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Ancient and modern

How Plato predicted the EU referendum campaign

Feeding the beast doesn’t mean you understand it – as our politicians prove again and again

18 June 2016

9:00 AM

18 June 2016

9:00 AM

Our politicians, realising that the referendum campaign will be settled not by themselves under the usual parliamentary constraints but by the Twitter-maddened populace under no constraints at all, have decided to abandon any principles they may have and play the straight populist game. Plato well understood the behaviour and its consequences.

In his Republic, he envisages a man in charge of a large and powerful animal who studies its moods and needs. He learns when to approach and handle it, when and why it is savage and gentle, the meaning of the various noises it makes and how to speak to it to annoy or calm it. He might then deduce that he has a scientific understanding of animals. But he would not really know which of the beast’s tastes and desires was good for it and which not. He would base his expertise simply on its reactions, and conclude that what pleased it was good and what did not was bad. But he would have no means of giving a rational account of these judgments, and would remain blind to its real nature.


So with the politician. Plato agrees that it is difficult for him not to be carried away by his own rhetoric, ‘when with a great noise and complete lack of self-control the audience shout and clap their approval or disapproval and the whole places echoes to the sound, redoubling the noise of the boos or applause.’ As a result, ‘Swamped by the flood of popular praise, he gets carried away on the stream till he finds himself agreeing with the popular ideas of what is admirable or disgraceful, behaving like the crowd and becoming like them, calling what pleases them good and what does not bad.’

So with the referendum. Combining bare-faced lies with lurid, mendacious threats, neither side seems to care less what it says. But that is the nature of political populism: its unabashed shamelessness and manifest contempt for the electorate. The irony is that the electorate, however Twitter-crazed, would rather not be treated like cretins, so they fully reciprocate that contempt.


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