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Is populism any better than elitism?

By Max Atkinson - posted Monday, 1 May 2017

'Populism' is widely understood to mean support for the concerns of ordinary people, which is hard to argue with. When viewed as a social phenomenon, it is also a reminder that members of a community whose concerns are too long ignored may risk a great deal to bring about change.

In this sense it is widely thought to explain Donald Trump's appeal in the US, support for Brexit in the UK and nationalist movements throughout Europe. When viewed as a political theory, however, it has a special focus - it becomes an argument against elitism by insisting on a popular view of democracy viz., that politicians should do what most people want rather than what (in the opinion of a so-called 'elite') is in the best interests of the community. The most famous example of a populist political system is the 'direct' democracy of ancient Athens.

As a social and political phenomenon the appeal of elitism is seen in the many forms it takes in different cultures. These include aristocracies, plutocracies, meritocracies and the privileged status of officials in totalitarian systems, as well as divisions based on race, religion, caste or any other feature which leads some people to believe they are more worthy or more important than others.


Elitist systems are typically defended on the ground that they work best for the nation as a whole and that this justifies the discrimination. Once again, the most famous example is also found in ancient Greek philosophy. This is Plato's Republic, which imagines an ideal form of government by a select group of 'guardians', trained from birth to be both virtuous and wise. This enables them to make the best laws for all and ensure there are no unjust laws.

Plato's proposal rests on a view of human psychology few people would now find plausible. Indeed, the long history of human conflict suggests it is easier to cultivate an extreme martial culture, with citizens willing to sacrifice their own and others' lives from a sense of patriotic or religious duty, than to train moral philosophers from birth to be competent rulers as well as decent and caring human beings.

It does not take much reflection, however, to see why both theories are problematic. Direct democracy may work in small, cohesive communities with shared interests and values, as in some Swiss cantons, but it has never been seriously considered for a large political community because it is both impractical and fraught with risk. It is impractical because to judge the merit of laws one must understand the consequences which takes time, reflection and expertise - if all laws must be judged by all citizens no one will have time for anything else. The risk of abuse lies in a 'tyranny of the majority', with no regard for minority rights.

However that may be, there can be little doubt that the British Government, and most politicians who support its decision to leave the European Union, are acting on a populist theory of political duty. It is widely acknowledged that, before the plebiscite, around 74% of the UK's 650 MPs were in favour of remaining in the Union.But, as the Australian Business Insider explained in October, 2016, if the referendum vote is applied to parliamentary constituencies, rather than to the counting areas used to calculate the vote, 'only around 39% of constituency seats voted to stay in.'

For most commentators this is enough to explain why so manypoliticians capitulated to the 'will of the people' as seen in the plebiscite, which favoured Brexit 52 to 48%. Although the High Court found there was no commitment to act on the vote, most deferred to this narrow majority view regardless of the consequences to the nation. No one, however, can say with confidence how many did so from fear of losing their seat or to protect their party, or because they believed it was their duty as a matter of democratic principle (surprisingly, there was no serious debate on this fundamental question of political responsibility).

Enter Gina Miller, a Guyanese-born British businesswoman, philanthropist and outspoken law reformer, who had in recent years taken on the London financial establishment by exposing unfair and deceptive insurance practices. She also confronted the charities industry, publicising its exorbitant fees and costs, making her persona non grata with its distinguished and titled patrons. To add insult to injury she spoke with a perfect public school accent.


With a handful of supporters she now commenced a David and Goliath legal battle which ultimately saw the Supreme Court (formerly the House of Lords) rule - predictably in the view of most constitutional lawyers - that Common Market rights created by Parliament could only be taken away by Parliament. Which meant Theresa May, the new Prime Minister - who had opposed Brexit but kept her options open by not publicly taking a stand - required the support of both Houses to trigger off the Section 50 Brexit process.

During the long and acrimonious litigation through the courts Miller missed no opportunity to explain to the public why the centuries old system of representative democracy was important, and why Parliament had never accepted the principle of direct democracy, that politicians must do what most people want rather than what is in the interests of the nation as a whole. She did, however, pay a personal price, with vicious attacks on her reputation and death threats which required police protection for herself and her children.

She was not the only target. When the High Court ruled against the government, the Daily Mail emblazoned it's front page with a picture of the three judges above the headline 'Enemies of the People' who, it said, had 'declared war on democracy' by defying 17.4million Brexit voters and whose decision could 'trigger a constitutional crisis.' Less hysterical responses came from legal and constitutional experts on the Westminster system and its history, including the well-known Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson and Professor Phillipe Sands of the University of London, who are strongly committed to a review of the decision.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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