Many of the best politicians and journalists contain within their characters a strong vein of naivety. Douglas Carswell certainly does.
In his new book, Rebel: How to overthrow the emerging oligarchy, he gets outraged by all sorts of things which a more worldly-wise observer might greet with a shrug, as being inseparable from the conduct of human affairs.
He is especially infuriated by the emergence of what he calls “a new oligarchy”, which calls the shots politically, and indeed fixes the politics in order to become disgustingly rich. These parasites exploit and in the end smother the productive parts of a nation:
“Every year in Davos, Switzerland, thousands of officials, supranational executives and corporate bigwigs get together at the World Economic Forum, a week-long schmooze fest. They listen to each other give talks. They recycle one another’s clichés as easily as they swap business cards, and generally pat each other on the back for being so well connected and clever. Public policy in many Western states is increasingly made for, by and on behalf of the kind of people who go to Davos.”
We can all agree that Davos Man is a tiresomely self-satisfied figure, who spends much of his life in aeroplanes, is cut off from the ordinary people over whom he flies, and has the effrontery to preach universal benevolence while lining his own pockets.
These wretched, jet-lagged citizens of the world do not, however, have a monopoly on cliché. In Carswell’s book, consensus is cosy, opportunism is shallow, arrogance is patronising and pessimism is unrelenting.
But as he journeys like Candide through the political landscape, Carswell has the merit, seldom found in a practising politician, of expressing with a considerable degree of honesty his horror at what he finds.
He does not actually offer us a character sketch of Nigel Farage, or relate the full horror of serving under him. This is not an autobiography, and ranges over the Roman, Venetian and Dutch Republics in a frantic hunt for the secrets of success and failure.
But Carswell’s own experience of moving from the Conservatives to UKIP and back again clearly informs some of his most useful conclusions. He admits that populist movements set up to overthrow the Establishment soon start to ape its worst features, and degenerate into personality cults:
“The trouble is that the New Radical parties suffer from the same conceits as any other. The start-up parties, like UKIP or the Five Star Movement, have an unfortunate habit of becoming mini-me versions of the larger ones.
“They, too, are run by small cliques. They are dominated by domineering leaders, who – just like all the others – are supposed to be the answer to everything.”
Before long, the New Radicals become so disreputable they help to prop up the very Establishment they had intended to replace:
“The anti-oligarchs often end up justifying oligarchy – and there is precisely such a danger today. The very odiousness of some New Radicals makes ‘Davos Man’ – otherwise insufferable – attractive. In Greece, the folly of Syriza and Yanis Varoufakis made the Troika seem rather sensible. Suddenly, having unelected technocrats writing the budget, instead of elected politicians, felt like a better deal.”
As Carswell says of these movements, “Tragically, many are led by charlatans” – a line which recalls Peter Cook’s remark, “Tragically, I was an only twin.”
So what is to be done? This question, posed in 1901 by Lenin, is posed by Carswell too, who goes on:
“The answer to the problem of party politics is not to create another party. It’s to do politics without one. No cliques or plutocrats. No insiders pretending to be outsiders.”
According to Carswell, new technology at last makes this possible. He touches on how he used this with success in Clacton, and says:
“Digital means disintermediation; from news reporting to investing, book-keeping to booking a taxi, digital takes out the middle man. In a world of networks and hyper-connectiveness, collective action very much happens, but without top-down direction and the pretext for parasitism that that has always provided.”
Taking out the middle man is what the Protestant reformers promised to do, and Carswell is in his way a very Protestant figure. You can have your own direct link with political truth, unmediated by a corrupt and self-serving hierarchy.
It is a seductive idea, but takes no account of how the world actually works. Every society which has ever existed has been governed by an oligarchy. Here is Ronald Syme in his great work, The Roman Revolution:
“In all ages, whatever the form and name of government, be it monarchy, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the facade; and Roman history, Republican or Imperial, is the history of the governing class. The marshals, diplomats, and financiers of the Revolution may be discerned again in the Republic of Augustus as the ministers and agents of power, the same men but in different garb. They are the government of the New State.”
The political question is how the oligarchy, acting as oligarchs will in the name of the people, is to be restrained from despotic acts of violence and expropriation. Carswell touches on this question when he asks why the American and French Revolutions took such different courses, a question which occurred also to Thomas Paine, who experienced both uprisings:
“Even Paine eventually recognised that the French revolt was nothing like the rebellion in America. Once a staunch supporter of the French uprising, he came to describe Napoleon, who had spoken the language of liberation and rights as he invaded neighbours and imposed new princelings, as a charlatan.”
Oh dear, another of those charlatans, seizing control of the new order and wrecking everything. But why has the United States survived and prospered for over two centuries with only one constitution, and without a Napoleon?
For the purpose of this argument, I propose that Donald Trump is not a second Napoleon, however much he may wish to be. He will not be able to overthrow the constitution.
The answer surely lies in the different attitudes to tradition found among the American and the French revolutionaries. The former were profoundly conservative: they wanted to build on what already existed, including Magna Carta and the common law, and through the separation of powers to prevent despotism.
The Americans have, in their President, an elected monarch, but a monarch who cannot place himself above the law.
In Paris, the aim was to make a completely fresh start. The very tombs of the French kings were dug up and desecrated. No effectual checks were placed on despotism, and soon, in the name of the people, the Terror began.
Edmund Burke, who had striven to persuade his fellow parliamentarians to conciliate the Americans, understood, even before the Terror started, that France was on a disastrous course, which no man of common prudence could approve.
Carswell does not mention Burke. Nor does he mention Michael Oakeshott. And once Carswell arrives at Westminster, as an elected member of our own oligarchy, he soon becomes disillusioned:
“It was easy to leave the Conservative Party once I realised I was not a conservative… I started to sense that Westminster is a cartel. Parliament has become pointless. Things have been rigged so that no matter who you vote for, public policy is not made by anyone properly accountable to the public.”
Go into any saloon bar in the country and you will find similar sentiments expressed in rather pithier language. But these words could have been said at almost any time in our history.
Carswell is excited by history, includes chunks of it in his book, and may one day be looked back upon as one of those who, by placing the Conservative Party under intense pressure, precipitated the referendum and hence a mighty blow in favour of our historic constitution.
But he is too naive and cloth-eared to have written a good book about these events. His reactions are strangely unhistorical. “Pundits now openly question democracy,” he laments at one point, and says these are the kind of arguments that “nineteenth-century Tory peers once used to oppose the extension of the franchise” – the sort of retort a Guardian columnist might consider adequate.
He never gets to grips with the perennial question of how democracy is to be saved from degenerating into mob rule. The answer lies in the defence and adaptation of traditional institutions, including traditional political parties,so that no one part of the oligarchy can dominate and tyrannise the others. But that is a conservative answer, and Carswell is determined to be a rebel.