"There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands." PlatoIt begins.
"There are only a few weeks left now for the vast, sensible majority in the Commons to acknowledge that voters were wrong" Matthew ParrisI picked this one but it could have been any one of a hundred recent examples - not just in the UK but across the world: intelligent, educated, wise people saying that you can't trust voters or that voters are wrong. Each time this happens the advocates of a philosopher monarchy are reminded that it's this idea that drives the terrible populism (or, if you prefer, democracy) that Plato's latter day fan boys despise.
The most worrying thing about politics today is this belief that only educated people can be trusted to get things right. In the year when we in Britain marked the centenary of millions of our working class being given the vote, the narrative of elite political discourse has become ever more opposed to the ideas signalled by extension of the franchise. In case we forget, the central belief that led to a wider franchise was that not only can we trust the people but it is right to do so. We should also remember, while we're doing this, that the wider franchise not only meant we had a Labour government enacting all the things moderate centrist folk like but (given the absolute nonsense talked about the Northern Ireland border) probably led to Irish independence too.
The depressing thing about all this is that it is only going to get worse - 'despite Brexit' as the phrase goes. Indeed, it worries me that the response to us leaving on 29th March 2019 from putative philosopher kings with columns in the Times or the Guardian will be to double down on "don't trust the people" and to argue for more limits to democracy so such a terrible thing doesn't happen ever again. This tendency will be accompanied by faux-populism - everything from appointing a "waste food tsar" and banning plastic from schools through to stern lectures about diet becoming taxes and bans on anything affordable that has any actual taste. Plus an endlessly repeated patronising mantra - "stupid voters got it wrong, stupid voters got it wrong".
At the heart of all this are two linked beliefs - first, that most people (not you and I, obviously but most people) are too stupid to make the right choices; second that there is an absolutely right choice and it can be determined by looking at the evidence. Now it's plain that we all (not you, I know, but exceptions prove the rule) make stupid choices from time to time, it's part of the human condition and it's also true that looking at evidence helps to make better choices. But this doesn't mean that you can eliminate "stupid" choices or that the evidence you have will necessarily lead to a better choice.
But this sort of view - clever people will make policies and impose them on thickos for their own good - is the essence of Plato's philosopher kings thesis. And indeed the core premise for things like "United for Change" the new 'centrist' party that may or may not sweep everything before it:
United for Change, founded by the millionaire entrepreneur Simon Franks, wants to create a “true grassroots movement” that will practise politics without tribalism, confrontation, “yelling and finger pointing”.We're told by Franks that we'll be getting policies drawn up by experts - doubtless to be promoted by eager salesfolk (or an "army of volunteers"):
The party has been developed in secret for almost two years by businesspeople and political donors who want to take advantage of anti-political sentiment in Britain.
We want to craft a commonsense policy agenda that’s informed by those with real experience and expertise. That’s why we’ve created a structure to allow experts, academics and experienced practitioners to contribute.Now while this is a project (secret because they're "putting substance before style") from one wealthy bloke, it reflects the reality of where our politics is headed. Not that democracy will be abolished or the franchise limited but rather that, in the manner of the EU, complicated pseudo-democratic structures will be put in place to give the illusion that leaders are elected and decisions are democratic. Alongside all this the real leaders (or "senior leaders" as we now call them) will carry on in their appointed and unaccountable world - the police, NHS, social services and transport will be managed in a supposedly businesslike manner by boards of wise folk who aren't actually accountable to anyone.
The irony in all of this is that, in Britain, only the loopier parts of our politics understands just how the current system threatens democracy - a few of the Corbynistas (when they're not pretending to be communists) and the libertarian parts of the pro-Brexit right understand that the Brexit vote was about saving democracy. That vote - and the vote for Trump, Salvini or any of the other left and right wing populists - wasn't a cry of pain but a call for action. And the action we want is a restoration of democracy, accountability and the idea that, when all it said and done, we (The People) can kick out any philosopher kings before their self-importance and sense of righteousness gets too much.
So when we leave the EU that should just be the start. The other shibboleths of our state need democratising too - from the House of Lords and the judiciary through the NHS, police and civil service, to the legion of unaccountable local council chief executives, social services directors and planning managers. If you are looking for a 2019 project, this should be that project - Brexit ought to be the launch pad for a renewed democracy. I fear the great and good - those with most to lose from more democracy and more accountability - will do their utmost do make Brexit into a vehicle for less democracy: they should be stopped.