Government of the people by the people

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Abraham Lincoln gave us the Twitter-friendly definition of democracy in his Gettsyburg Address in 1863: “government of the people by the people for the people”. In fact, as Dan Hannan reminded us recently, Lincoln may have been (consciously or not) borrowing the phrase from our own John Wycliffe.

No matter. The phrase has, rightly, stuck. When in doubt read it out, and you will be reminded of what politics is supposed to be there for.

Of course, the simplicity of the phrase belies how difficult government is in practice. More importantly, what are we really saying with those words “for the people”? Most Labour List readers, for example, would probably disagree with what appears to be the settled (majority) view of the British people – that the death penalty should be brought back.

So when elected politicians refuse even to debate bringing back the death penalty, are they acting for the people or not? Under the Burkean principle MPs are representatives not delegates, people “who follow their own understanding of the best action to pursue”, as one scholar has put it. Still – “for the people” might ring a little hollow when the people are being ignored in this way.

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Which brings me, of course, to the first of two debates between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage – part two follows this Wednesday. You will by now have heard about the rather comical press reaction to this clash: an instant and overwhelming pundit view that Clegg had won, to be confounded by the instant YouGov poll, which had the public seeing Farage as the winner by two to one.
Was the poll wrong? Were “the people” wrong? I would have thought that by definition – by President Lincoln’s definition – the people, except in extreme circumstances such as Nazi Germany, can rarely be wholly wrong. Misguided, yes. Ill-informed, certainly (and whose fault would that be?). But wrong? If the people in a democracy express a strong view the point is to engage with it, to start where people are, as Deborah Mattinson always says. Immigration is the classic example. I accept what serious economists such as Jonathan Portes say about the lack of evidence to support the excessive claims made about the harm immigration supposedly does to communities. I can see that virtually all of the concern over immigration is based on anecdotes, which may or may not have a basis in truth. But I can also see that immigration figures prominently on the list of voter concerns. And it would be an unwise politician who told the voters that they were simply wrong to be worried about it.

In his political memoir Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, Michael Ignatieff quotes a speech made by the German sociologist Max Weber in 1919, on the need for tenacity and resilience in politics: “Only he has the calling for politics,” Weber said, “who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.” This is why leadership is needed. People have to be persuaded. Less than ever before can so-called elite figures pronounce and expect to be heeded. Janet Daley touched on this point in her Sunday Telegraph column yesterday. Who was being slow on the uptake, and who was out of touch, in the response to Farage and Clegg?

“It was…as if the Westminster media and actual voters in the country had been listening to an entirely different event – as, for all intents and purposes, they were.”

Reckless populism is dangerous. Many of Farage’s claims are absurd. But he is getting a hearing, and we should not blame people for being interested in what he says. It is up to those of us who disagree with him to win the argument, not merely label his supporters as stupid.

In 1953, after a popular uprising in East Germany, the Communist regime declared gravely that the people had lost the government’s trust. To which the writer Bertolt Brecht replied, in a poem called The Solution (Die Lösung):

“Would it not be easier in that case if the government
dissolved the people
and elected another?” *

Politicians and pundits cannot sack the people. They should listen to them more carefully instead, and find more interesting and persuasive things to say to them.

* “Wäre es da
Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
Löste das Volk auf und
Wählte ein anderes?”

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