of enlightened despotism, where autocratic rule has been accompanied by a relatively liberal society. So liberalism and democracy do not necessarily go together. And they are now parting company to the extent that a choice may need to be made between them.

There are inevitable problems of definition here. No two people share exactly the same definition of democracy. There is probably a broad consensus as to which countries are democratic and which are not. But that consensus concerns how governments are elected, not how issues are resolved. The word ‘liberalism’ is harder still. As explored in my recent blog An end to liberalism (7 October 2018), liberalism encompasses political, economic, moral and social aspects, and they do not always go together.

In this blog, I am referring to the moral and social aspects of liberalism, and specifically to the mindset of the educated cultural elite in all democracies (and in many non-democracies) that would proudly define itself as liberal and progressive. The sort of people, in other words, whom Donald Trump and Nigel Farage hate, but who have on the whole ruled the western world for the past 70 years.

It is not the case that, until recently, liberalism and democracy have co-existed happily. It is more the case that there has always been a fracture between them, but only now is it taking a more confrontational form. When Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965, public opinion was massively in favour of retaining it. In fact, it took another 50 years for support for capital punishment to fall below 50%. There has been a similar opposition to successive pieces of gay rights legislation. Yet – in these and other instances – the liberal elite has simply ignored and over-ridden the majority. And the majority has allowed it to do so.

On an even larger scale, the same thing has happened throughout the recent history of the European Union. The liberal, progressive consensus in favour of ever-closer union between the member states, leading ultimately to a federal Europe, has never been shared by a majority in many of those countries. Fully aware of this fact, Euro-politicians have chosen to continue the process without direct democratic consent. On the rare occasions, in a few countries, that the public has been consulted and has objected, its views have been circumvented. In fact, Brexit is the only known instance where there has been a democratic vote which has then been implemented.

The reaction of EU leaders to Brexit has been illuminating. Of course, there has been deep disappointment. But there has also been a barely concealed fury that the British could have been so crass as to put the issue to a democratic vote. There is a similar fury among the more extreme of the British Remainers. How dare the people be allowed to choose! That is not how things are meant to be done in Europe.

For the most part, I have always been a social progressive. In the eyes of those who are not, that makes me a member of the liberal elite. I was delighted with the abolition of the death penalty, and with subsequent social legislation that was ahead of public opinion. Yet I would certainly call myself a democrat. How do I, and millions like me, justify this position?

The easiest justification is that democracy is not, and should not be, conducted through opinion polls (or referenda). Our democracy is representative. We elect MPs not to do precisely what we want, but to exercise their judgment on our behalf. It is on these grounds that Kenneth Clarke, admirably consistent as always, rejects the idea of a second EU referendum, as he also rejected the idea of the first one.

The retort to this justification is that it will produce a self-perpetuating liberal elite, permanently at odds with majority opinion, yet free to disregard it. The retort to the retort is that, if they don’t like it, voters remain free to elect different representatives. As they did in America when Trump was elected. And as, in effect, they did in Britain with Brexit.

It is hard to argue against the mandate of the Brexit vote. It is hard for a democrat to argue that the electorate of any EU member state should be denied the right to decide whether their country should remain in the EU. Which is why, although I opposed Brexit, I have had no difficulty in accepting it as the wish of the majority, albeit a slim one, of the country.

But, in the hopefully now impossible event of a referendum voting to restore the death penalty, would I accept that just as calmly? No. And if I found myself on a jury trying a case for which the mandatory sentence was death, I would vote for acquittal, even if I thought the defendant was guilty. As I also would if I lived in many states in America. This would presumably place me in breach of my oath as a juror, but I would still do it.

These are complicated issues which, for liberals, arise only when liberalism comes into conflict with democracy. Which side does one take in that conflict? On EU membership, I take one side; on capital punishment, the other.

One justification for such a contradiction lies in looking at the issue in question. No one but a murderer is affected by whether there is capital punishment or not. No one but gays are affected by whether gay marriage is legal or not. But everyone is affected, or believes they are, by whether Britain is a member of the EU. And many people are affected (to go to one root of that issue) by large-scale immigration into their communities.

I am delighted that I now live in a multi-racial society. I am not personally much bothered by the issue of immigration. I acknowledge, in a somewhat vague way, that immigration can present social problems within communities, but they do not happen to be the communities in which I live. So I can lay back in a rather detached way, basking in the smugness of my tolerance, and wishing the problems away.

No longer. If I had to summarise the growing populist view of recent years, it would be to say: “Pass your fancy social legislation if you must, but don’t you dare ignore the problems we face in our daily lives”.

That is now the battle-line between liberalism and democracy. It will not be a pretty fight. And unless the leaders of the liberal democracies face up to the challenge, and accept that there is a democratic justification for it, the battle will become yet more bloody, and more demagogues will be elected.