Pluralism v populism

Britain is sleepwalking into a constitutional revolution. There has been little Britain-wide debate on the rationale or implications of the changes. Nor has the pluralist logic of the new system of checks and balances been fully accepted by a New Labour government with centralising, populist instincts
June 19, 1999

As the Scots and Welsh have shown, the constitutional revolution on which this government nervously embarked two years ago has already gone further than most London-based commentators expected. It is, however, a very British revolution. It is a revolution without a theory. It is the muddled, messy work of practical men and women, unintellectual when not positively anti-intellectual, apparently oblivious of the long tradition of political and constitutional reflection of which they are the heirs, responding piecemeal and ad hoc to conflicting pressures-a revolution of sleepwalkers who don't know quite where they are going or quite why. But muddle and mess are often the midwives of change. New Labour's constitutional changes may be confused and ambiguous, but they are also dynamic and open-ended. The architecture of British democracy; the structure of the British state; the relationship between that state and the nations it purports to embody; the web of understandings and assumptions which tell its managers who they are and how they ought to behave, are back on the agenda, as they have not been since the lights went out in 1914.

Despite ingenious attempts to minimise its impact, the Human Rights Act has further shaken the already shaky doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty, which the Victorian jurist, AV Dicey, once called the "keystone of the Constitution." Scottish devolution has revised the terms on which the nation-states of England and Scotland came together to form the multinational British state 300 years ago. In doing so, it has engendered pressures for further change, possibly even starting a game of constitutional "leapfrog" as Wales, and even the English regions, try to catch up, while Scotland pulls further away. The Northern Ireland settlement is a fudge, but a fluid one which events are sure to re-shape. The one certainty is that the frontier between the two sovereign states of Ireland and Britain will be even more porous in future. Welsh devolution, although less far-reaching than Scottish, has also created an alternative power-centre (reinforced by Plaid Cymru's success), speaking for a nation whose values differ sharply from those of the middle England focus groups.

The three great undecided questions-entry into the European single currency; reform of the House of Lords; and partial proportional representation-carry even heavier freight. The launch of the euro marks a step-change in the EU's inexorable evolution into a unique form of federalism, looser than those of the US or Germany, but tighter than most British politicians have so far acknowledged. The long-term implications for Britain are huge and unpredictable. Even in the medium term, the fiscal constitution will be transformed, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer finds himself sharing power with his counterparts in the rest of the EU. Depending on the form it takes, House of Lords reform may entail a shift away from the de facto unicameralism which has been a central feature of the British constitution since the 1911 Parliament Act. If they come to pass, the Jenkins Commission's proposals on the electoral system will spell the demise of the adversarial majoritarian democracy through which we have been governed for more than a century.

The old constitution was never the crystalline monolith of Dicey's imagining. It was a palimpsest of sometimes discordant myths, understandings and expectations, reflecting the changing values of succeeding generations. Still, certain principles were clear: the absolute and inalienable sovereignty of the Crown-in- Parliament; autonomous executive power; no written constitution, amendable only by some special procedure; collective and individual ministerial responsibility; an adversarial party system buttressed by a first-past-the-post electoral system.

That constitution was showing signs of disarray when Tony Blair was still an undergraduate. The Thatcher and Major governments undermined many of its underpinning institutions and tacit understandings. The 1972 European Communities Act and the Single European Act of 1985 undermined more. New Labour's constitutional agenda goes much further. If the undecided questions on that agenda are answered in a maximalist fashion-if Britain enters the single currency; if House of Lords reform produces a second chamber with the authority and legitimacy to challenge the executive-dominated House of Commons; if the proposals put forward by the Jenkins Commission are enacted-the old constitution will no longer exist. But even if the answers are minimalist, even if we stay out of the single currency, establish an entirely nominated second chamber and stick to the present electoral system, New Labour has already changed the old constitution so fundamentally that a return to the status quo ante is impossible.

At this point, however, we confront an oddity. Britain's slow, crab-like, late 19th and early 20th-century progress towards democracy and the associated struggles over the future of Ireland were the subjects of passionate and intellectually impressive debate. Dicey, Bagehot, Mill, Leslie Stephen, Henry Maine, LT Hobhouse and JA Hobson were among the debaters. And the debate was not confined to intellectuals. Politicians-Lowe, Salisbury, Gladstone, Chamberlain, Dilke, Asquith-contributed too. It was a debate about ends as well as means: about the nature and responsibilities of citizenship; about the relationship between democratic governance and the capitalist free market; about the problems of sharing power by area; about what it was to be British; and the kind of political community that Britain was to be.

But it is conspicuously untrue of the constitutional revolution now under way. With a few honourable exceptions, the political class on the national, British, level has responded with a deafening silence. (The political classes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are a different matter.) As a result, there has been no great Britain-wide debate on the rationale, implications or goal of the changes now in progress. No political leader has offered a vision of the end in view, or set out an ideal of good government, or political health or civic virtue which the changes are held to promote or to undermine. Ministers have made no attempt to link their constitutional measures with the rest of their "project." Their ruthlessly centralist approach to the management of their own party and to most social and economic issues runs directly counter to the de-centralist aspirations which their constitutional proposals appear to reflect and seem bound to encourage. Perhaps because they are aware of this contradiction and do not wish to face its implications, or perhaps because of the messy "asymmetry" in the devolution plans themselves, they have not properly described what they want to put in the place of the old constitution which they are dismantling.

But sooner or later the revolution will end. A new constitution will emerge. If it is to endure it must be rooted in consent. A constitution is more than a collection of legal texts. It encapsulates a moral vision: a conception of the ends of political life; of the way in which the members of a political community should settle their differences; of the nature and limits of the public realm; of the sources of authority and power; and of the way in which they should be distributed. As well as formal texts, it covers the informal understandings and operational codes that make up the warp and woof of the political culture. If the formal texts say one thing and the informal understandings another, the result will be confusion. But the informal understandings cannot be changed by acts of parliament alone. They can be changed only through a process of learning and debate, which only the political class can begin, but which it cannot control.

So what should the British debate be about? New Labour's constitutional agenda is a response to a creeping crisis of legitimacy which has been in progress for 30 years. The sources of this crisis are manifold, but one stands out. The old constitution was the constitution of a pre-democratic ancien r?me on which democratic flesh had been grafted. It was also an imperial constitution, embodying an imperial identity. The end of empire undermined it. But the obvious question, "What is to replace it?", went unanswered. As a result, the experiments of the 1960s and 1970s were half-hearted, makeshift and transitory (Harold Wilson's abortive reform of the Lords, Jim Callaghan's failed devolution); while the changes brought by the Thatcher revolution (the Single European Act and the large transfer of public functions from elected councils to nominated bodies) further eroded the old constitution. So the grand question for the 21st century is this: what should succeed the busted flush of the ancien r?me? It goes without saying that it must be a democratic constitution, close enough to the traditions of this particular political community to command assent, yet appropriate to a medium-sized member state of a federalising EU. But democracy comes in many guises. My question therefore implies another: what sort of democracy?

In the introduction to a new volume of essays, Constitutional Futures (OUP), Robert Hazell says that Britain is developing a form of government "with greater checks and balances and greater separation of powers." He also says that "popular sovereignty is replacing parliamentary sovereignty." But there is a paradox here, which he does not address. Implicit in the notion of constitutional checks and balances is a pluralist approach to relations between the state and civil society. The notion of popular sovereignty, on the other hand, is quintessentially populist. Pluralism and populism are not natural bedfellows. They spring from different moral visions and point in different directions. The greatest pluralists were the American founding fathers. Populists hark back to Rousseau. Most democratic constitutions combine elements of both; no one should be surprised if the new constitution which results from the government's sleepwalking does so, too. But they are bound to be in tension.

Pluralism is not a doctrine. It is a disposition, a mentality, an approach. Like most approaches to politics, it is a matter of feeling as well as of belief. Pluralists rejoice in variety. They are sceptical about theories-Marxism, economic liberalism, globalisation-that presuppose uniformity. Pluralists like the clash and clang of argument; the monochrome sameness of the big battalions horrifies them; so does the sugary conformism of the politically correct. Instinctively, they are for the "little platoons" that Edmund Burke saw as the nurseries of "public affections," and they want to protect them from the homogenising pressures of state, market and opinion. For them, a good society is a mosaic of vibrant smaller collectivities-trade unions, universities, business associations, local authorities, miners' welfares, churches, mosques, Women's Institutes, NGOs-each with its own identity, tradition, values and rituals. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher of absolute sovereignty, famously compared such collectivities to "worms in the entrails of a natural man." Pluralists see them as antibodies protecting the culture of democracy from infection.

Pluralists know that the disciplines of democracy do not come naturally. They have to be learned; and it is in the little platoons, in the intermediate institutions which stand between the state and the individual, that we learn them. But the little platoons are vulnerable as well as precious. Totalitarian states colonise or cripple them, but even well-intentioned democratic states, acting in the supposed interests of their peoples, and responding to what they see as the imperatives of social justice or the free market or efficiency, have a propensity to encroach on them, to curb their freedom of action and to impose alien norms on them. This has been a leitmotif of postwar British history, under governments of both parties: Aneurin Bevan nationalising local authority hospitals; Anthony Crosland trying to abolish the grammar schools; Peter Walker sweeping away ancient counties; Margaret Thatcher handbagging universities, trade unions and local councils; David Blunkett naming and shaming schools that his inspectors decree to be failures-all thought (or think) that they were acting for the best. As a result of their actions, British civil society, which was one of the strongest in the world in the 19th century, is now one of the weakest in the democratic west. Pluralists draw a stern moral. If self-government is to be more than a pious hope, if the civility on which it depends is to flourish, the little platoons must be protected from a potentially over-mighty state. They cannot be protected effectively without constitutional checks and balances.

There is another reason why checks and balances matter to pluralists. It was put best 200 years ago. "Ambition," said James Madison, "must be made to counter ambition." The best defence against the self-aggrandisement of power is power. No rulers, not even the most virtuous, not even those chosen by and in theory representative of the "sovereign people" can be trusted not to abuse their positions. Power is addictive. It is a magnet for toadies. It drowns out awkward questions. It encourages delusions of infallibility, and fosters the bunker mentality. All rulers, even those who honestly believe themselves to be pluralists, are tempted to stifle criticism, to surround themselves with yes-men and to extend their power in potentially damaging or corrupting ways. Checks and balances are essential, not to abolish power-that is a utopian impossibility-but to tame it.

Pluralism is not a soft option. It does not dissolve all conflicts of value in a warm bath of moral relativism. It says that the conflicts have to be faced, and that incompatible goods have to be traded off against each other. It does not deny the need for leadership or pretend that difficult choices can be fudged. It says that leaders should argue and persuade, rather than manipulate or command, and that choices should be made openly and after deliberation. For pluralists, democratic self-government is a testing experiment, not an easy-going panacea. It depends on personal growth, on a willingness to learn, on the development of judgement. To some, all this will smack of elitism, and perhaps rightly so. The language of "growth," "learning" and "judgement" implies that some preferences are better than others. But pluralists will not apologise for that. The alternative power centres on which they rely to check the power of the intrusive state must have a capacity for self-defence. This means that they cannot be anarchistic communes. They too must be led, and leadership is elitist by definition. For pluralists, the notion that we can live in a world without elites is as fatuous and as dangerous as the notion that we can live in a world without power. If power checks power, elites countervail elites.

The populist alternative stands in stark contrast to all this. Like pluralism, populism is best seen as an approach rather than as a doctrine. Like pluralists, populists challenge the assumptions of the ancien r?me. But there the resemblance ends. For populists, wisdom and virtue reside in the people, and not in any elite or institution. Here is David Owen on his experiences on a building site in 1956 before going up to Cambridge: "When Suez broke, there was Gaitskell on television and in the House of Commons criticising Eden, and here were these men working alongside me, who should have been his natural supporters, furious with him. The Daily Mirror backed Gaitskell, but these men were tearing up their Daily Mirrors... My work mates were solidly in favour of Eden. It was not only that they taught me how people like them think; they also opened my eyes to how I should think myself. From then on I never identified with the liberal-small 'l'-establishment."

This is the populist mentality in a nutshell. The people are right and the establishment is wrong. Pluralists inhabit a world of dilemmas, of tensions between conflicting goods, and of negotiation between the bearers of different values. For populists, dilemmas are impermissible. The people know best. Values are not in tension with each other; there is no need for negotiation. The people decide which values are to prevail.

By the same token, legitimate power springs from the uncorrupted people, and only from the people. Checks and balances are therefore suspect. They impede the expression of the popular will, and chop up the power which emanates from the people into self-stultifying bits. Besides, there is no need for them. Oppression by power-hungry rulers is indeed a danger, but the solution is simple: empower the people. Moreover, the people are a homogeneous whole. There is no need to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don't need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don't deserve to be protected. Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher's immortal phrase, of the "enemy within." There is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former. Intermediate institutions and so-called "special interests" are suspect-one of the reasons why New Right neo-liberalism, which also views intermediate institutions and special interests as conspiracies against the public interest, can so easily be given a populist flavour.

Populist leaders appeal to the emotions I have tried to describe, and usually share them. But there is a large element of humbug in that. Even leaders who originally sprang from the ranks of the people no longer belong to the ranks once they start to lead. Populist leaders have to come to terms with this awkward fact. Characteristically, they do so by laying claim to an intuitive, supra-rational understanding of the people and of their true values and beliefs. Charles de Gaulle, Enoch Powell, Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Joe McCarthy, David Lloyd George did not need to find out what the people thought. They knew. They knew because their heartbeats chimed with the people's. Buoyed by that belief, they offered certainty, security and glamour in place of the drab and confusing greys of the ordinary politician.

The implications for New Labour's constitutional revolution are disturbing. Ours is a populist age-demotic, sentimental, resentful of excellence. 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 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 membership of a greater whole; above all, they place the burdens of freedom on the leader's shoulders.

For the present government, they have other attractions as well. New Labour's leaders are still scarred by the vicious infighting of the bad old days of far-left union branches and inner-city councils. To them, little platoons-little platoons associated with the Labour movement, at any rate-are more reminiscent of Tony Benn than of Edmund Burke. New Labour won control of the party by using the "people"-in the shape of opinion poll findings-as a stick to beat their own activists; and the habit is hard to break. Besides, they share the sentimental anti-elitism of the times. It is not an accident that Tony Blair so readily assumed the role of high priest of the cult of Princess Di. And their populist inclinations are reinforced by political pressures. When institutions are in disarray, when norms point in different directions, when the old constitution has become a messy jumble of bits and pieces and there is no coherent alternative in sight, the simplest way to cut through the resulting contradictions is to appeal directly to the sovereign people, over the heads of such intermediaries as remain. Modern techniques of opinion research are much more sophisticated than anything available to the populist leaders of the past, so it is much easier to do this than it used to be. Today's populists need not rely on intuition. They can find out, with a fair degree of accuracy, what the people want (or think they want) to hear, and they can trim their messages accordingly. The focus group becomes a surrogate for Rousseau's General Will. The leader's claim to embody the sovereign people acquires a specious plausibility. And the populist vision of democracy provides no basis for challenging it.

Populists speak of "the people," but who are "the people"? The current reconstruction of the territorial constitution makes this question urgent. Are the Scots part of the 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 the Scottish people. 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 powerful sub-national authorities-not only in Scotland and Wales, but in England, too. The obvious conclusion is that the emerging new territorial constitution is likely to unravel unless it is advocated, justified and, above all, understood in pluralist terms.

The reconstruction of the British state raises two questions, not one: not only, "Who are the people?" but "Can I belong to more than one people at the same time?" Can I be Scottish and British? Can I be 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 they involve, relate to each other? The closer Europe gets to federation, the more urgent the questions become. Here, too, the populist answers are sterile. For populists, the homogeneous and monolithic people have, by definition, only one identity. You can be British or European, but not both. The notion that most of us have overlapping loyalties, that these sometimes conflict, and that learning how to negotiate such conflicts is a part of growing up, has no place in the populist scheme. Yet, in an increasingly cosmopolitan world, multiple identities and overlapping loyalties are an inescapable part of political life. Britain cannot come to terms with the European destiny that every government since the early 1960s has believed to be essential until we, as a political community, accept that. 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 nature of democracy. The populist argument for democracy is that the people should be sovereign. Accept that, and populism prevails. But it is not the only argument-or the best. The pluralist vision of democracy implies a deliberative, reflective politics of power-sharing and mutual education. Absolute popular sovereignty is as alien to it as absolute parliamentary sovereignty. It is not difficult to set out the basic elements of a pluralist constitutional settlement: proportional representation; an elected second chamber; regional assemblies; revitalised local government; freedom of information; a federal Britain in a federal Europe. But none of this can work without a change of mentality and culture. It is time for the debate to start.