Professor Grayling is one of the United Kingdom's most prominent public philosophers.Wikicommons, Ian Scott

The American satirist H. L. Mencken is often attributed with the witticism that “democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” The quotation is likely misattributed, but the sentiment has a contemporary resonance.

As Professor A.C. Grayling contends in his recent book, Democracy and Its Crisis, faith in representative democracies across the Western world is being tested, as a result of institutional discreditation and anger towards the incumbent political class. In the book, Grayling defends representative democracy and proposes a set of constitutional reforms intended to revive, as Churchill put it, “the least bad of all systems”.

These suggestions include the adoption of a written, or at least “clarified”, constitution for the United Kingdom. “There should be public acknowledgement of the fundamental aspects of our constitutional order,” Grayling argues. “That includes the sovereignty of Parliament, the rule of law and perhaps giving a protected status to the Human Rights Act, which – as a matter of statute at present – is liable to appeal.”

Grayling is also an enthusiastic proponent of compulsory voting and lowering the voting age to sixteen. “We should follow the voting system of Belgium and Australia of compulsory voting. Both political jurisdictions regard voting as a civic duty, in the same fashion as obeying the law and paying taxes. I very much agree.”

On the lowered voting age, Grayling offers a familiar argument – “there are so many other things you can do at sixteen” – while also exhorting the need for “an active and vigorous civics education in schools, beginning at thirteen or fourteen.”

“Young people must learn how voting works; they must practice voting, participate in moots and debates and learn something of the great struggle to achieve the vote.”

He points out that opportunities for serious democratic participation are not always regular. “Your age group has been rather fortunate to have both a general election and a referendum to participate in. If you turned eighteen this month, with no planned election for another four or five years, you’d be your mid-twenties before you have participated in our political process.”

When I question the practicality of these reforms, Grayling defends them as “extremely modest and ultimately conservative”. “I’m not making a radical leap to sortition or Plato’s view that philosophers ought to run everything – although I do personally find that quite attractive. It’s far more sensible to go for something modest and achievable.

“There has never been a very luminous degree of rationality in public debate.”

Grayling’s book was recently attacked by Giles Fraser in the Guardian, who viewed it as “symptomatic of the revival of a particular species of highbrow sneering at the politics of ordinary people.” Grayling regards the article as an “incredibly silly piece, because it was 180º wrong about the point I was trying to make.”

“I was not looking down my nose at the ‘ordinary voter’, if there is such a thing. On the contrary, I was defending the right of citizens, quite independent of property qualifications or education, to have a voice.”

Grayling's new book addresses the challenges faced by Western democraciesOneworld Publications

Irrespective of the legitimacy of Fraser’s criticisms, they played on a now-familiar polarity of ‘elite’ and ‘ordinary’ people: attacks on ‘elite experts’ and ‘aloof academics’ have become part of our political discourse. I ask Grayling whether he thinks the quality of public discourse has declined.

He opens his reply diplomatically. “There has never been a very luminous degree of rationality in public debate. However, some who take on leadership positions within society can be more rational and considered than others: the contrast between Barack Obama and Donald Trump is illustrative.”

“In the United Kingdom, the public conversation is always subverted and damaged by the drag anchor of the tabloid press,” he continues. “Debates on major social issues – such as drug policy, prostitution, or same-sex marriage – are conducted through the hysteria of the tabloids rather than through a mature discussion of what would best serve society’s interests.”

“It is the institutions which matter: the rule of law, rather than the rule of human beings.”

Grayling has sympathy with some elements of the political class, however. “Almost all political careers end in failure. The longer you go on in politics, the more groups you annoy, until you have annoyed everyone. If you are going to have a successful political career, you must really get yourself assassinated early and hope people remember you with affection! The necessity of half-measures and compromise explains why public dissatisfaction with politicians is so high.”

He is far less sympathetic to current government ministers. “People regard politicians as prevaricative, if not outright liars. Lying seems to be the order of the day, though. David Davis today claimed that there are no Brexit impact studies, having claimed that there were 58 a few days earlier… The people now at the centre of government are a very poor bunch: they seem to be either lying or incompetent.”

Referring to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bunches of politicians raises the issue of whether constitutional practices can ever be sufficient to prevent poor government. In any representative democracy, doesn’t the quality of rule ultimately depend on the character and competence of the representatives?

To answer, Grayling points to the history of representative democracy, which occupies the first half of his book. “When you go through the reasoning behind representative democracy, from Locke to Mill, you find the idea that, if you get the institutions and practices right, then they constitute a barrier against the worst aspects of elective representatives. It is the institutions which matter: the rule of law, rather than the rule of human beings.”

“That is the paradox of liberalism – it tolerates intolerant ideas.”

So is Grayling optimistic for the future? “Certainly,” he replies. “If we make these small reforms, it should really work. By ‘really work’, I mean that it would give us a ‘good enough’ government. We cannot expect all government and constitutional processes to work perfectly; all things human are deeply flawed and events and complexities intervene. But we have a correlative right to ‘good enough’ government, if only so that our other rights – to privacy, autonomy, to assembly, to freedom of expression – can be upheld.”

Not all share Grayling’s optimism. I put to him concerns that university campus culture has challenged received ideas about freedom of speech and the necessity of engaging with disagreeable ideas. He acknowledges the concerns: “the university is the one place where people cannot temporise about freedom of expression.” Grayling declares that his own institution, the New College of the Humanities, is “a safe space for free speech.”


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“Unless somebody is actually advocating violence or harm of serious and immediately identifiable king, any viewpoint is welcome. That is the paradox of liberalism – it tolerates intolerant ideas. If you think those viewpoints are wrong, then you address them: the only remedy for bad free speech is better free speech. To censor people and deny them a platform, however bad you think their views are, only makes things worse.”

Professor Grayling will be discussing his book as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival, on Sunday 26th November. Tickets can be purchased at the Festival’s website

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