Friday 14 October 2016


Imagine that we live in a representative democracy where ordinary people elect wise men (or scoundrels) to figure out what’s best for the country as a whole. Imagine that one of those granted supreme power isn’t smart enough to bring about consensus on a range of issues among his fellow power-wielders and decides instead to let the ordinary people decide. (The normal cut and thrust of intellectual debate among the wise men to settle these things is unavailable as almost all the wise men think the same way with only a small number in the minority.)

The ordinary people, mostly untrained in the philosophies of government and the skills of negotiation and deal-making, cannot be expected to bring about consensus on the range of issues at hand – that’s why the representative democracy was established in the first place – so the entire matter is reduced to a single, simple to understand for seven-year-olds, question with two possible answers.

The elected wise men agree to provide the people with honest, comprehensive, clear, well thought-out, information on the strengths and weaknesses of both the two possible outcomes and then wait patiently while the people consider the various arguments, examine the evidence, hold open debates and make up their minds which way to vote. Once the voting is complete the elected representatives will have their answer and they can continue governing with a fresh mandate. Simple!
(It’s hard to understand why anyone would bother with representative democracy in the first place if the ordinary people can just decide things easily without all that power-broking, deal-making and deliberating that the wise men (or scoundrels) spend their entire careers indulging in but let’s get over it and move on.)

After the vote, which unexpectedly goes the way nobody at all predicted or had prepared for, the government claims a mandate in the form of the trivial answer to the trivial question on the ballot paper but, here’s the rub, what does the answer mean, exactly? That of course is where we started: Imagine that we live in a representative democracy where ordinary people elect wise men to figure out what’s best for the country as a whole.

As a consequence of the original failure to act wisely, some wise men will have to go and practise wisdom outside of politics. The remaining wise men reorganise themselves to have a crack at the original set of problems. Of course now they’re hampered by The Result limiting their ability to act, even though no-one agrees in detail what the vote actually means and even though most of the wise men think it a disastrous course of action. “The people have spoken clearly and The Result is The Result!” proclaims the new chief helpfully clarifying nothing. Worse – those who voted the “wrong” way are told by all and sundry that they must “get over it”. Apparently everyone is now irrevocably committed because of the idiocy of one wise man, now departed, and, instead of fixing the original problems (which haven’t gone away), the remaining wise men spend their time discussing whether implementing The Result should be done “softly” or “hardly”, not an easy task as no such options were offered to the people. In some circles this is referred to as “making stuff up”.
Some of the people say that The Result means one thing but others say it means something else; some of the wise men say that The Result means one thing while others say otherwise. The Result must be respected, manifesto commitments must be kept – well, not ALL the manifesto commitments, just the ones that “must be kept” - although some formerly unalterable policies are now impossible, or at least inconvenient, in the light of The Result and must therefore be abandoned. The debate moves on from merely interpreting The Result to examining the motives of those who voted. This provides much more scope for creativity as no room was provided on the ballot paper for rationale, just a simple yes or no to the motion.
In estimating the people’s motives the wise men gather information from many sources: guesswork, the “free press”, anecdotes, the occasional face to face discussion with individuals and opinion polls, which have proved to be completely reliable over the years. Of course, not everyone’s motive is worthy of respect by the wise men, only approved motives are to be taken into account; motives deemed to be ignorant or unworthy may be freely disregarded.
None of this takes place in a vacuum. The ordinary people get on with their lives as though nothing has changed, some believing that everything has changed, some believing that everything will change, others firm in the their belief that nothing ever will change. Political discussions in the pub are now untenable as everyone has a firm opinion about the technical minutia of subjects they knew nothing about just a few months before. The only thing agreed on by most commentators is that the wise men aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Foreigners are torn between pity for the millions of citizens whose rights are to be revoked and amusement that so many people could have been sold an obvious pup and that the wise men were stupid enough to have done this in the first place.
The wise men assure everyone that the losing side (who must in any event “accept The Result” and “get over it”) will shortly see the error of their ways and come to rejoice in the new arrangements, that foreigners will come cap in hand to learn about how they can bring about similar changes in their own countries, climate change will cease immediately and fairies will soon be discovered, living at the bottom of the garden.
Lewis Carroll couldn’t have made this up!
Brexit? No, I said “Imagine ...”. This is just an idea I’ve had for a novel, what do you think, is it too far-fetched?

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