The perils of a populist age; Podium

From the Mishcon Lecture given by the Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, at University College, London
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The Independent Culture
OURS IS a populist age - resentful of excellence and hostile to any suggestion that the voice of the people may not always be the voice of God. To be sure, it is also a hyper-individualistic age. But, despite appearances to the contrary, populism and hyper-individualism go together. A mass of disaggregated individuals, in a society where intermediate institutions have been crippled or hollowed out, is more likely to respond to a populist appeal than to any other.

Populist languages make no demands on their listeners; they flatter the emotions; they promise the isolated and alienated the warm glow of membership of a greater whole; they place the burdens of freedom on someone else's shoulders. For this Government they have other attractions, too. When the old constitution has become a messy jumble of bits and pieces and there is no coherent alternative in sight, the easiest way to cut through the resulting contradictions is to appeal directly to the sovereign people, over the heads of such intermediaries as remain. Populists speak of "the people", but who are "the people"? The current reconstruction of the territorial constitution makes this question painfully urgent.

Are the Scots part of the uncorrupted, monolithic and homogeneous British people, to whom, in the populist vision, sovereignty should now be made over? Or are they a different people, also uncorrupted, homogeneous and monolithic, and also sovereign? If the former, then how can there be a populist justification for devolution? But, if the latter, what is wrong with the SNP's conclusion that the sovereign Scottish people deserve a state of their own?

In practice, the case for devolution has been argued in populist language, but only with reference to Scotland.

No one has answered the embarrassing questions, "What about the English?" "Are they also a people?" I don't claim that populists cannot answer those questions. Plainly, they can. The trouble is that their answers point unmistakably towards a Balkanised Britain.

The pluralist case for devolution, by contrast, has nothing to do with popular sovereignty. It is that, in a country of Britain's size, the power of the central state should, as a matter of principle, be checked with elected sub-national assemblies - not only in Scotland and Wales, but in the English regions. The obvious conclusion is that the emerging new territorial constitution is likely to unravel unless it is advocated, justified and understood in pluralist terms.

That leads on to a more general point. The reconstruction of the British state raises two questions, not one: not just, "Who are the people?" but "Can I belong to more than one people at once?" Can I be Scottish and British, or English and British? Can I be a Londoner, or a Yorkshireman, and English and British?

If the answer is "yes" as it surely must be, how do these identities, and the loyalties involved, relate to each other? These questions or their equivalents reverberate throughout the territory of the European Union (and, as Kosovo reminds us, beyond). The closer the Union gets to federation, the more urgent they become. Here too, the populist answers are sterile and destructive.

For populists, identity is identity is identity. Britain cannot come to terms with the European destiny that every British Government since the early Sixties has believed to be essential until we accept that identities are multiple, not singular; that overlapping loyalties are the stuff of social life. And to accept that is to accept a crucial element in the pluralist approach.

In the last resort, however, the case against the populist mentality is moral, not practical. It has to do with the case for, and nature of, democracy. The pluralist argument for democracy is that it is better - morally better, not just pleasanter or more convenient - to be a free citizen, bearing the burdens of freedom, than a slave. The pluralist vision of democracy implies a deliberative, reflective politics of power-sharing.

Absolute popular sovereignty is therefore as alien to it as absolute parliamentary sovereignty. In a pluralist polity, sovereignty would be shared, another way of saying that the traditional British concept of sovereignty would have no meaning. It is not difficult to set out the elements in a pluralist constitution: proportional representation, an elected second chamber, regional assemblies, revitalised local government, freedom of information, a federal Britain in a federal Europe. But no such settlement could work without a change of mentality and culture. So let the debate commence!