Tackling the ‘madness of the majority’

Today’s campaign for proportional representation echoes the 19th-century elitists who also wanted PR.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

At various times in modern history, writers, reformers and activists campaigned for proportional representation because they wanted parliament to be genuinely representative of people’s desires and interests. This is not one of those times. Today, the push for PR is driven by a powerful intellectual disdain for majoritarianism, and by a belief that minority outlooks are needed in parliament in order to offset the ‘worst tribalism’ of the old politics (1). In this sense, the new PR campaign echoes older, nineteenth-century PR campaigns, which were motivated, not by democratic instinct, but by a desire to check and balance majority rule by elevating to power ‘moderate men’ (2).

In essence, there have been two kinds of campaign for PR in British political history. There has been the genuinely democratic kind, in which radicals and reformers agitated for a better system of electoral representation. And there has been the anti-majoritarian kind, in which intellectuals and other influential individuals agitated for PR explicitly to water down what they referred to as the ‘tyranny of the majority’ – that ‘multitude’, which cannot be trusted to ‘have its judgement generally just, or its action generally virtuous’, as one nineteenth-century campaigner for PR put it (3). Today’s PR campaign, which has been given a boost by the rising fortunes of Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats – who are passionate supporters of electoral reform – echoes this older, anti-majoritarian outlook.

There is no doubting that Britain could do with electoral reform. An electoral system which favours one party over the others – Labour – is clearly warped. It is estimated that, as a result of Britain’s peculiar voting system, if the three main parties got exactly 30 per cent of the vote each, still Labour would end up the winner, with 315 MPs, followed by the Conservatives with 206 and the Liberal Democrats with 100. The commentator who argued that ‘this does not constitute universal and equal suffrage’ has a point (4). Instituted in a serious, democratic fashion, PR could help to rectify this situation.

But we have to ask what lies behind campaigns for electoral reform, especially in a time like ours, when there are many more profound problems than the technicalities of the electoral system itself – primarily the disconnect between the political parties and the public. Would Cleggite PR, underpinned by elite discomfort with the ‘tribalism’ of the voting public, really herald a democratic breakthrough?

The campaign for PR has a chequered history. Since the dawn of bourgeois democracy, checks and balances have been placed on majority rule, whether through the creation of second chambers, the retainment of constitutional monarchs for the purpose of occasionally overriding public opinion, or the exclusion of certain people from the voting process (non-property owners and women). The early campaign for PR was born out of elitist alarm at the extension of the franchise. With the Second Reform Act of 1867 and the Third Reform Act of 1884, the franchise was expanded to include five million men (not all men, of course, and no women at all). And it was in response to this growth of democratic engagement that some intellectuals launched their campaign for PR as a way of dampening the majority’s political instincts and ensuring that the elite, minority outlook – which they considered to be possessed of more ‘reason, justice and truth’ (5) – could preserve its influence over public life.

PR campaigners in the nineteenth century were explicitly disparaging of the majority. In an essay titled ‘The Machinery of Politics and Proportional Representation’, published in 1872, a campaigner for PR argued that ‘the scheme of majority voting is not only vicious in principle… but it is so crude and defective in its operations that it needs a special force of trained engineers to make it work at all’. The essay discussed the ‘evils’ of majoritarianism, which were the ‘disenfranchisement of minorities and the consequent tyranny of majorities’ (6). Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the influential cultural critic who was also a supporter of PR, stated: ‘The majority are unsound… [W]e must surely expect the aims and doings of the majority of men to be at present very faulty.’ Arnold supported electoral reform in order to preserve the political clout of the minority, so that ‘the lover of goodness [the sensitive man] will not be alone among the wild beasts [the majority]’ (7).

For early PR campaigners, the problem with majority politics was that it invited the masses to behave like a herd, unthinkingly putting an X on a ballot paper with no consideration for the consequences. Simon Sterne, author of the 1900 book Proportional Representation: A Means for the Improvement of Municipal Government, argued that majority politics ‘excludes the action of [people’s] higher moral attributes and brings into operation their lower motives’. Politicians seeking to win a majority – that is, to gain the support of the ignorant little people – ‘are compelled to discard their political knowledge; their deliberate judgement; their calm and conscientious reflection… all must be withdrawn, or brought down to a conformity with those who possess the least of these qualities.’ (8)

A similarly snobbish outlook can be glimpsed in contemporary PR campaigners’ disdainful view of voters’ ‘tribal instincts’ (9). No one today would talk openly about voters’ ‘lower motives’ (though if Bigotgate is anything to go by, our betters certainly still say such things behind closed doors). However, the idea that majority politics forces otherwise decent and intelligent politicians to lower themselves to the level of ‘those who possess the least of these qualities’ finds its echo in today’s PR campaigners who encourage politicians to resist the ‘culture of tribalism’ and instead ‘allow rival parties to cooperate’ (10). That is, don’t play to the still-tribal public gallery – instead find ways for erudite political leaders to come together.

The nineteenth-century campaign for PR was driven by a powerful urge, not to protect minorities from harm or persecution, which of course is a noble aim, but to elevate minority opinion as a way of diluting brute majoritarianism. The old PR campaigners, very much like the Lib Dems today, considered themselves the victims of crass majority politics. Pro-PR campaigner Leonard Courtney (1832-1918), a politician and man of letters, said that ‘if the minority have not someone to speak up for their feelings and desires, the majority will act with injustice towards them’ (11). Others called more explicitly for the institutionalisation of minority power. ‘Wherever the majority is not held in check by a minority of almost equal strength, it becomes a despotism’, said Simon Sterne as part of his argument for PR (12). The aim of this campaigning was clear: to make democracy more proportional only in order to make it less majoritarian. They clearly didn’t understand that democracy is the political victory of the majority over the minority; if you temper the views of the majority by institutionalising those of the minority, you subvert democracy itself.

The academic Professor William Ware, writing in 1872, said the great thing about PR is that it would ‘permit moderate men to be represented by men of their own kind – a kind which the majority rule is sure in times of excitement, when they are most needed, to send to the wall’ (13). Matthew Arnold cited Plato in his arguments for PR. He said that Plato’s description of Ancient Athens as being made up of ‘a very small remnant of honest followers of wisdom’ against ‘the madness of the multitude’ should be the model for a new system of proportional representation, where ‘the righteous remnant’ in society – that is, ‘the lovers of wisdom’ – might be ‘so increased as to become an actual power’ (14).

Arnold’s contrasting of wisdom with the multitude’s ‘madness’ is striking. Throughout the era of bourgeois democracy certain thinkers have contrasted the wisdom of the few with the desires of the many, knowledge with opinion, expertise with instinct. This continues today, with the elevation of experts on everything from climate change to drugs over what one newspaper has referred to as the ‘prejudice [of] the public mood’ (15). Indeed, one of the arguments made in favour of PR today is that it would allow intelligent and focused political parties – such as the Greens – to move politics away from the ‘tribalism’ of the past. This is a modern-day version of saying ‘moderate men’ should hold in check the instincts of ‘the multitude’.

Of course, few of today’s PR campaigners openly express hostility towards the majority. Yet their campaigning does echo the nineteenth-century demand for PR as an anti-majority check-and-balance. PR campaigners still conceive of themselves as a wise minority (‘the righteous remnant’?), with Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash openly referring to the pro-PR lobby as ‘a popular front of the liberal centre-left’ which is continually distressed by the British public’s ‘mental disconnect’ on electoral reform: ‘Start talking about constitutional reform and their eyes glaze over, as if the Mormons had just come to call.’ (16) The widely used phrase ‘tribal instincts’ to describe voters’ choices on polling day sounds like an updated version of ‘lower motives’, and the promotion of smaller, apparently more intelligent parties comes across like the promotion of ‘moderate men’.

There are important differences between then and now, of course. Today voters are less and less likely to vote ‘tribally’ and to define themselves by a passionate attachment to any political party. Indeed, we’re witnessing something profound in this General Election campaign: confirmation that the social bases of the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, have disintegrated, which has created the space for the rise of a new political oligarchy with few attachments either to the old politics or to the masses. That is why this new oligarchy can be so disparaging about both ‘tribalism’ (the old politics) and stick-in-the-mud voters (the public). Where in the past, the campaign for PR was an elite reaction against the growth of majoritarianism, today the enthusiasm for PR is a response to the demise of traditional majority politics, where intellectuals want to codify a new, more erudite, more sedate, less tribal and less passionate political system. What the old and new PR campaigners share in common is a discomfort with, even suspicion of, majoritarianism.

In essence, with their elevation of electoral reform above everything else in this campaign – with one newspaper describing ‘the reform of the electoral system itself’ as the ‘huge opportunity’ of the election (17) – the new oligarchy is not so much seeking to renew democracy as it is hoping to entrench its power and its preferred style of governance as quickly as possible.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) Electoral reform could define the election, Guardian, 9 March 2010

(2) ‘The Machinery of Politics and Proportional Representation’, Professor William Ware, American Law Review, January 1872

(3) Matthew Arnold, quoted in Political Reform by the Representation of Minorities, Matthias Nace Forney, 2008

(4) David Cameron has to come round on electoral reform, Guardian, 26 April 2010

(5) Matthew Arnold, quoted in Political Reform by the Representation of Minorities, Matthias Nace Forney, 2008

(6) ‘The Machinery of Politics and Proportional Representation’, Professor William Ware, American Law Review, January 1872

(7) Matthew Arnold, quoted in Political Reform by the Representation of Minorities, Matthias Nace Forney, 2008

(8) Simon Sterne, Proportional Representation: A Means for the Improvement of Municipal Government, 1900

(9) Why I’m backing the Lib Dems, Guardian, 9 March 2010

(10) At last the tide is turning, New Statesman, 11 November 2009

(11) Quoted in Political Reform by the Representation of Minorities, Matthias Nace Forney, 2008

(12) Simon Sterne, Proportional Representation: A Means for the Improvement of Municipal Government, 1900

(13) ‘The Machinery of Politics and Proportional Representation’, Professor William Ware, American Law Review, January 1872

(14) Matthew Arnold, quoted in Political Reform by the Representation of Minorities, Matthias Nace Forney, 2008

(15) See This revolt of the experts is revolting, by Brendan O’Neill

(16) The choice this election is three brands of implausible, Guardian, 14 April 2010

(17) The liberal moment has come, Guardian, 30 April 2010

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Topics Politics UK


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