Brendan O’Neill

The tough fight for democracy has begun

The tough fight for democracy has begun
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This week, national treasure David Attenborough joined the post-Brexit pile-on of the plebs. Should the little people really be trusted to make decisions about complicated matters like the EU, he asked? You know the answer: of course we shouldn’t. We’re too dim. We don’t have as many degrees as him. The point of parliamentary democracy, he says, is that ‘we find someone we respect who we think is probably wiser than we are’ and then we trust them to ‘ponder… difficult things’. That’s far preferable to asking people who’d prefer to go to a funfair than the National Gallery — he really says this, in reference to a quote from Ken Clarke's new book — to decide the fate of Britain's relationship with the EU. Shorter version: ordinary folk should stick to the dodgems and let wiser people do politics.

Today, Mr Attenborough (‘Lord’, I know, but as a democrat I don’t do archaic titles) got his way. As did all the other Brexitphobes and aspiring democracy-thwarters who for the past four months have been defaming the demos as insufficiently clued-up for big decision-making and calling for ‘wiser’ people — MPs, academics, economists, their own mates — to make the final call on how and when and even if Brexit is carried out. The High Court has ruled that MPs, Attenborough's wiser people, should get to decide when and how Britain leaves the EU. Phew — the dynamic has been taken away from the funfair throng and handed to the wiser ones.

People are talking up the High Court decision as a victory for parliamentary sovereignty. Please. These are the same people who watched with glee as parliamentary sovereignty was diluted by Brussels over decades and now they expect us to believe they’re Leveller-style defenders of the authority of parliament. They really must believe their own propaganda about the plebs being thick if they think we’re going to buy that. No, what they like about this court decision is that it makes Brexit the property of the cool, rational minds of the Commons, most of whom are Remainers, rather than belonging to the hotheads and morons of the North and Essex and other unspeakable parts of England, who don't even go to the National Gallery. MPs should now act with 'courage and conviction' -- qualities we plebs no doubt lack -- and 'stop Brexit', said AC Grayling.

It isn’t surprising Attenborough should have a less than glowing view of the throng. This is a man who thinks humans are a plague on the planet. He’s banged on before about the ‘frightening explosion in human numbers’, especially in parts of Africa — ‘too many people there’. People who talk about people as a ‘plague’ are not going to be massive fans of direct democracy. But now, his ideas tap into a broader elite disgust with ordinary, ill-informed people.

The defamation has been ceaseless. We’re ‘ignoramuses’, says Richard Dawkins. We think with our ‘lizard brains’, supposedly progressive writers say. We’re a thoughtless crowd, and government by ‘crowd acclamation’ is always a disaster, says Grayling. We’re racist, xenophobic, small-minded, fearful, thick. So very thick. Brexit shows we live ‘in the age of the low-information voter who ignores evidence,' says one columnist. ‘Low information.' I love it. That means ‘thick’, by the way, if you’re too thick to work that out. And now the responsibility for Brexit has been taken from us thickos and given to people 'who are probably wiser than we are'.

If these libels on the throng sound familiar, it’s because they’re the arguments that have been made against democracy for millennia, from Plato’s call for ‘philosopher kings’ (an earlier version of Attenborough’s wise men) to do politics on behalf of the plebs through to the anti-Chartist snobs’ insistence that working-class blokes couldn’t possibly be trusted to vote because they don’t understand complex issues (an earlier version of Dawkins’ blather about ‘ignoramuses’).

Brexit has revealed just how fragile, how profoundly disrespected, how cheaply treated is the idea of democracy. They really do fear us. They really do think we’re strange and stupid and unequipped for public life. They really do wish politics could be done by clever people, like them, not ill-read people who like funfairs, like us. I think the general public sometimes don’t realise just how much the elite hates them. I hope they do now. Because a tough, rough fight for our democratic rights lies ahead.