Ditchley Lecture – Saturday, June 27th

Democracies can die. We’re witnessing authoritarian governments elsewhere in Europe undermining judicial independence, manipulating media, limiting parliamentary scrutiny of government actions and hobbling opposition activities. It couldn’t happen in Britain, could it? Are you sure?

Commitment to open society, toleration of diverse opinions and opposition, and effective checks and balances on government, are core elements in political liberalism. Constitutional and limited government was also a core element in Edmund Burke’s concept of Conservatism. Constitutional Clubs in English towns institutionalised the association between Conservative values and our unwritten conventions. But the government we have now has thrown much of that side of Conservatism away.

Michael Gove’s long and carefully-prepared Ditchley lecture, on Saturday, June 27th, had a populist and authoritarian tone. ‘This government was elected on the basis that it would be different from its predecessors’ – from Theresa May’s government as well as the rest. As David Frost explained in a similar lecture four months ago, the majority that Boris Johnson won last December (of seats, but not of course of votes) has given them the mandate to reject the Brexit package May was negotiating, and insist on a hard defence of the UK’s sovereignty from European influence. Gove sees this government as representing ‘the people’ – explicitly, the ‘forgotten’ people who provided the majority in 2016 – against the metropolitan elite: the ‘somewheres’ against the ‘anywheres’ (he quotes David Goodhart) who ‘tend to have different social and political values from other citizens.’

It’s a classic populist trick for the rich to denigrate the intellectual elite as the establishment, and so to claim that they are in tune with the common people. Gove manages to blame globalisation on ‘those in the elite with cognitive skills, qualifications and professional mobility’, and attributes the grievances of the forgotten majority on the condescension of the over-educated. There is no mention of the hedge-funders, the offshore financiers, asset-strippers and Russian oligarchs who are among the major funders of his party.

They claim to represent the people directly enables a populist government to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, attack critical media, bend constitutional rules and squeeze judicial independence. The UK has not yet advanced far down this road. Reading Gove’s speech, however, listening to the almost hysterical rhetoric of Conservatives in both Houses, the direction of movement is worrying. (I have heard several Tory peers speak of Britain ‘escaping from being a colony of the EU’ in recent weeks). Both the ministerial and special advisers codes have been broken, including by the Prime Minister; as George Young said in the Lords when Johnson went straight back to the Telegraph on resigning as foreign secretary, ‘this is an honour code’ which depends on politicians behaving honourably.

Hatred of the BBC is a shared characteristic among ministers and right-wing think tanks. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has not yet been constituted for the new Parliament, because the Prime Minister is trying to force Chris Grayling on it as chair, and because its unpublished report on Russian interference in British politics might well embarrass the Conservative Party and the Vote Leave campaign. No. 10 has been briefing against the Lords since January, seeing it as the remaining stumbling block to executive dominance now that Conservative Whips have the Commons under control. The top of the civil service is being cleaned out and politicised.

Constitutional issues are usually the domain of nerds, vote losers if anything. But the defence of democracy, due process and the rule of law can bring people on to the streets when populist governments become too arrogant and corrupt. We’re not close to that, yet; but we seem to be shuffling in that direction.

* William Wallace has fought five parliamentary elections in Manchester and West Yorkshire. He is a former president of the Yorkshire regional Liberal Democrats.

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  • Tony Greaves 1st Jul '20 - 5:55pm

    Yes. And they (led by Cummings) are now using classic shock-doctrine tactics to promote the interests of their funders and ideologues – and attack the ínstitutions and practices of democracy – in the name of necessary action to achieve emergency recovery.

  • Barry Lofty 1st Jul '20 - 6:22pm

    I can only agree that the direction of this government is a culmination of everything that is wrong with the governance of our country, how on earth did this happen?

  • Good to hear this from William – and Tony.

    I’ve never known such a dodgy bunch of second raters…. Jenrick, Patel, Shapps, Williamson et al (and their boss, the ever disingenuous BOJo with his Rasputin Cummings) in government since I first took an interest in politics sixty years ago.

    I has to be said, like it or not, they feed the desire of Scotland to have no further part in this tawdry show. Don’t say you haven’t been warned..

  • Peter Hirst 2nd Jul '20 - 1:17pm

    Process is boring to most people until it isn’t. There is a kind of threshold that once exceeded demands protest. That threshold has risen recently though it is still present. Politicians especially those in power need to be aware that once that threshold is breached, matters can become quickly out of hand.

  • We must thank William Wallace for this concise and penetrating article, detailing and describing the horrifying choice the Conservative Party has made by hitching its wagon to populism. The corrupt voting system which put them in power with, despite the galvanising effect of the most divisive issue in my lifetime, the backing of a pitifully small amount of support (29% of registered voters won them 56% of parliamentary seats) gets a mentioned, but of course, without FPTP, Brexit simply wouldn’t have happened. One point of disagreement would be with his comforting final sentence.
    What the article doesn’t cover is the mechanism underlying populism, and what we need to do to prevent a similar outcome in 2024. The bitter fruits of Brexit are greedily ingested by its supporters and converted into nectar before they reach even their stomachs. Facing them with facts doesn’t work.
    The psychological basis of the Leave campaign was that people enveloped in a seething mass of their fellow men (we evolved in tribes of about 150, not 68 million) submit to being a cog in society, but secretly yearn to unlock the latent narcissism we are all born with. ‘Take back control’ had nothing to do with Brexiters grabbing back the reins from unelected bureaucrats – they seem hardly aware that they then immediately gave them to unelected bureaucrat Dominic Cummings – it was about being given permission to become self-centred and start feeling so powerful that you could show contempt for experts, politicians, anyone you wanted to. The narcissistic retreat into feelings of omnipotence is a regression to an infantile state, idyllic at six months old, but not very practical in adult life. People might grow up on their own, or they might need help. Either way, it’s going to be painful.

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