Setting the People Free: The story of democracy, by John Dunn

The rule of egoism

The starting-point for this ambitious book is the word "democracy" itself. It began began humbly enough, as the description of a form of government that took root in the republic of Athens late in the fifth century BC, in which the citizens ruled themselves, making decisions within an assembly all citizens were free to participate in.

Many centuries later, the word had slipped its moorings in the specific context of direct democracy, to become linked to an idea with immense and reverberating power. In its modern version, the word was used to describe a wide range of systems in which those who rule depended on the approval, or at least consent, of the sovereign people.

The means by which democracy had become feasible in the nation-states of the post-Treaty of Westphalia (1648) world, with their large populations, was representation. Men no longer participated personally in government. Instead, they chose representatives to do that for them. But representative government was not what the Athenians meant by democracy. It was already a diluted form, compelled by practicalities.

The word "democracy" was therefore not used with precision. It emerged again in a relatively pure form in the 13 colonies of America, notably the New England states where the town meeting, in which all adult men were welcome, took the important decisions affecting the community. To this day, in these states, the town elects people known as select-men to implement decisions and to value the property on which local taxes are based. With the coming of the Union, such direct democracy was impossible beyond a local level.

In a different and demagogic guise, democracy became a watchword of the French Revolution and of its harshest proponent, Maximilien Robespierre. To him, democracy meant the undiluted power of the demos, the people, the majority ruling in its own interests. He had no time for democracy's companions, individual rights and the rule of law.

Gradually, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, fear of the people, what James Madison, one of the authors of the American constitution, called "the mob", began to subside. Elementary education and the widening ownership of property created a middle class with a substantial stake in law and order. Democracy graduated from being a contentious word to becoming the embodiment of a social value, emblematic of the Western world's perception of its mission. Listen to the ringing call of George Bush last year: "the global expansion of democracy is the ultimate force in rolling back terrorism and tyranny".

The word is used to describe a wide range of political models, but one has become dominant since the end of the Second World War: what John Dunn calls "the rule of egoism". This model combines individualism and capitalism. Unlike the ancient democracy of Athens, it is not communitarian. It depends upon the awareness that individual interests are best served by accepting a common interest in the rule of law, a common interest maintained by popular consensus. That consensus, in turn, is established by regular elections.

A question that haunts Dunn is why democracy has become such a powerful concept. It seems to me that part of the answer is to be found in the idealisation of Athenian democracy. The Athenian republic was fortunate in its great men. The eloquence of Pericles, the brilliant clarity of Plato and Aristotle, rang down the ages and influenced men's perception of the society in which they lived. The classical period profoundly influenced the teaching of elites in the public schools of England and the universities of the Continent, and through those elites became known outside Europe as well.

There was also a second factor. Education became more widely available. Remember the advice of W E Forster in 1870, three years after the extension of the franchise, when the Liberal minister introduced free national education in England: "We must educate our masters". A more educated, and better off, population not only expected but was capable of participating in government. Economic advance went hand in hand with the advance in democracy.

The concept of democracy that competed until very recently with "the rule of egoism" was "the rule of equals". Dunn is very good on two main exponents of this model, Gracchus Babeuf and Filippo Michele Buonarroti, both leading figures in the 1794 Conspiracy of the Equals, the ill-organised and naive attempt to uphold the principles of the French Revolution against those who reimposed order on a chaotic France.

Babeuf believed that equality was an essential ingredient of democracy. Before the tribunal of Vendôme, he defended his view, defining equality as the transformative idea of the Revolution. Buonarotti, in his later account written in exile, called the opposing view, with surprising prescience, the "English doctrine of the economists". Echoes of its rejection reverberated in the French referendum on the EU Constitution. History has a much stronger influence than most of us appreciate.

Yet democracy requires the form, if not the substance, of equality. To have credibility, each person must have an equal voice in the decision as to who represents him. That is why the integrity of the voting process matters so much. The credibility of democracy can be undermined by fraud or intimidation. It can also be undermined by exclusion. The story of democracy in the past century in the Western world has been the story of inclusion, and the strange thing is that it has taken so long.

The French Revolution never took the claims of women to democratic participation seriously. A handful of brave women demanded a declaration of Les Droits des Femmes as a complement to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but they were laughed to scorn. The issue was not considered by the framers of the American Constitution either. As had happened so long ago in Athens, the leaders simply regarded a large part of their populations as less than fully capable of the responsibilities of democracy. In the US, as in Athens, that exclusion extended to slaves. In modern terms, we find exclusion, other than for children, hard to justify. Removing such discrimination has become a hallmark of modern democracy.

Modern representative democracy, however, has its own problems. One is self-exclusion: unwillingness to participate or vote. The rule of egoism, especially in the US, has widened the gaps between rich and poor to the point where the poor do not feel members of a shared community. The proportion of low-income adults, and particularly young adults, who bother to vote is fewer than one in four. Politics, especially at federal level, has become the preserve of the well-off. The word for that is not democracy, but plutocracy.

In Great Britain, the contempt of the executive for a weak legislature undermines interest in Parliament. Dunn, most of whose book is thoughtful and illuminating, seems to share that contempt. He employs some populist phrases worthy of Jeremy Paxman on a bad day, for example that representative democracy "guarantees a disconcerting combination of shabbiness of motive and pretence to public spirit throughout most of the cohorts of practising politicians". Most? Really? I wonder how many contemporary politicians Dunn has studied and whether he, too, is guilty of idealising the past.

Shirley Williams is a Liberal Democrat peer