BBC Magazine - 30.8.2013
Many writers have warned against the tyranny of the majority. Majority opinion may be wrong. Majority desires may be wicked. Majority strength may be dangerous. There is someone more important than the crowd, which is the person who disagrees with it. We must protect that person, for he's the one who can raise the question that no crowd wants to listen to, which is the question whether it is in the right.
Until opposition is protected, therefore, there is no door through which reason can enter the affairs of government. But how is opposition protected? What makes it possible for people to agree to disagree?
In families, people often get together to discuss matters of shared concern. There will be many opinions, conflicting counsels and even factions. But in a happy family everyone will accept to be bound by the final decision, even if they disagree with it. They have a shared investment in staying together. Something is more important to all of them than their own opinion, and that is the family, the thing whose welfare and future they have come together to discuss.
To put it in another way, the family is part of their identity. It is the thing that does not change, as their several opinions alter and conflict. A shared identity takes the sting from disagreement. It is what makes opposition, and therefore rational discussion, possible. And it is the foundation of any way of life in which compromise, rather than dictatorship, is the norm.
The same is true in politics. Opposition, the free expression of dissent and the rule of compromise all presuppose a shared identity. There has to be a first-person plural, a "we", if the many individuals are to stay together, accepting each other's opinions and desires, regardless of disagreements.
Religion provides such a first-person plural. I might define myself as a Christian or a Muslim, and that might be sufficient to bind me to my fellow believers, even when we disagree on matters of day-to-day government. But, as I argued last week, that kind of first-person plural does not sit easily with democratic politics.
In particular it does not accept the most fundamental disagreement within the state, between the faithful who accept the ruling doctrine and the heretics who don't. Besides, modern systems of law are defined by territory and not by doctrine. In Egypt it is the law of Egypt that you are bound to obey, not the law of Turkey or Greece.
Hence the need for a national rather than a religious "we". A nation state is the by-product of human neighbourliness, shaped by an invisible hand from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side. It results from compromises established after many conflicts, and expresses the slowly forming agreement among neighbours both to grant each other space and to protect that space as common territory. It depends on localised customs and a shared routine of tolerance. Its law is territorial rather than religious and invokes no source of authority higher than the intangible assets that its people share.
All those features are strengths, since they feed into an adaptable form of pre-political commitment. Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance - in something like the way people identify themselves with a family - the politics of compromise will not emerge.
People have to take their neighbours seriously, as fellow citizens with an equal claim to protection, for whom they might be required, in moments of crisis, to lay down their lives. They do this because they believe themselves to belong together in a shared home. The history of the world is proof of this. Wherever people identify themselves in terms that are not shared by their neighbours, then the state falls apart at the first serious blow - as has happened in the former Yugoslavia, in Syria and Lebanon, and in Nigeria today.
In the wake of World War II the political elite in the defeated countries became sceptical towards the nation state. The European Union arose from the belief that the European wars had been caused by national sentiment, and that what is needed is a new, trans-national form of government to unite people around their shared interest in peaceful coexistence. Unfortunately people don't identify themselves in that way.
There is no first-person plural of which the European institutions are the political expression. The union is founded in a treaty, and treaties derive their authority from the entities that sign them. Those entities are the nation states of Europe, from which the loyalties of the European people derive. The union, which has set out to transcend such loyalties, therefore suffers from a permanent crisis of legitimacy.
Last week I suggested that the desire of the Muslim Brotherhood to govern Egypt by Islamic law poses a danger to the secular state. A politics of compromise is possible only if law can change to reflect the changing needs of society. And laws laid down by God have the eternal and changeless character of their author. But the same defect attends laws laid down by a treaty. Treaties are dead hands, which should be laid upon a country only for specific and essential purposes, and never as a way of governing it.
Here is an example of what I mean. When the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 it included a clause permitting the free movement of capital and labour between the signatories. At the time incomes and opportunities were roughly similar across the small number of states who signed.
Now things are very different. The European Union has expanded to include most of the former communist states of Eastern Europe, whose citizens now have the legal right to take up residence within the UK, competing for jobs at a time when there are more than two million unemployed. A great many British citizens are unhappy with this.
But because the law permitting it is inscribed within the treaty, and because the treaty takes precedence over parliamentary legislation, there is nothing that can be done about it. It is just as though we too are governed by a kind of religious law, in which the will of God sounds through every edict, preventing even the most necessary change.
Why did the experiment in federal government, which has led to an unaccountable empire in Europe, lead to a viable democracy in the United States? The answer is simple - because American federalism created not an empire but a nation state. This happened despite the dispute over the state's rights and the civil war. It happened because the American settlement established a secular rule of law, a territorial jurisdiction and a common language in a place that the people were claiming as their home.
Under the American settlement, people were to treat each other as neighbours, not as fellow members of a race, a religion or a class, but as fellow settlers in the land that they shared. Their commitment to the political order grew from the obligations of neighbourliness, and disputes between them were to be settled by the law of the land. The law was to operate within territorial boundaries defined by the prior affections of the people, and not by some trans-national bureaucracy.
In short, democracy needs boundaries, and boundaries need the nation state. All the ways in which people come to define their identity in terms of the place where they belong have a part to play in cementing the sense of nationhood. For example, the common law of the Anglo-Saxons, in which laws emerge from the resolution of local conflicts, rather than being imposed by the sovereign, has had a large part to play in fostering the English (and American) sense that the law is the common property of all who reside within its jurisdiction rather than the creation of priests, bureaucrats or kings.
A shared language and shared curriculum have a similar effect in making familiarity, proximity and day-to-day custom into sources of common loyalty. The essential thing about nations is that they grow from below, through habits of free association among neighbours, and result in loyalties that are firmly attached to a place and its history, rather than to a religion, a dynasty, or, as in Europe, to a self-perpetuating political class.
What matters to us in our democracy is not that majority opinion should prevail, but that we should be equal participants in the political process, and equally protected by it. In a nation state the law is the common property of every citizen. It stands above every person and every faction. It protects the dissenter from the orthodox, the minority from the majority, and the nation as a whole from those who seek to confiscate its assets. It does this by bringing us all together in a shared first-person plural. Europe is moving not towards democracy but away from it, as we lose the right to define ourselves in that way. Democracy ends when we find ourselves governed not by us, but by them.