Michael Moore’s time to shine

The Scottish Secretary has been quietly effective until now. But how will Michael Moore cope with Al

"You! You should know better!" is how Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, recalls me greeting him when he first arrived in parliament, newly elected, and several years after we had first worked together as researchers.

And it's true. I can't bear it when friends of mine stand for parliament. I go out of my way to dissuade them. I hate watching them being torn apart in the media or in that vile snakepit, the Commons chamber. I would like all my friends to live cocooned in safe, secure obscurity. But with Mike, as with some others, I have been proved wrong.

He is the least-known Lib Dem in the cabinet, elevated to it after the David Laws fallout last year. Of all the politicians I know, he remains the person whose feet are most firmly on the ground. Just as well, considering his height.

He has been criticised for being too cautious. Some Scottish Liberal Democrats would like him to go on the attack more often, but that is simply not his style. Mike is not from the Flashman school of politics and to criticise him for that is unfair. He is not in this game for the thrill – he is there to get results and make a difference.

Value judgement

In this, he reminds me of Alistair Darling, whom most people can barely remember from the early years of his career, but who by the end of 13 years in cabinet had widespread respect. Like Darling, Mike is bright, pays attention to detail, and has grown into the job.

His tireless campaigning in the recent Scottish Parliament election campaign has won him a lot of respect in the Scottish party. He will need to rely on that as Alex Salmond attempts to drive a wedge between Moore in Westminster and the new Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader, Willie Rennie. But Mike and Willie know each other well, get on, and understand the way this will work.

I loved a recent story about some hoo-ha on a political scandal-mongering website. Michael's name was in the frame. He walked into the Scotland Office unable to find any of his key staff. Eventually he found them in a meeting room worrying about how to rebut the story. "We know it isn't true, so can we just on with the real job at hand," he said. Typical Michael.

When he was stung like Vince Cable by the Telegraph's honeytrap, not only were his answers great, but he didn't hide away. Instead, he went on air and justified standing up for Liberal Democrat values.

But Moore now faces a critical test. With a single party in power, since the SNP's unexpected outright election victory, the Scotland Office is in a pivotal position between the UK government and the Scottish Executive.

He has been thrust further into the limelight, as the Scotland Bill must now go through Holyrood for a second time. Its first passage was supported by the SNP, but the second passage is an obvious opportunity for First Minister Salmond to start flexing his muscles.

Hot potato

The potential for meltdown between Westminster and Holyrood is significant, but Moore has taken this in his stride, turning the tables on the Scottish government and rightly asking it for a detailed case for the changes they want. After all, he delivered a Scotland Bill where Labour produced only a white paper and the Tory manifesto promised not much more.

But what looked like a substantial package of new powers, likely to get though without controversy, has become a hot potato with the spectre of an eventual independence referendum looming.

Labour and the Tories won't want much in the way of further devolution in the House of Commons, making Michael's strategic role all the more significant. His accountant's mind has the forensic abilities to navigate this difficult bill. And he has a calm and reassuring Commons style that is a tribute to his Presbyterian minister father.

During the final years of Labour's rule in Westminster, Alistair Darling faced up to Gordon Brown, in the interests not of his party, but his country. Michael Moore has the ability and the character to do the same . . . whether facing Westminster or Holyrood.

The fifth man is stepping into the light.

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.