Desmond Swayne, Conservative MP, is one who excels in advanced prattery, even in the midst of the highly competitive field that is his party. He has, over the course of the pandemic, repeatedly delivered his posturing objection to such banal precautions against the plague as the wearing of face masks, recently declaring himself to be “exempt from wearing a mask on the basis of my genetic predisposition to liberty”. So juvenile an attempt towards Wildean affectation must surely convince his audience that his capacity for wit, and his tooling of the choice ‘bon mot’, are as his comprehension of Rousseau, and one can’t help but feel compelled to wonder whether he might not be better served finding a more suitable role model. Barry Chuckle, perhaps?
Thus, are we, the British, primed for the towering idiocy of his pronouncements, made whilst strutting amidst the green leather benches of the commons in those quiet bits when all the ministers and their shadows are out attending to the serious business of a photo opportunity?
At the start of December in the House he made some comments that have elicited a widespread remark, even a popular condemnation, sometimes even a righteous indignation. He said “I hope that my constituents never elect a racist or a misogynist, but they have a right to do so.” We’ll glide past the obvious riposte shall we? possibly not mention the time he posted on his blog “I once went to a ‘Blues Brothers’ themed fancy-dress party as James Brown. I went to some trouble to be as authentic as possible. I can assure readers of this column that I have no intention of apologising.” I can, in turn, assure readers of this article that he shortly afterwards did apologise. But we digress. Many were the social media gnashing’s of teeth and counter-posturing’s of towering disgust at this claim of a right to vote for misogynists and racists. However, regardless of how repugnant we might find it that any person would vote for an explicit and avowed racist or misogynist, when Desmond Swayne says that people are entitled to vote for a racist or a misogynist, he speaks the simple plain truth.
People are entitled to vote for misogynists and racists. They are. That’s democracy. It’s the difficulty and the challenge of democracy, but it is indeed integral to democracy. It’s a pity, but the electorate are entitled to vote for misogynists and racists. Remember, people once voted for Nazis in Germany, that’s how their rise to power began. The electorate are entitled to vote for racists and misogynists. They are. Deal with it.
The reaction to his comments, a reaction that might be broadly summed up as a self-righteous “ooh, it shouldn’t be allowed!” highlighted two problems that have already cost us dear: firstly, people fetishize the act of voting as though it were the be-all and end-all of democracy, as though it encapsulated all that democracy is. Which clearly indicates that they don’t in fact, understand what democracy actually is at all. And secondly, people don’t seem to understand why we have democracy, indeed, what it is actually for.
On the first point – voting is not in itself, democracy. It isn’t. Not even close. Voting is but the practical expression, the mechanism for the many processes of democracy. There are other expressions and processes. They all play their parts, and serve to maintain democracy in different ways.
For instance, democracy may also be expressed through protest.
But it may also be expressed in much less ostentatious forms. We often forget this, especially in these days of broad-brush strokes, primary colours, scandals and litigation. There are smaller, more intimate ways that we the regular Joes and Janes of the world do democracy; simply the way that we talk to each other, for instance. The ways in which people attempt to reach an understanding with their neighbours. An essential, though mundane, aspect of democracy is what happens when we simply talk amongst ourselves. I’ll come back to this shortly, but for now, just note that: for us lot of Herberts, we scummy proles, simply talking amongst ourselves is the loam of democracy.
If people do vote for misogynists and racists, then that act of placing a cross in a box is merely the totem of a damage already done. We ought to ask ourselves: why would anyone want to vote for such despicable curs?
And the answer is as follows: those people who wish to vote for misogynists and racists do so because we, you and I, failed to dissuade them. We failed to make the argument for why misogyny or racism are bad things. We declined to exercise that which is often called a right, but which I would like to suggest is actually a duty – our freedom of speech. We did. Us lot. In our pubs, around our water coolers, over lunch. We failed to sway our peers. And thus, our peers did evil. An evil they are entitled to perform, because that potential for evil is the price we pay for democracy. It is, I’m afraid, latent in the model. It is why democracy must be defended by constant vigilance, because if it sways too much in that dark direction, it collapses in upon itself. We saw this in 30s Germany. It’s as though that which is valuable in democracy requires the spur of all that is dark to constantly remind us why we must maintain the rigours of this messy system. This is why anyone who believes their entire obligation to democracy is satisfied by occasionally putting an X in a box, is simply entirely ignorant of what democracy is. Swayne is right – people are entitled to vote for misogynists and racists. But he has omitted to mention that we, all of us, not just the people paid to be politicians, are duty bound to make the argument for why it is never a moral or useful thing to do.
And on the second point – Why democracy? What is it for?
Some people seem to suppose that democracy is something akin to good sportsmanship. It is a desirable thing, shows that we’re all good eggs really and only a bounder would prefer the alternatives, which are all rather crass and crude and hardly cricket. This attitude indicates a craven misunderstanding held by people with no grasp of either history or law. Which means sadly, in the UK right now, most of the population.
Allow me to explain the reality of the matter. Prior to democracy we had feudalism (for simplicity’s sake, let’s put aside ancient Greece for now. We don’t want to be here all day). Feudalism was imposed by force of arms in societies that were fundamentally agrarian, where a peasant was a peasant was a peasant. Peasants were needed to lift things, one peasant was as good as another, and you can kill any of them you find to be irritating but be able to source a replacement in a heartbeat. And no one (well, no one with power) cared what a peasant might say or think. Peasants were there to lift things. There was, in addition, a small skilled class that you need to be a bit more careful with (good blacksmiths can be at least a bit difficult to find, and you do need a blacksmith), and it’s best to keep your small cadre of bully-boy heavy guards fairly sweet (or you’ll end up having to personally terrorise your own villages, and that’s just such a bore that gets in the way of swiving and hunting).
Under feudalism 90% of the people who aren’t actual aristocrats are as disposable and as interchangeable as sheep. Feudalism did not become capitalism because the people in charge decided that the status quo was all a bit unfair. They did not succumb to a fit of altruistic splendidity. Feudalism became capitalism because of plague. The peasants carked it. To the tune of about half the population of Europe. Aristocrats shuffled off to meet their maker too, of course, but an estate needs only one aristo. Most good families ensured they had an heir and a spare, and there would usually be a cousin if push came to shove. Replacing the lord of the manor, or the prince or even the king, was eminently doable. There was always someone who wanted that job. But if an estate needs 50 peasants to be worked, it still needs 50 peasants. The peasants found they had power, because there weren’t always 50 peasants to be had. They might allow themselves to be poached for better conditions, and could expect that their new lord would be obliged to protect them for his own sake.
In addition, with less brute resource (peasants) productivity was key. If your necessary resource (peasants) just got a whole lot scarcer (cos half of them are dead) the strategy of poaching peasants from other lords will only get you so far, and you’ve got to spend all that time making sure they don’t get poached back. In reality there’s no option other than to make more of the suddenly decidedly finite work force. I suspect that there were many attempts made at whipping peasants into working harder, but that’s probably only going to whip them into an early grave, and that just makes your scarce resource annoyingly scarcer. So, somewhere along the way, aristocratic families that hadn’t quite managed to cousin-breed their brains away decided to permit peasants a stake in their work. And so you have the beginnings of a yeomanry, a class who will work for the lord, yes, but also be able to keep some of the fruits of their labour. Become stakeholders, as Tony Blair would no doubt have phrased it.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and a bright and aspiring yeoman might think up better techniques, modify tools in a cunning manner, and so manage to make that little bit more of their farm. There would be other opportunists with bigger ideas, ideas that required investment, which would show their return over time. Matters of mechanisation, or of rationalisation of the land, perhaps? The mediaeval banking system that had developed pretty much just to fund kings going to war with each other could be tapped, and innovations sprung forth, and mortgages developed. As a part of this process, as innovations spread and the materials needed to build these innovations had to be sourced ever farther afield, there develops a trade that is ever more extensive, ever more global. This is then pushed even further when a demand for luxury goods emerges for an ever-growing class of people with a little leisure and a little spare cash. Such forays around the globe for spices and tea and carpets etc etc is an ever-riskier venture, and so insurance emerges. And if you have finance products for investment and insurance, you have the beginnings of capitalism.
Capitalism should be a self-regulating system with dividends for successful enterprise. Let’s not get bogged down in how that is very often perverted through history because, again, we haven’t time for that. Let’s just accept that the drive of market forces as outlined here, starting from a scarcity of labour, did spur innovation.
It makes for a very different social deal. The bludgeoning of ignorant peasants isn’t going to give you an expanding educated class who develop mathematics or optics or chemistry. The French ran with maintaining mediaeval patronage, carrying on as before with the aristos taking all the cream. But there was an ever better educated cadre that just kept growing beyond what could be sustained by patronage alone, and who were able to ally, at least for a time with the masses, and weaponise the hunger of those masses. Consequently, lots of aristos had their head cut off. Russia tried the same approach and did manage to pull it off for another hundred and thirty years. But it came to pretty much the same end. In Britain, Charles I had a stab at it, playing God’s anointed with a populace increasingly articulating a critical faculty rather than unthinking obedience. We cut his head off. Because we could. Absolute kings don’t work when they need to keep so many people sweet to keep the carriages and wine being made, when they’re demanding all the luxuries, delights and conveniences that come from a very wide skill base in a complex society.
The kings of yore who were able to get by just terrorising peasants lived in draughty castles, didn’t have proper toilets and often couldn’t read. Neither Charles I nor Louis XVI were that kinda guy. Nor was Nicholas II. They all of them liked a little culture and comfort. Culture and comfort cost. They cost a ruler power. You don’t get the spectrum of skills and innovation needed to create beautiful things by whipping peasants. You get it by fostering independent minds. And a lot of independent minds aren’t going to be impressed by ‘divine right’ if they just invented the steam engine and made themselves millionaires mining coal. And if a king needs to borrow money, and the people with the money see a king in straitened conditions, that olde mystique of being king won’t survive his asking for cash. A king stood there poncing his entitlement as ‘divine right’, especially after the individualism of Protestantism has largely superseded the authoritarianism of Catholicism, is going to cut an absurd and pathetic figure.
The balance shifts and, at some point, they need us more than we need them. The European monarchies that have survived are all democracies. Japan is a democracy. Not because their sovereigns are splendid chaps and chapettes with an abundance of the milk of human kindness, but because we’d cut off their heads sooner or later if they tried that feudal sh** again. And they’d be half inclined to let us cut their heads off because – and this is the important bit – they don’t want to go back to draughty castles and poor sanitation and everyone dying of the smallest little cut because there aren’t any proper doctors because no one much really goes to school because they’re all needed to plough. Those in power need to relinquish degrees of power so that those without power are motivated to develop skills, crafts and products that they may leverage to improve their own lives, often by way of making the lives of those in power even more commodious, even more fun. There is a balance to be struck. The enlightened self-interest of the rulers is to relinquish somewhat their grip on power in return for an altogether more pleasant life.
Any aristo who doesn’t understand this will eventually be swinging, or a little lighter up top, or up against a wall. Sure, it may be that thousands of us proles are killed getting them there, but there are thousands of us. Millions. These days, billions. It’s a number game. And every savvy nob knows it. Mention can be made of the totalitarian alternatives, but they never sustain. They’re all throw backs to a feudal model in their way, absurd efforts to combine capitalism with authoritarianism. The fascist states were always brought about by Roman Catholics brought up with an authoritarian outlook (yes – they were, look it up, and yes, that does include Hitler. It is also well known that Heinrich Himmler modelled the SS on the Jesuits, and perhaps we should briefly note that when Johnson decided he probably ought to marry this one, the marriage was in the Catholic church). That authoritarianism cannot sustain a complex society dependent upon innovation. Innovation is anathema to authority because authority insists upon control, and you can’t control something you can’t understand, and the innovative is rarely understood other than in retrospect.
The USSR, and communism more generally, are often posited as some great fundamental opposition to fascism, but they’re really nothing more than a different team in the same game. Just citing ‘the People’ as your authority, rather than God, still offloads your authority into a mystical space you can’t question (you just try having a chat with ‘the People’) where it may not be interrogated. Ask any North Korean, citizen of a state sealed off from the world from which no innovations emerge. You might smugly then cite China, but China is leveraging its sheer size whilst adopting all the elements of democracies it can possibly sustain. It is attempting an authoritarian capitalism. It’s pulling it off at the moment, and I can’t promise you it hasn’t, somehow, got the trick right and is the future. But history suggests that the odds are against it. For a while, because of sheer size, it’s pulling the trick off, but every year it loosens something here or there. Its super-rich elite now live ever more outside of China. It’s haemorrhaging human resource. They like it over here…
So, the problem is not that Desmond Swayne, with the sagacity of a broken clock (even a broken clock is right twice a day) points out that we’re entitled to vote for racists and misogynists. The problem is that vast tracts of the electorate, who believe themselves to be politically engaged types, don’t understand that he is right. And, more profoundly, we may reasonably infer, don’t understand their own obligations, responsibilities and duties in maintaining and fostering democracy.
Politics is for life, not just for elections.
Read more by Gareth Kearns.