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Rights and Democracy: Which Comes First?

Updated: Aug 22

  • Dr Joanna Williams – academic, author and Associate Editor at Spiked

  • Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos - academic and author

  • Chloe Westley (Chair) – UK Taxpayers’ Alliance

Left to right: Joanna Williams, Chloe Westley and Nikos Sotirakopoulos

Courtesy of the London Ayn Rand Meetup, I was lucky enough to take part in an entertaining debate in the function room of The Bunch of Grapes Tavern near London Bridge. In the rather strange political times we inhabit it is important to take nothing for granted. If the result of the EU referendum was not surprising enough (for some), the subsequent inability or unwillingness of politicians to honour the Leave Vote makes for an odd spectacle.

I was detained in Watford High Street last Saturday afternoon by a campaigning ‘Remainer’ who felt that Brexit voters had no idea what they were doing, had got it all wrong and needed the better informed (him) to save Leavers from themselves. Ironically, having declared that Brexiteers lacked the political maturity to vote as they did, he then invited me to place a sticker on a display board to indicate whether I thought that the Brexit process was going smoothly: I declined. I wasn’t sure, but I think that as he gestured towards the many sticky dots preferencing a second referendum, he had come to think of his survey as genuinely scientific.

For all his smug rhetoric, this man naturally has a right to argue in public that a democratic vote should not be actioned. That sounds like democracy of sorts: using one’s democratic rights against the very notion of democracy. Then again, where does this leave individual rights? What is the relationship between individual rights and democratic rights? To answer such questions the Ayn Rand Meetup had admirably organised three great speakers. Two of them, each an academic and author, Dr Joanna Williams and Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos, were chaired by Taxpayer’s Alliance representative, Chloe Westley.

It was enlightening as ever to see Joanna Williams speaking on a platform, an occurrence that should not be taken for granted. One of Williams’ recent public appearances at King’s College London almost did not happen as a core group of protestors attempted to ‘no platform’ her. I saw the petition against her on Twitter: it was lengthy, although it was typed and did not have individual signatures. In the flesh Joanne Williams is not the dangerous person that the King’s protestors suggested: it’s almost disappointing. Still, the petition, an attempt by university students to silence opinion, was tangible enough. The undermining of democracy is happening: a few, vocal members of a students’ union, themselves democratically elected, deciding that their role is to shield other students from reality.

Dr Nikos Sotirakopoulos is something of an expert on democracy (and not just because he’s Greek). Something has changed recently, he suggested; democracy is under attack because it no longer serves the interests of the elite. According to Sotirakopoulos, democracy is favoured by politicians when majorities return a decision that they agree with; in the case of Brexit, the public voted the ‘wrong’ way. To listen to Sotirakopoulos, it sounds like democracy is already dead. If a vote is merely a charade in which people are expected to cross a certain box, it can’t claim to be a democratic vote. It is difficult to disagree with him. Some three quarters of MP’s were Remainers and have no apparent idea of what to do with the Leave mandate. In the fall out from this ‘rebellious’ vote, continued Sotirakopoulos, the so-called ‘leftist’ is on the streets arguing for loyalty to a technocratic, benevolent, unelected administration (the EU) in the name of a progressive future.

Joanna Williams expressed concern that democracy is being defined in ever more meagre ways. Additionally, there is a pernicious side to interpreting democratic decisions, such as the contempt for “white women” who have the audacity to vote for Donald Trump. A more expansive version of democracy is needed which goes beyond the five yearly visit to the polling station.

So what or who has hijacked democracy? Perhaps it is collectivism, wondered Chloe Westley, since there is a majority view that Brexit voters were wrong. It doesn’t seem to occur to the defiant Remainers, who recently protested in London for a People’s Vote, that they might be wrong. The only advantage I can think of for being a Leave commentator, like Westley, is that television and radio appearances must come more frequently. How many others, like her, do they have to choose from? I dare say it is awkward when the Leave representative arrives for a television debate, like when Luke Skywalker enters Jabba the Hutt’s chamber in Return of the Jedi. I am sure that Chloe Westley gets the same looks of malevolence from the Remainers that Luke Skywalker gets from Jabba’s guards. Does Chloe Westley pass a wry glance at Theresa May, chained and helpless, at the base of the large Brussels’ bureaucracy? Does Westley see Alistair Campbell perched on the shoulder of the EU leaders tweeting viciously, like Salacious Crumb with a smartphone?

Joanna Williams had another view on democratic hijacking: elitism, not collectivism, is the problem. I’ll have a go at defining what might be understood by ‘the elite’. Those in prominent positions in media, politics, the arts and business, invariably university-educated, who dominate opinion and, worse, feel that they know best. Perhaps being an upwardly mobile, well-informed and privileged graduate sometimes coincides with a certain arrogance: when people get letters after their name, suddenly they feel liberated to intellectually sneer at everyone else and tell them why they are wrong. I am not sure if that is what Williams had in mind by elite, but there is a notable air of superiority in politicians especially, summed up by Ken Clarke on Newsnight just a few days ago: it (Brexit) is such a complicated business, he explained. What an ingenious strategy! Make the small print as long and as convoluted as possible and then say to the voters: it is too much for you; we’ll handle it.

When the discussion moved to group rights there was no real disagreement. Group rights amounted to a euphemism for identity politics. Identity politics is the notion that an individual’s political opinion is integral to the demographic group that he or she belongs to. As a woman I think that; as a man I think that; as a gay man I think that; as a Christian I think that. The group speaks for the individual; loyalty to one’s group membership dictates opinion regardless of evidence or any sense of logic. I am not sure what you do exactly if you are a white, working class, bisexual male; I have no idea which of those demographics wins your loyalty first. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think that I could make identity politics sound sensible. Still, in the view of the speakers, group rights dominates political thinking and is a threat to democracy. Nikos Sotirakopoulos saw group rights as weakening democracy by removing the individual’s voice and Joanna Williams expressed her irritation when, for example, women take it upon themselves to speak for other women.

If democracy is dead generally, it at least felt alive in The Bunch of Grapes. It was a rigorous debate and thanks go to the Ayn Rand Meetup for organising it with such great speakers.

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