Dominic Lawson: The Good Lord preserve us from the popular will

It captivated Hitler and is the opposite of parliamentary democracy

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Throughout the Palace of Westminster there is no more acerbic critic of "celebrities" challenging the established political order than Lord Hattersley. The former deputy leader of the Labour Party observed that Martin Bell demonstrates his contempt for the egomania and publicity-lust of politicians by always wearing a white suit "rather as Lawrence of Arabia, according to Alan Bennett, remained inconspicuous by walking the streets of London in the flowing robes of an Arab prince".

Even the thought of Esther Rantzen carrying out her threat to stand for Parliament as an independent, says Roy Hattersley, "was driven from my mind by the horrible, and, I fear, likely prospect of Michael Winner putting his name forward. Why not? "

I too had been thinking of Michael Winner in this context. A few days ago a 70-year-old Tory MP, allegedly called Anthony Steen, furiously denounced the way in which his claims for such expenses as tree-felling on his country estate had been reported: "You know what it's about? Jealousy. I have got a very, very large house. Some say it looks like Balmoral, but it's a merchant's house from the 19th century...and it does me nicely."

When I heard this man, I was instantly reminded, in the tone of his voice, and the sentiments it expressed, of Michael Winner. Indeed, when (for this was a radio interview), the MP's photograph was published, it became clear that he was a dead ringer for the celebrated film director and restaurant critic. Have these two men ever been seen together? If not, we should be even more open to the thought that they are in fact one individual. Joking aside, there is a serious point underlying this conceit: are the public now baying for the wholesale replacement of all MPs by a new group of 'anti-politicians' really so sure that the "cleansed" Commons would be filled with men and women whose moral character would be of an altogether different quality?

They would say that they were, of course, but people vouching for their own virtue should be treated with the usual degree of suspicion, regardless of their onscreen celebrity in the guise of popular entertainers.

We should recall the most quoted words of Lord Acton, which were that "all power tends to corrupt". The qualifier, "tends", is often omitted; but there are a minority of people who remain able to withstand the temptations placed in their laps. In fact, the revelations by the Daily Telegraph of the way in which MPs treated the additional allowance system show this to be true. A large number of parliamentarians were just as aware as their greedier colleagues were of the possibilities for unscrupulous financial gain provided by the way in which Westminster's fees office operated; but their consciences would not allow them to behave in this way. In very rough terms, it seems as though about a quarter of the MPs were able to resist all such temptations. I leave it to the individual readers to estimate what proportion of a cross section of the general public would show similar high-mindedness, particularly if they were sitting in safe seats for decades.

It is, of course, true that we have every right to expect the highest standards from those who seek our backing in elections – and certainly not that they would treat the taxpayer as their unwitting personal fairy godmother, providing them with everything they could ever have wished for. Yet the almost universally expressed opinion that the present cast of the House of Commons are a uniquely wicked accumulation of individuals, who are "all at it", is a spasm of impotent anger, rather than a manifestation of reason or thoughtful analysis.

It is this mood of violent intolerance of the whole so-called "political class" from which the BNP seeks to benefit. It, and its predecessors, have always sought to tap into what ever they feel is the most readily exploitable hate-object of the moment: in one decade it will be "the Jews"; in another "the Blacks"; still later, "the Muslims". The more the usual democratic process is despised – and certainly a large number of our MPs have assisted in this through their well-publicised venality – the more powerful is the claim of the fascist party of the day that it should be allowed to sweep away this clique of careerist parliamentarians, who only pretend to be at the service of the people.

For example: "All these Cabinet reconstructions brought some positive advantage only to the actors who took part in the play; but the results were almost always quite negative as far as the interests of the people were concerned...in this connection, it is worthy of remark that when the average political party wins a parliamentary victory, no essential change takes place...in the outer aspect of public life. Public institutions are right and useful according to the measure in which their energies are directed towards [the] task ... of the maintenance of the people...If they are incapable of fulfilling it, then their existence is harmful and they must be either reformed or removed and replaced with something better."

I admit, those words are not those of the BNP leader Nick Griffin – they are altogether too articulate and well-crafted. They come from the 1937 Reichstag speech of Adolf Hitler. The then German Chancellor was a believer in the concept, originated by that monstrous Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of the popular will – what Rousseau called 'The General Will'.

This is the idea that there is some general will on the part of the people, that those who can not bring themselves to share it are simply in error, and that the job of government is to ensure that this 'general will' is not obstructed in any way. It is the idea that captivated Lenin as well as Hitler, and it is the exact opposite of parliamentary democracy, with all its endless compromises as it seeks to accommodate the full complexities of a pluralistic free society.

This is, in part, why we must question the idea of incorruptible independent candidates, who will end the futile, factional squabbling of political parties. Will all these independents just be translators into legislation of some ineffable general will, which, if only one listened hard enough, is completely united on one course of action in any given circumstance?

Even if society were so simple, such a political method is guaranteed to become the perpetual tyranny of the majority over all minorities. As Acton also said, "It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses, which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist."

The greatest conceit and error of Rousseau and his followers was to imagine that man in his natural state is in effect perfect; that this good nature has been betrayed by political and financial institutions; and that it is possible to construct a political order which would recreate that natural state of goodness.

In the past few days of Rousseau-ist popular mass delusion, it has only been the religious leaders – Dr Rowan Williams and Archbishop Vincent Nichols – who have had the sense to remind us that no imaginable system of regulations or parliamentary structure can ensure public-spiritedness and morality in the conduct of all our legislators.

Yes, many of our politicians have behaved shockingly; some may even be guilty of straightforward financial fraud; but those who think a parliament of non-aligned superannuated television stars would bring about a new golden age of government are not just angry – they are deranged.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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