Episode 106 – On this episode of one of The Observer’s Top Ten Political Podcasts, ahem, Tiernan (@tiernandouieb) talks to David Runciman from the Talking Politics Podcast (@tppodcast_) about his book ‘How Democracy Ends’. Plus Brexit Dividends, Brexit Fallout and sodding Brexit.
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Episode 106 – On this episode of one of The Observer’s Top Ten Political Podcasts, ahem, Tiernan (@tiernandouieb) talks to David Runciman from the Talking Politics Podcast (@tppodcast_) about his book ‘How Democracy Ends’. Plus Brexit Dividends, Brexit Fallout and sodding Brexit.
Some links from the start of the podcast:
Links and sources of info from David’s interview:
All the usual ParPolBro stuff:
Hello and welcome to the Partly Political Broadcast, a podcast that puts the lit into political, the ok into jokes and the oh god why would you do this it’s so tenuous into the minds of all the listeners. This is episode 106, I’m Tiernan Douieb and this week I have taken initiative from Prime Minister Theresa ‘say my name three times into a mirror and I will appear’ May as like the NHS, both my parents are turning 70 this year, and I think the present of a £20bn Brexit Dividend is the perfect gift for them too! All I have to do is write an empty promise in a card and hopefully they won’t notice as I take larger and larger amounts of their own money for the next 10 years. Happy Birthday parents!
Yes, it seems the very good news that the NHS is going to be allocated a lot of necessary money is ruined by the news that some of that money will be coming from a source that definitely doesn’t exist, no matter how big the transport vehicle you write it on the side of. But May insists that Brexit Dividends will fund the NHS just like the Vote Leave campaign said it would, and then months later said it wouldn’t because it wasn’t true, and then months later Foreign Secretary and silage filled dinghy Boris Johnson said actually was true, before he then said it wasn’t and then was again, and now the Prime Minister says is definitely still a thing even though economists, journalists and anyone that’s ever read anything has said it’s definitely not. So if that’s what the NHS is relying on then I’d be more reassured if the government announced it’d be funded by a golden goose, that was fed from a constantly refilling bowl of porridge and lived in a magic money tree. But as May said in a speech today at the Royal Free hospital, the NHS commitment goes beyond the Brexit Dividend. Wahey! What does that mean? Will every ward get a fairy godmother and a bucket of magic cream too? Ah no, what May meant was that it will also be funded by tax rises, but it will, she promises, be in a fair and balanced way. So that likely means the British public will be funding all of it, while corporations and millionaires not so much. And maybe that’s fine as paying more tax to save the NHS is popular in public opinion and it’s unlikely those with the most money use it anyway because we all know they stay healthy by bathing in the blood of orphans. Or maybe it just means that human sized manticore Richard Branson will use the extra cash his companies aren’t spending on the NHS, to spend on lawyers so he can sue the NHS for even more money before taking it into space with him to con aliens into buying leftover cans of Virgin Cola. Who knows? What I do know is that as a fellow glucose intolerant being, as I heard May say in her speech that the NHS helped her with her diabetes and that she would not be able to do her job today without that support, I thought for the first time, hey maybe the NHS is not all good after all.
Shadow Chancellor and Captain of Sealab 2020 John McDonnell said in an interview that if Labour made a similar policy there’d be accusations of a magic money tree, so May’s announcement is a magic money forest. Which I don’t think is right as if she had a magic money forest, she’d have sold it by now or allowed fracking to take place underneath it and then told the public it was their fault they’d have to pay twice as much to buy the money harvests back. Actually, I think this policy of May’s could be sincere. It doesn’t sound it, but I’m swayed by the fact the NHS is now 70 so they might start to pay a bit more attention to it now it’s in the Conservatives top voting age.
Speaking of false promises about Brexit, Theresa May persuaded Tory rebels to vote against MP and Unidentified Imperial General 4 Dominic Grieve’s amendment about a meaningful Parliamentary vote on the final deal because she said a government amendment would cover that. Instead the government amendment amounts to letting parliament say what they think and the government consider that statement before blowing raspberries at them and telling them no one cares and why don’t they all poop off. I’m paraphrasing obviously, but even in an interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr show, May said that Parliament cannot tie the hands of government, seemingly not understanding the entire point of Parliament. They should, in theory, be able to tie hands and feet of the government and go full on fifty shades of grey if they want, because otherwise they’re just an audience watching you tie yourselves up which is far more niche. After voting to spend only 12 hours discussing the EU Withdrawal bill, because there’s nothing that upholds British Values than not leaving enough time for the fate of the country because you need to make last orders, the government rejected all of the Lords amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill meaning that it goes back to the Lords this week, then back again to the Commons with further thoughts and amendments and ultimately it could just be that the plan is forgo the usual 8 stages and just do a parliamentary version of Isner vs Mahut and argue until someone keels over or we miss all possible deadlines, or both.
Conservative minister and man who regularly looks like he’s being held hostage in all his photos, Philip Lee, resigned from his position on the morning before the vote because he thought ministers should have a greater say over Brexit, but then abstained on the actual vote. Great work Philip! You couldn’t have made less of a point. I’m wondering if he just really didn’t like his job. That’s like saying you’re quitting working for Amazon because of the way they treat their staff, then applying to work for Sports Direct. The Labour leadership told the party to abstain on the vote for the amendment to keep the UK in the EEA, and as a result of that whip six Labour MPs quit the front bench, prompting many to realise they had no idea they were on the front bench because it’s such a fluid system that Labour may as well replace it with a Yo Sushi conveyor belt. Five of the six voted for the amendment but one, Laura Smith, a woman who’s smile looks like you’d only see it seconds before she gnawed off one of your legs, wanted to vote against it. It seems Labour is not so much a broad church as just a collection of people who begrudgingly have to hang out, they are the school playground parents of politics.
Saying that though thousands or tens or tens of thousands of Labour supporters, depending on which account you read and pictures you look at, attended Labour Live on Saturday in Tottenham, a festival put on by the party and featuring such artists as the Magic Numbers and Clean Bandit because it seems Labour are excellent at scoring own goals about their policies even with the names of their favourite bands. Why not just go all out and book Cults, the Manic Street Preachers and 80’s Japanese Punk band The Stalin? Many criticized Labour giving away free tickets to the event in the week beforehand due to low sales, but they had a sizeable crowd by Saturday evening. That is impressive and much better than Tory Glastonbury sounded back in September which looked like the world’s saddest Gillet festival. I’m not really sure why political parties want to do festivals anyway because nothing says here’s our terrible vision for the future like long queues for food and inadequate sanitary systems.
Back in the Commons Conservative MP and man who is to progress what salt is to slugs culinary repertoire Christopher Chope blocked, among others, a bill to make upskirting illegal, which is like shouting ‘it wasn’t me’ to dispel suspicion when someone farts in a lift. Upskirting is when people, but primarily men, in fact, almost certainly only men, take photos up women’s skirts without consent. Something that is both offensive, vulgar, violating and definitely not what phone cameras are for otherwise Apple events would be really hard to watch. Chope says he wholeheartedly supports there being a law against it, with perpetrators gaining up to two years in prison if caught, but that he just disapproved the process of private member’s bills and didn’t know what upskirting was. That’s probably because he refers to it as ‘Chopeys fun snaps’. Chope believes private members bills shouldn’t be a thing as he says ‘we aren’t in Putin’s Russia yet.’ True Chris, but considering he’s also voted against gay marriage, minimum wage and now to make sure sexual harassment isn’t illegal, I’d say he sees that less as something to avoid and more of an achievement target. Many women in his constituency have protested by covering his office in their underwear. That’s got to be the first time a politician as useless as him has been assigned quite so many briefs.
Home Secretary and model for the Comic Relief red nose, Sajid Javid is going to increase police powers to catch moped criminals after having his phone snatched outside Euston station. Oh is that how it works? Well fingers crossed that Chris Grayling gets stuck at a train station for 3 days, Jeremy Hunt ends up in A&E and Boris Johnson gets arrested in Iran because someone lied about him.
Across the pond, US President and oh no I forgot that was in the fridge oh that’s what’s causing that smell Donald Trump has directed the pentagon to create a sixth military branch called The Space Force. Of course that’s totally unnecessary as Trump has already successfully conquered the vacuous. The First Prisoner of the US Melania has commented on the immigration crisis at the Mexican border where many children are being snatched from parents by border patrol and put in cages in a truly upsetting situation. Melania said she hates to see children separated from their families at borders, which is probably why she hasn’t visited. Melania said the onus is on both sides to fix the situation. Yes of course. There’s nothing easier than holding your hands up and saying we need to meet halfway when you’re stuck in indefinite detainment with no idea where your kids are. I’d love to see Melania as a hostage negotiator. ‘No I don’t think the police need to be here, it’s up to the gunman and his hostages to sort it out between them and meet in the middle.’
Lastly, David Dimbleby is retiring from hosting BBC’s political panel program Question Time at the end of the year. I understand that in order to keep the same feel to the show they will be replacing him with a robot that just shouts tagged tweets with increasing volume throughout the show, a barking dog and a man continuously hitting a bin with a spoon. And the World Cup started last week with host nations Russia beating Saudi Arabia, a surprisingly victory considering the Saudi goal keeper had all those extra arms sold to him by England. I understand Russia don’t actually want to do well in the tournament, they just want to influence the other teams enough so that there is an unexpected winner that ultimately goes on to ruin football for everyone. England won their first match against Morocco scoring a second goal in the last few minutes because there’s no better British Values than making everyone panic that you’ve screwed it up until it’s almost too late. And the World Cup 2026 has been awarded jointly to Canada, USA and Mexico in what I think may be the most expensive and long term trolling of Donald Trump and his border control that I’ve ever heard. Amazing.
Hello you. Welcome to another episode of this ‘Observer recommended podcast’. WHAT WHAT? Yes that’s right, this here little ol’ audio mess was included in the top ten political podcasts according to The Observer this week, which I was hugely chuffed by. Especially as it was in there alongside some real faves of mine, the host of one of which is this week’s interviewee, but more on that in a min. So if you are a new listener who has arrived here because of that, then hello, and I’m sorry, I don’t know why they did that either, I guess they just had a word count to fill. So that was one bit of selfish me news from this past weekend. The other is that on Friday I did a gig for Justice Mexico Now, which is a charity that campaign against the human rights abuses happening in Mexico and the event on Friday was to raise money for international electoral observers to the election in July. It’s a situation I knew nothing about and having now been reading up on it, it’s pretty terrifying, as 116 politicians have been killed in the last year alone as part of the current government’s attempts to stay in power. I mean, that really puts UK politics into perspective, right? I’m hopefully going to get someone from the campaign on to talk about it in a future episode. But the show on Friday was great fun with Francesca Martinez, Jeremy Hardy, Matt Abbot and Maria Ferguson who are great poets and others two and then, in the middle was surprise guest Labour leader and mouse who’s shaved around the eyes, Jeremy Corbyn to host an auction. So I had to introduce him on, which I did by saying he was an open spot and they were very much risking having him on as I didn’t think he’d spoken to a crowd before. Anyway, he was very friendly, his auctioning was excellent and very funny and he sold two pots of his own jam for quite a lot of money. I said to him that they were innovative jams and he gave me a very funny look. I know he liked my Saudi Arabia world cup joke but I have no news on how he felt about all the Brexit gags I did which is a shame. Anyway it’s funny isn’t it, there were so many questions I wanted to ask him but firstly I was hosting and so rarely offstage and secondly, he was enjoying the night and it felt rude to just barge in and start pushing him for some sort of coherent chat about Labour’s Brexit stance or anything like that. His jams did look good though and they sold for loads so if anything he really is proving Andrea Leadsom right. Ultimately the moral of this not very exciting political encounter is that I can confirm he is a person and exists in the real life, should any of you not be sure of that.
And it’s those sorts of grade a tales that lead nowhere in a manner exactly opposite to Seriel or S-Town that allow this show to be an Observer rated one and obviously will move you, the good people to review the show on iTunes, or Stitcher or one of those apps. A couple of people have told me they’re having problems doing written reviews on Apple podcast app and that is because, spoiler, it’s shit. It’s really shit. But do complain and tell Apple, however you do that. I’m sure it’s a codeword at a secret door and then you have to follow a series of clues before finding a solitary phone that you ring and speak to an automaton, but it really does help the show so do give it a try. If you can too, then please donate to the Patreon at patreon.com/parpolbro, even $1 a month is a huge help. $1 US dollar that is, which is still about 75p or 6.4 Danish Krone which probably can’t buy you anything because it’s crazy expensive over there and you’re like hey can I have some water and they’re like ‘hey yes but that will cost you your life savings and your first born.’ It’s that Scandi Noir export market they have. We’ll see how economically comfortable they are once the last few episodes of the Bridge air in the UK. They’ll have nothing left I tell you, nothing! So er, yes please donate to the Patreon or if a monthly thang aint your thang then you can buy me a coffee at ko-fi.com/parpolbro which is also hugely appreciated. Of course this podcast remains free whatever so if you can’t do any of those things then please just let people who might like this show know that it exists despite what flat podcasters may say. I bet that’s a thing. I bet now I’ve said it, there are already people out there who deny podcasts exist and it’s actually just a series of voices in your head caused by the elite. Well I can prove that they are wrong, because if that was true my bank wouldn’t hate me. Take that fake news! PPB smashing down untruths every goddamn day.
More admin things this week for yow. In my talkings about Grenfell last week I forgot to mention the excellent 24 Stories book which is available via Penguin or Unbound books with all proceeds going to PTSD related needs of those affected by the fire. It is a collection of short tales by people like Irvine Welsh, Kathy Burke, Meera Syal and excitingly Kat Day who very kindly types up the linear notes for this show for the website every week and who’s entry in the book is really, really moving and beautifully written. So do check that out. Also my brother, The Last Skeptik, who provides the music for this show every week as well as making the sound a bit louder for all you who need this show at 11, has a new album out very soon. Yes I mention this at the end of the show most weeks, but according to them stats, a certain percentage of you always skip the end of the show because it’s just too much for you. I understand that. No one likes endings. Why not stay in the middle of each episode and then it’s like it never finishes. I believe in your forever pod. My brother’s album is called Under The Patio and has loads of amazing guests on it including Kojey Radical, Mikill Pane, Doc Brown and more and you can pre-order that and hear a number of tracks already if you have a looksie online. This is why I shouldn’t promote hip hop albums. Who says looksie? Not any rappers, that’s for sure. And lastly thanks to the lovely families who came to my new kids show with Tatton Spiller at Simple Politics called ‘How Does This Politics Thing Work Then?’ We had two lovely gigs at Farnham Maltings and the Underbelly Festival in Southbank this past weekend, with children coming up after the show all inspired by it, to ask us such insightful questions about politics such as things about Brexit or the NHS or if I really eat poo. Adorable. The next two shows are at the Old Firestation in Oxford on Saturday 23rd at 3pm and then the Chipping Norton Theatre at 11.30am on the 30th June. It is suitable for children 7+ although I think we had a few weenier ones in there on Sunday who seemed to like it too. Tickets are way too available on the venues websites.
This week on this Observer top ten podcast, ahem, It is a SWAPCAST! SWAPCAST KLAXON PLEASE!
KLAXON SOUND EFFECT
That’s right, in the industry, by which I mean all the lonely people recording podcasts by themselves in their rooms like me, that industry, a swapcast is when one podcast has a guest from another podcast on it, and this week I am smashing swapcasting in its audio chin by having a chat with Professor David Runciman, Head of the Department of Politics at Cambridge University and host of the ever excellent Talking Politics podcast, one of my weekly fave listens. I asked him all about his new book ‘How Democracy Ends’ so I’m very excited for you to hear that. I hope it doesn’t confuse you as to which podcast you’re listening to but here’s a tip, it’s mine because on David’s podcast he only has chats with really clever people. So this week there is that and also, just to ruin it, some Brexit Fallout and of course, a little bit of this:
So look this NHS money promise from the government does sound good doesn’t it? Beyond all the completely insincere bits in May’s speech about how the NHS helped her with her diabetes – and look I’m not saying that the NHS didn’t because they’ve kept me alive with my diabetes for years, I’ve just never seen May have to shove a Snickers in her gob mid speech or have a Lucozade by her in PMQS. Beyond those waffley bits, the announcement was that £20bn extra is going to the NHS which is no pittance. I mean if got given an extra £20bn a year, I’d have a pretty great year. I’d definitely buy full fat milk and everything. As much as my general view of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is that he strikes me as someone who could get lost in a small room, getting the treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to agree to £20bn is impressive. I can only assume he agreed to watch paint dry with Philip Hammond or whatever it is he does for fun. The NHS needs money, that’s a fact. Treatments are getting smarter and people are getting older so that’s expensive. It’s either stop medical breakthroughs and just stick to plasters for all, or we have to fund things. Broken leg? Oh just put a plaster on it. But what the NHS is said to need is £50bn by 2030 which would mean a spending increase of just under 4%. What the Conservatives are proposing is helpful but still only 3.4%, and even then it will all depend on what that 3.4% is being spent on. That’s one of the big questions with this announcement. Where will it go? Is it going to improve the right areas or will they blow it all on one super expensive hospital radio show where they only play themed music like First Aid Kit and have firework sound effects? Hopefully not. While there’s not many answers yet and there are unlikely to be till November, May mentioned that parts of regulatory framework around the NHS are holding back reform and that she’ll ask clinicians to confirm if they have the right spending targets, all of which could mean that Former Health Secretary and Droopy The Dog stunt double Andrew Lansley’s health reforms could finally be scrapped. Lansley created Clinical Commissioning Groups to replace Primary Care Trusts and they are responsible for the health services and budget in their area and there has always been a lot of criticism of them to do with personal financial initiatives overriding patients interests, to poor resource management to an overall lack of uniformity and unnecessary complexity meaning they were very hard to make accountable for anything. So scrapping these could be brilliant. But, Jeremy Hunt is in charge and he believes in homeopathy, that junior doctors should work until they’re so tired they’ll start to feel sleepy before any of their anesthetized patients and he can’t even remember what homes he owns. So who knows what we’ll get instead. I bet it’s hospital radio.
The other big question which also won’t be answered till the Autumn in the budget, is just where the £20bn over 5 years is going to come from. We know some of it will be from tax increases, which is popular in public opinion with a recent Survation poll saying voters want improvements to their local hospitals more than they want tax cuts. That definitely makes sense, I mean, what use is a tax cut if you can’t get it stitched up anywhere? But who will be paying the most tax because despite the government insisting austerity is over, wages are still lower than they were 10 years ago and a tax rise could really hurt lower earners. But in a financial way which is completely unaidable by a fancy new hospital. Then you have the Brexit Dividend which May insists we’ll have because we won’t be paying into the EU once we leave. Sure. A big bus did say and why would a big bus lie? Apart from those buses that had adverts for the Emoji Movie on it and swore it was fun. LIARS! Here’s the thing. The Office of Budget Responsibility gave a forecast for the UK economy post Brexit and it was adopted by the chancellor as the government’s own forecast and that forecast, you with me? That forecast said the UK would gain £250m per week, which is a good amount less than the £350m that the lying bus said, and that money could go to the NHS but then you couldn’t spend it on any other services at all ever, ever. But that’s not looking at the public finances downgrading which says post Brexit we’ll be losing £15bn a year. Nor is it taking into account that that £250m that we won’t get because it’ll just be standing in the corner of a debt hole that Brexit made, we also won’t get till after the transition period by which point the government will already have put approximately £12bn of the funding in that May said would come from the source that won’t be there. At best, the Brexit Dividend is a really nice way of saying ‘you’ll pay for it with your money.’ Why not start calling your monthly wages a ‘Brexit Dividend’? If you’ve got kids, let them know their pocket money shall now be referred to as ‘the benefits of leaving the EU’. It’s all about confidence isn’t it? If, as a nation we are completely broke post Brexit, as long as we promise our knock off fake services are real ones and say everything has been paid for by Brexit Dividends, no one will ever know. Tina Fey said confidence is 10% hard work and 90% delusion, which sounds almost exactly like the British government. Oh and it seems social care, capital spending and public health will not gain any increase in budget which means all of them will continue to drain resources from the NHS meaning it’ll need more money. But look at me being all Jimmy Negative pants. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the government have something up their wizard’s sleeve and they know that along with that Brexit Dividend, May caught a leprechaun while on one of her hiking walks and things are now sorted. That’s what I’ll choose to believe because why would them or a big old bus lie in order to just curry favour with the electorate? I’m sure they wouldn’t and I don’t know about you but I can’t wait to get my own Brexit Dividend and spend it on all my favourite things like air, invisible friends and a non-physical border.
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID RUNCIMAN
Democracy! From the Greek word Demokratia which means…democracy, but you know, in Greek. Democracy has been working for us Western lot for a while now and by that I mean we all very much enjoy being able to vote for our representatives every 5 years in order to then complain about how on earth anyone ever voted for those idiots before spending 5 years being very angry about all the things they’re doing wrong before voting them in all over again. Lots of people often remark what kind of democracy we have in the UK when there’s questions over how much say donors get or unelected Lords or the media or the royals or giant lizard people, the latter of which definitely isn’t true simply because lizards in a British climate? Come on mate. But the fact is, democracy has been pretty much working in the Western world for a few hundred years now and all in all, its been deemed preferable to North Korea’s authoritarianism, even though they have lovely parades, or the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia, even though they have lovely sword dances. But in recent years of a reality TV celebrity kumquat being elected as President of the US, the rise of fake news, the power of Facebook becoming well, complicated and populism getting bizarrely popular, are we all still sure this democracy thing is working for us? And if it isn’t, what on Earth do we replace it with and can we have something with lovely sword parades?
‘How Democracy Ends’ is the new book by Professor David Runciman, a political historian who is the head of department of politics and international studies at Cambridge University. He is also the host of the fantastic Observer recommended, ahem, Talking Politics podcast which I listen to weekly and feel like it instantly makes my brain grow some. It is always fascinating, insightful and gives me a view into politics that well, let’s be honest, you don’t get on this show because I’m too obsessed with sword dancing and parades. David’s book, as it says in the sleeve, ‘surveys the political landscape of the West and shows us how to spot the new signs of trouble ahead. From coups in ancient and modern Greece to nuclear war, environmental catastrophe and the most heinous crimes, Runciman reveals how changes in our societies – now too affluent, too elderly, too networked – make them unlikely to fall apart as the did in the past.’ Yeah sounds good doesn’t it? Well it is, as I finished it a week or so ago and thought it was a brilliant read so I was hugely excited that David was up for coming on this show to have a chat all about it and why and how democracy could be coming to an end. I should add, I didn’t ask him at all about sword dances. I do hope you enjoy listening to this as much as I enjoyed interviewing him. Here is David:
INTERVIEW PART 1
Tiernan Douieb: I’m a big fan of your book, I really, really enjoyed it. I found it fascinating, insightful and oddly hopeful, actually, it made me oddly hopeful, I think, about the possibilities of the end of democracy, which I didn’t expect to be.
David Runciman: The title gives people the wrong impression.
TD: Yes, it really did concern me, I think, especially with the current way that news and politics seem to be, it’s quite doom-laden and that’s what I was expecting. From the beginning of your book, and especially by the end, I felt a lot like the future is slightly more promising, which is very nice. I’ve got a lot of questions I want to ask you about it but I thought a good place to start, just to give listeners an overview, part of what your book, or what your book is about is that western democracy is experiencing a midlife crisis, so could you just explain to me what you mean by that and why that’s only or primarily for western democracy?
DR: I’ve learnt from talking about it that when you say, as a middle-aged man, a midlife crisis is a (?), people assume you’re talking about yourself. I should say, as far as I’m aware, I’m not. So, it’s partly because my book is pushing back against these historical examples we have of democratic failure from the 1930s and the 1970s, kind of familiar images that we have when it went wrong in Germany, when it’s gone wrong in Latin America. These are all young democracies, that disaster for democracy is to do with when democracies are young, in some ways victory is really open but also, when it goes wrong, it goes really badly wrong. That’s not us, western democracies, our democracies have been around for a while, we’re quite used to them, in many ways they’re very stable, they’ve been pretty successful. For me, the midlife crisis, what it tries to capture is that feeling in the middle of a life where things can still go wrong but the future isn’t wide open. A lot of what is going wrong are also things that you’re attached to because they’ve served you pretty well in the past. It has that kind of feel to me where-, there’s this line from psychotherapy, a lot of people come into therapy saying, ‘I want to change so long as it doesn’t mean having to change.’ I think that people really want something fresh and something new and, at the same time, they’re really reluctant to let go of what they have. We’re in that phase with democracy. The other reason to say it is trying to convey that slightly more hopeful feeling that this isn’t, for us, about it’s democracy or it’s the end, those aren’t the choices. You’re in the middle of a story, the end is somewhere out there, everything ends eventually, and we’re probably in the second half of this, you know, we’re in the declining years, in many ways, I think, of western democracy, but masses could still happen. When you’re in a midlife crisis, it’s partly because you’re probably aware that death is coming at some point and it freaks you out, but the rest of your life is still to be lived so there is still that sense, I think, with this that we’re in a massive, sort of, funk about this but we have to remember that this isn’t the end.
TD: So, we’re in the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy at the moment.
DR: The depressing thing about that is that it actually does, sort of, fit with some of the argument in my book but there is a slightly nightmarish version where we just keep repeating the same thing over and over again because we can’t let go and we end up just with the multiples.
TD: That is quite terrifying. It’s definitely a people trait though, isn’t it, that we don’t like change, that’s something that we can see even in the loyalty of how people vote in politics. I think Brexit has changed that quite a bit but there’s still quite a lot of people, ‘I’ve always voted Labour,’ ‘I’ve always voted Conservative,’ simply because that’s the way that they always have done and don’t want to change that.
DR: Yes. When I say we’re old as a democracy, we’re also old the institutions are old, but also our populations are increasingly old. Western democracy’s crises are happening in countries where a lot of people are frankly in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, that they have all of these memories, all these patterns of behaviour. I think it is true, you see it in our politics now, that for young voters, the options are much wider and, actually, they don’t feel trapped by the past, but they are the minority. I mean, it is one of the features of our democracy, if you compare it to the ones where it really goes hideously wrong, like Weimar Germany. (04.27 ?) societies, mainly of young people, are when young people, by one thing or the other, everything goes that way. I think we see it in our politics that a lot of people think that there are many more options out there than we currently have on the table, they tend to be the younger ones and they get out-voted, they’re still getting out-voted. There are too many old people. That is new, that is part of operating an historical perspective on this. I mean, one of the arguments in my book is that there aren’t that many historical comparisons for us to draw on because the kinds of societies we live in, there haven’t been ones like this in human history, that’s one of the features of them. Societies where you have a democracy so, if there are more of you, you win, and there are more old people in our society, that’s never been true ever before.
TD: Right, okay. So, that’s a huge change in just the way that humanity now is and, therefore, we need different things in order to deal with that. One of the things I wanted to ask you, which you partly answered there, why is the way that democracy might now end different to ways in which it may have ended before? I guess one of those then is ageing population, do we then need something new to deal with that? This current system doesn’t work with how people are anymore?
DR: I think one feature of it is that this current system is probably more durable in countries where most people are young, and particularly where there are a lot of young men, you do get a lot more ( 5.54 ?) violence and the other features of our democracies. People probably often find this surprising but I think it is broadly true, there are always exceptions, we live in incredibly peaceful, non-violent parties in our politics. Of course there’s violence, and there’s quite a lot of violence online, there’s a lot of violent language, but compared to those periods in history where democracy has torn apart. Actually, this is a very non-violent form of politics. I partly think that is genuinely to do with the fact that there are relatively few young people, basically it’s not just young people, young men, the young man’s game. This is democracy going wrong in places where there isn’t a huge amount, certainly, of political violence, what violence there is is more of the name calling variety than the guns in the streets variety. There are more pensioners than there are students, these are the societies we live in, where life expectancy extends massively at the top end of the scale, we don’t know how long people are going to live for. We haven’t just got 2 generations, we’ve got 3, maybe 4, generations. It’s new. I don’t think we know what we need to get out of this or get past this because big breaks we’ve had in the past where basically democracy, kind of, snaps, it falls apart in these really dramatic ways, there are these events, these moments of turmoil where people can see it’s gone wrong. This is the slow-burn version of it, it’s really drawn out, it’s protracted, a lot of entrenched behaviour that’s really hard to shift. That’s new, the fact that it’s kind of slow and old actually is the thing that makes it new.
TD: In a sense, are we in a stage of political stagnation? Part of me wondered if the rise of populism is because where we are, for example, in the UK, we’ve got neoliberalism that’s still being pushed by the government despite the crash in 2008, but what, say, Labour are offering is socialism, which is something old rather than something new. We had quite a lot of apathy until very recently with the Brexit vote and these big change votes that happened. Is this a, sort of, almost political stagnation that’s caused a rise of populism and a seeking something new as a result of it?
DR: I think it is. I’m not sure it’s stagnation because, in the end, something always gives. There is a lot of change around but really deep-seated, long-lasting change would’ve been much, much harder, I think, than most people expected, including the people who voted for it, and it is partly that thing that people want change but they also have lots of things they never want to stop or give up or go back on. Lots of things are really entrenched. I do also think that we’re just so used, in a way, to democracy, that we almost find it hard to imagine dramatic change. Institutions, these ways we have of doing politics, even the political parties we have, they’ve been around forever and it’s really hard to imagine the alternatives. Part of the trigger for me writing this book was the election of Trump, and I say upfront in the book that I don’t think Trump is the end of democracy, lots of things about Trump I’m partly alarmed by, or more than slightly alarmed by, but I don’t think he’s the end by any means. When Trump was elected, I had this double response, one of which was, ‘Oh my god, what the hell is this?’ It was new and it freaked me out. On the other hand, actually, I think people voted for him not because they hated democracy or they’d given up on it but almost they had so much faith in democracy, they thought it could survive Donald Trump. There’s that feeling that we can throw things at it, Brexit, Trump, populism, anger, frustration, pretty violent language of politics, and democracy will sort of absorb it and adapt to it, that’s almost because we’re so attached to these institutions that we think that they can stand anything, and that’s a completely different scenario from the one where we actually come in and we say, ‘We’re done with that way of doing politics, we want to do it differently.’ I don’t think we do want to do it differently, we just want to shake it up a bit, that’s the stage we’re in now, we’re in the shaking up bit but the institutions are still there, they’re not budging.
TD: I think, with Trump, we know that there will be another election in 4 years unless he really goes full-on despot. The aim is that there will be another election.
DR: If he’s there for 8 years, fine, democracy can survive it, 8 years and 1 day? We’ve got a problem.
TD: That’s it. It feels like there is at least a limit to what he can do. With Brexit, for example, things are shaking up and changing quite drastically as a result of the referendum but also that was a democratic vote. So, would an idea of, say, a second referendum then be subverting democracy? Would that be more dangerous than changing everything? Where’s the line there?
DR: I think the referendum and referendums generally are a really interesting symptom of this is that, no question, there is that desire actually for more democracy. It’s not like those periods in history where people have said, ‘Democracy doesn’t work, we want the opposite,’ people aren’t saying that, ad populism isn’t saying that, populism is people saying, ‘We want our democracy back, we want to rescue it, we want to take it back from the people who’ve stolen it. With referendums, we want more direct democracy, we want more direct input.’ But we haven’t worked out how you combine that with keeping all the other ways of democracy going. The reason British politics is in the mess it’s in is no one, not a single person in government or outside government knows how you combine referendum democracy and parliamentary democracy. There are 10 different ways you could do it and 10 different ways are being played out at the moment. We haven’t given up on anything, we’ve just added a referendum to the thing that we already have, that’s a classic symptom, I think, of this. We want this radical new way of doing politics alongside all the old ways, and we’re kind of trapped with that. I think there are ways in which a referendum, like the Brexit referendum, can have a transformative effect but you have to be willing to transform the other things too, and we’re not and there’s not much sign that we are. Even the slogan ‘Take back control’ was kind of, ‘Let’s do this radical thing in order to restore the thing that we thought we used to have.’ That’s where we are at the moment. Actually, I don’t think a second referendum or a third referendum would do anything to resolve that problem, it would probably make it worse because a second referendum is not an answer to the question ‘How do you combine referendums with parliamentary democracy?’ it’s another add-on to that.
TD: In your book I remember you sort of reference the French Fifth Republic when you were saying, and I’m going to quote you quite badly I apologise, but you say that where democracy has popular legitimacy, the people will not remain as bystanders when it us under attack. If that’s the rule then I assume we’ve got to uphold the results of a vote. Then I wondered, we’ll see where this Russian interference case goes, if that’s considered that that’s happened, does that mean that democracy was under attack in a different way? Where will that lead to?
DR: I think, and this is a really big part of the problem that we face, which is we can’t even agree on what the signs are that something is broken. I write about this quite a lot, so I talk about coups, a coup is the traditional classic way you know your democracy is done. You wake up one morning, the government’s been arrested, the generals are on TV playing the national anthem and there’s a before and after, and it’s often overnight. Those things still do happen around the world, there was one in Zimbabwe, there could easily be one and I could think of lots of countries where that’s a serious risk. I don’t think it’s a risk in Britain, the United States, France, Germany, and yet we’re talking about coups all the time. People in America, everyone thinks there’s been a coup. The Trump people think that the FBI are staging a coup against him, Hilary supporters think that Trump was the coup against Hilary, and there’s this kind of ratcheting up of the language, it’s broken, it’s snapped in half while it carries on, and that’s new too. I think that this, kind of, constant backbeat of noise is democracy doesn’t work alongside the continuing functioning of all the democratic institutions means we’re lost. There is a crying wolf problem here, which is, and this is part of the downbeat part of my book, which is to suggest this is a long drawn out process but when we’ve finally arrived at the point and we go, ‘Oh, it really is broken,’ we’ll have noticed it broke a long time ago, we just didn’t pick up on it because we were so busy screaming at each other.
TD: One of the bits that I found particularly fascinating was that you mentioned the US philosopher Robert Nozick, I think, his notion was that the true utopia was having political groupings based on personal preferences rather than location. Does it feel like we’re naturally headed to an evermore individualistic society? Social media groups people across state borders, we have these groupings that could never have happened before.
DR: Yes. So, that’s one of the other reasons I just think now is new, it’s a trite thing but we forget that digital technology has changed the entire backdrop to our politics, it’s this weird thing that the digital revolution in 30 years has changed everything about the institutions and democratic life. It’s like we’ve changed everything around our democracy and then we’re trying to run it through the same political system. One of the things that it’s unquestionably changed is that people can find all sorts of different ways of netting and identifying new kinds of loyalty, they can experiment in different ways, they can kind of be anarchic and do all of this stuff online, which is what political philosophers always dreamed of, that it could transform politics, so from those it gets this libertarian idea of why can’t we have a society where you don’t have one utopia, we all invent our own utopia? Work out the thing that would make life paradise for us? We find the people who agree with us, even if there are only 3 of them and happen to live in different parts of the world, and we connect with them. That was always a dream and now it’s not quite a dream, and this is all going on at the same time that our democracies are still, pretty much, carrying on with business as usual. I think something’s going to give. In the book I suggest that if you think through the 21st century, I think it’s pretty implausible that this technology isn’t going to fundamentally catch up with how we do politics too, something will look very different in 40 or 50 years time, but it’s so hard to imagine. I mean, it’s not just that the future’s open, it’s kind of unknowable for us. The pace of change and also just the range of different ways that we could go, that’s, I think, one of the ironies of our obsession with that we might go back to the 1930s, democracy might fail like it failed in the past, the past is just this one story. We’re probably at that point in human history where the future is more open than it’s ever been, the chances of it being like the past I think are really, really slim.
END OF PART 1
And we’ll be back with David in a minute, but first:
Yes I’ve already mentioned Brexit in this week’s show. Yes there’s more. Someone replied to a tweet that the @parpolbro account was tagged into, but it was about the Talking Politics podcast which this week’s guest is from. It said ‘Love this podcast -excellent as covers such a wide range – it also doesn’t just talk about sodding Brexit’ and my heart sank which is weird as I’ve not suffered an adverse conditions as a result of that. But here we are, unavoidably talking about Brexit again because there it is, looming in the corner waiting to arrive, like a too early dinner guest trying to hide behind the hedge till someone else arrives because you and they know you only invited them because you had to.
So this week, aside from a Brexit Dividend that isn’t there, the big issue was MPs voting to not have a meaningful vote on the final deal. Voting to not have a vote? Sounds constructive. What next? Putting a question forward asking that no one asks questions? Why not just spend the next year making policies to not have any policies? But as Joseph Heller as it all sounds, the reason Conservative rebels, some Labour MPs and all of the rest of them didn’t vote against it is because the Prime Minister offered to make a government amendment to remove the need for MP Dominic Grieve’s amendment. Ahead of the vote, May promised rebels that Grieve’s call for MPs to have a greater say on a Brexit deal would be taken on board. But it turns out she meant taken on board one of Chris Grayling’s trains because that’s right, it was cancelled before it arrived. Last minute changes meant that rather than guarantee MPs get to have a say, it just means if there is no deal reached by February 2019, then MPs will get to note the position the government are taking. Yep. They gotta sit back, do a little doodle or phone tapping and pop down a note so that years later they can look back on it and go ‘oh’. Writing ‘buy milk’ would be more useful. It’s a move that makes parliament entirely redundant, though to be fair, for some of them that would be suitable karmic treatment. But mostly, it’s just scary. After May went back on her word it was reported that one Tory rebel said ‘if she f**ks us, she’s f**ked’ so I’ve been reading that as ‘funked’ and pretending they’re all in George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic and trust me, it makes things ever so slightly better.
Anyway Grievesy is well angry about it, as are other Tory Rebels like Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry, you know the ones, all the ones that regularly get angry about the things the government do but then still vote with them because May clearly has some dodgy pics of them in crocs while at the supermarket or something. Labour also back Grieve on this and want a meaningful vote. But the government know that if this happens, it essentially stops the possibility of a no deal. You know, the no deal. The worst case scenario where, according to the recent leaked report, we’ll all run out of food, medicine, airplanes and Netflix within two weeks. Why do the government want to risk that? Because Brexiteers want to risk that. Why do Brexiteers want to risk that? Er…because…er….where’s that Tina Fey quote again..?
This has just gone back to the Lords again though and the Lords have again said there has to be a meaningful vote on the final deal and have pinged it back to Commons with a swift backhand serve and so this will be debated all over again next week. The new amendment now that the Lords have had their hands all over it, means that MPs have to have a meaningful, emotional and spiritual vote, ok not the last two, if MPs vote down the UK-EU Brexit deal, if May announces before 21st January 2019 that no deal has been struck or if 21st January next year passes and May ain’t said shit which is well suss. If any of these happened a minister would have to make an statement in parliament and now, this Lords amendment says MPs would have to approve. Or as Grieve has said, they could collapse the government, although I’m not sure how as May looks very unfoldable.
That was just one of a lot of amendments on the EU Withdrawal bill that everyone had to vote on after just 12 hours of debate because that’s what they voted to do. I mean why not, get it done right? Why spend too much time on the future of the country when Love Island is on? That total lack of time meant that only 15 minutes was given for MPs to decide whether to go ahead with the bill allowing Westminster to act on certain devolved issues without Holyrood, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Irish Assembly (when there is one)’s approval. The lack of time spent on that caused SNP MPs to storm out en mass of Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, something that finally made it more interesting for once and made me wonder why they bothered showing up in the first place when most week’s you could just watch a repeat anyway? There was an emergency debate on validity of the Sewel Convention today in the commons, so called because Lord Sewell was one of the authors of the original devolution settlement. The government won which now means post Brexit they can tamper all they like with various bits of usually devolved policies when they relate to the EU Withdrawal Bill. SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon said that the voices and views of the Scottish Parliament have been completely cast aside, though with the government as unashamedly English as they currently are, I’ll be surprised if they understood anything Holyrood said in the first place.
Lastly ill pug in a shirt Aaron Banks and his sidekick Andy ‘What If Marc Almond Was A Racist’ Wigmore were grilled by a Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee about their connections to Russia and the influence of Russia on the Brexit vote. The hearing was weird, and they did things like accuse parliament of being fake news, despite them sitting in it, before then admitting that the advice they were given before the referendum was ‘its not about facts, its about emotion. But my favourite bit about them acting like total arsehole louts was that at one point they both got up and left to go to lunch, without warning. Which I think, on the whole, is very European of them. There’s so much more to uncover about what involvement and influence they, Russian finances and Cambridge Analytica had in the Brexit referendum vote but for now, I just hope that as Banks described himself to the committee as an ‘evil genius with a white cat that controls Western democracy’ that it ends with him getting dumped in a smokestack by a suave Roger Moore lookalike.
Oh it’s all so fun isn’t it? And by fun, I mean not fun. It would be nice to not talk about sodding Brexit but it has put a halt to most other areas of UK politics. I do keep hearing from ardent Brexiteers that what we all have to do is be more positive about it all and my problem with that is that is the least British thing I’ve heard. You want proper British sovereignty and values? Then let us, as a country, all endlessly point out just how shit it’s all very likely going to be, before expecting rain on a bank holiday. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, clearly doesn’t want what’s best for country.
And now back to David.
INTERVIEW PART 2
TD: Is it then at all possible for anyone to do anything now that’s future-proofing politics? One of the things you mention quite a lot in your book was about basically how technology was such a massive game-changer, whether it’s kind of about distribution of information, fake or real, and the threat of automation, how could anyone possibly put politics in place that will deal with that now? Is everyone thinking too short-term? Is it possible to think long-term?
DR: I think one of the challenges for democracies particular, the kind of democracies that we have, is that they’re not very good at the future, I think the historical record of democracies is what that they’re really, really good at doing is adapting to challenges when they’re right squarely in front of them, whether it’s an economic crisis or a war, challenge to the way the economy works. When a democracy faces a choice, it can often take it because democracies are good at, when they have to, changing. These long-term trends, whether it’s automation or what this technology might do to what we even mean by ‘work’, things like threats to the environment, long-term changes to patterns of human behaviour, I don’t think there’s any evidence that democracies are good at future-proofing. They need to see it in front of their eyes and then they’ll adapt. One of the real difficulties, I think, for western democracy thinking 50 years ahead is that we might be moving into a world though things are happening very quickly, there isn’t that kind of moment of truth. At the moment where the robots arrive, the moment where we suddenly realise we have to adapt, whether it’s climate, whether it’s technology, the classic thing that democracies were really, really good at adapting to: war. Weirdly, even though democracies are a great recipe for peace, they’re really good at war because they’re really adaptable and they’re really good at rising to the challenge. What if the challenge isn’t the kind of challenge you can rise to because it’s this slow burn, boiling frog challenge? That again could be new, it could be different, and I think it’s at least possible that we will spend not just the next 3 years but maybe the next 20 or 30 years treading water while these incredible changes are going on around us. That’s a different scenario from anything that we’ve seen before.
TD: Yes, it’s very hard to be reactive to something that’s slowly slipping away or slowly disappearing as opposed to something that’s immediately changing.
DR: We almost over-compensate. I think this is part of the current rhetoric of politics, the anger, the name-calling, the tribal or partisan nature of it. We’re looking for the thing that is the unequivocal symbol. We all know our world is changing fast, I think a lot of, I would include myself in this, a lot of us find the future really unnerving. When you think about your kids, what life will be like for them in 30 or 40 years time, it’s not just that traditionally in democracies each generation needs to believe the next generation will have it better. It’s pretty hard to imagine what some fundamental things like work, education or health will mean for our kids or our grandkids. We’re looking for the thing that gives us security, and one of the things that could give us security is being able to name the problem and scream it at or be able to name the villain and scream at the villain. You find the person or the thing we can focus on as our problem. The trouble is, we can’t agree on that. We can all find a villain, probably, and we can all find an issue that we think is the issue but it’s not the same for us because we all have these different experiences. There is a lot of screaming and a lot of people looking for an evil enemy but it’s not like a war because we don’t agree who the enemy is.
TD: Sure, there are too many grey areas. That was again one of the things I found very interesting where you were discussing how conspiracy theories are given by both winners and losers, which very much blurs the line as to how they were used previously.
DR: Trump is different in lots of ways. We shouldn’t downplay it, he’s not the end of democracy but he sure is something new. I think, as far as I know, he’s the first full-blown conspiracy theorist to occupy the White House but he’s also, I think, the first person who really built an entire political campaign on conspiracy theories. He started his run for the presidency by calling out Obama as a non-American citizen, the birther movement where people said the birth certificate was fake, that was Trump’s entry point into American politics. He’s ridden that all the way through and he’s carried on behaving like that in office, he’s the first winner of an election to doubt the result, because he claimed it was fixed because Hilary fixed the popular vote. He’s behaving in office like he lost because that kind of loser mentality, which is what it is, conspiracy theories are for losers in the sense that people fear disadvantage, disenfranchise, the world doesn’t work for them, try and find a plot that explains it. But Trump is the first politician that I’ve ever seen, and there are echoes of it in other places in the world, in Turkey Erdogan, Orbán in Hungary, but in the western democracy we live in, we’re familiar with, who is behaving like that in office? That is new too. It’s quite scary, it doesn’t really make sense to behave as the winner as though you’d lost.
TD: Yes, he regularly surprises. I find it’s amazing how every week I’m both unsurprised and surprised by what he’s doing at the same time.
DR: I describe my reaction to his inauguration, I watched it on some screens here, that inaugural address, very short, but when I saw it in real time, genuinely I found it terrifying. I did hear the echoes of fascism and the symbolism. I think a lot of us came into the room thinking, ‘How bad can this be?’ and then, ‘Oh my god.’ Then we watched it again. Literally, we finished watching it and then we watched it again, not live but 15 minutes after live, and even the second time I watched it I thought, ‘I slightly overreacted there, it’s not that bad.’ I was already sort of attuned and already inflated my view of the fact the man’s a fascist and I thought, ‘Oh, he’s not really a fascist.’ As I say in the book, that 15-minute experience, that’s been my experience and a lot of people’s experience of the entire Trump presidency, He’s simultaneously, like you say, you hear the thing that scares you and you think, ‘Yeah, it’s Trump.’ It’s mad, it could send us mad, that’s definitely a possibility.
TD: It’s such an endless stream of things that you don’t have time to really think things through. That’s what I really liked about even the first few pages of your book where you point out that democracy can survive Trump, maybe breath a sigh of relief and go, ‘Of course it can.’ I don’t think I’d even given myself brain space to think that. Do you think it helps if, from your point of view, from an academic point of view, do you think it helps to deal with the state that democracy is in rather than the endless headline panic that people endure? Do you find it easier to view these times from your position? Is it something that we should all be taking a breath over?
DR: I’m basically an historian and a lot of historians often, it’s one of the things that makes historians really boring and annoying, they kind of feel that that longer view gives you a bit of perspective on this. Democracies have been through similar or even worse challenges, I do have that strong sense as a historian that we sometimes forget how lucky we are in many ways, how prosperous, how peaceful, and the fact that we’re all living longer is a good sign, it means that we’re healthier, better off. A long life is better than a short life. There is that historian’s perspective which is slightly dangerous because if everyone thinks like that, no one does anything, we all kind of wait for it to right itself while we wait for the wheel of history to turn. Frankly, when Trump’s in office and politics is as it is when there are these long-term threats that could really do for all of us, if we’re all just sitting twiddling our thumbs waiting for the storm to pass, the storm won’t pass. There’s always that balance and it is really difficult and I think academics should always be really conscious in our little ivory towers, there we are saying, ‘Oh, we’ve seen this before.’ Thinking about that, it’s really, really dangerous, and you absolutely do need people to be completely freaked out by this because democracy is a contest, it’s about winners and losers. You don’t just win elections, you’ve actually got to win the new cycle, you’ve got to grab people’s attention. The thing about Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, whatever his deficits are, his deficiencies, he’s got a remarkable skillset for what people are now starting to call ‘the attention economy’. It’s a world in which the most precious thing is attention. I had a moment in the last couple of weeks during the G7, Kim Jong-un, Korea week, whatever that week was, last week.
TD: 2 weekends ago.
DR: I think it measurably true now that Trump is the most famous human being who has ever lived in terms of name recognition around the world, so he’s ahead of Jesus and William Shakespeare. More people in the world know who Trump is, which is an amazing thought. He’s a narcissist so that’s also not a good thing, for a narcissist being the most famous human being in history. He just sucks up our attention. The amount of time, even if you sometimes just look at the New York Times or RealClearPolitics or one of those sites that kind of aggregates news, just scan it and just look for the word ‘Trump’, you kind of feel that he’s eaten the world. He hasn’t just wormed his way into our heads, he’s literally consumed the headspace that we have to think about other things. That’s dangerous and we need people to be really pushing back, and you can’t push back by just switching off, I mean that’s one way you can push, but if we all switch off, he will just colonise any space that’s left. There’s a huge challenge for us. Then, to get back to where we started, the midlife crisis a challenge, right? This is serious and it’s potentially dangerous, you can’t just, being middle-aged, think, ‘Yeah, well, it work itself out,’ because it won’t and one day you will be dead, so you’ve got to take it serious.
TD: It’s exhausting, I think that’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s just exhausting and relentless.
DR: He has more stamina, that’s the other scary thing about him. He’s this old guy, he doesn’t look to be in great health but I think a really neglected political gift is the ability to keep going. If you outlast people, even if you can keep talking longer, certainly if you can command people’s attention longer, and he is relentless. I think people joke about him tweeting at 3am or 4am, there is something about that guy where if this is a contest just about who is going to be talking when the other people have shut up, he’s winning.
TD: That’s both depressing but also, from a stand-up comedian’s point of view, really helpful because I can do hour shows off the cuff so we’re fine. I wanted to ask about looking to future possibilities. You talk about pragmatic authoritarianism and epistocracy, which both sound very interesting and I’d love to talk to you about but I don’t want to take up your whole, but I wanted to ask about deliberative democracy and randomly selective representative groups, do you think there’s any way forward with that or do you think people don’t want that level of responsibility anymore?
DR: I’ve done some events around this where I’ve been talking to people about it and one or two people have raised this issue that when I go through the possibilities, I don’t take seriously enough this pretty radical alternative, which is against direct democracy but not the kind of crude referendum device, which is, if you’ve seen it, is a very, very crude way of doing it. Asking either or questions to 50 million people and trying to live with the result. There are ways of involving people in politics directly, which are more open-ended, more like an actual conversation, more about not what’s the decision that people take but having them talk about it before they take it, which is deliberative democracy. I think people for a long time, and it’s certainly, in the academic world, been a long-standing hope that the democracy could move more in that direction and there are lots of things to be said for it. When people talk, when they communicate, when they discuss tend to come to better, more reasoned conclusions. No one has really worked out how to scale it up, that’s a huge a challenge. I talk a bit, maybe a bit dismissively, I’m not sure, I’m aware of the criticism in the book about various kinds of local experiments, you can do it at the local level, at the city level, there’s really exciting stuff happening in Stockholm and Barcelona and Reykjavik. I said that’s great but that’s where they would that do that kind of thing, how are you going to get that work in a country like the United States or Great Britain? A lot of democracy still happens to scale but I think I shouldn’t be too dismissive about that. I mean, it maybe that that has to be an important part of the future, maybe this technology does open up ways of doing that that we haven’t really thought about yet. I do, again this is slightly sort of that historian’s perspective, I think one of the difficulties is that there are lots of interesting experiments going on with democracy and they tend to be quite small scale, and big democracy, nation and state level democracy, seems to be really, really resistant. It seems while people are doing all the exciting stuff, it just ploughs on. I think we’ve got to find a way of making that connection. We might, I haven’t seen it yet, I haven’t seen how you get from Reykjavik and Barcelona to Spain, America and Britain.
TD: I also have a slightly more cynical worry in that to try and even get people to review your podcast is difficult enough, I can’t imagine getting them to sit down and discuss politics.
DR: That whole point about if this is the attention economy, the most precious commodity is not money, it’s time. That’s probably not true actually, I think money still is what matters for most people, they definitely need more money, but a lot of people feel strong both financially and just in terms of the 24 hours in the day. If you’re going to say to them, ‘Well, the solution to your standard of living problem and everything else is to devote a lot more time to politics,’ they’re not going to buy it, that seems like adding to the problem, not solving the problem. Is there a way of doing speed dating deliberative democracy? As soon as you start to think like that, you’re losing the point of it. There are ways you could do it, which is just like replicating the problem that we have, then you get people who have really, really quick conversations about politics, they’re just going to insult each other because that’s what people do. You’ve got to slow it down and the world’s speeding up, it’s tough.
TD: Yes, it’s very tough. I found your book affirming in that, and no spoilers for listeners obviously, but I feel like by the end of it that we know that humanity will continue somehow and politics will continue somehow. I wanted to ask just one question that I ask all of our guests on this podcast, and I’m aware that your book has a massive further reading section so I don’t want to step on that but, apart from your book and Talking Politics podcast, are there any specific political historians, analysts, podcasts or tweeters that you would recommend for listeners to look to as to where we might be heading next politically? Any of your favourites.
DR: I think this is definitely a golden age for not just political podcasting but there is just an unbelievable amount of really interesting writing out there. I get overwhelmed by it. Again, it’s this challenge. I think, in a day, there are so many things I’d love to read to or listen to and it’s so hard to do it. There are lots of fantastic history books that aren’t those ashes and the warning from history books but actually try and tell the deep story. So, there’s a brilliant one, it’s not in my further reading, by someone called Ira Katznelson called ‘Fear Itself’, which is to try and tell the story of the last great crisis of American democracy in the 1930s and how America got out of it. A really deep, really interesting story about war, race, politics and technology, one of those kind of historians’ books that makes you simultaneously see that we have lived this before and we really haven’t even come close to living what we went through before. I think that’s a really great book. I think there are lots of history books that just go a bit beyond what we’d look for at the moment, when we find the thing in the past that reminds us of us, and any history book that isn’t a warning from history will be better than one that is.
END OF PART 2
Thank you so much to David for having the time to chat with me. I am such a huge fan of his podcast, Talking Politics, and couldn’t recommend it enough for a weekly dose of really fascinating political discussion. I always feel like I’m downloading knowledge and insights into my brain with every listen. Talking Politics are on Facebook, @TPPodcast_ on Twitter, Talkingpoliticspodcast.com and they are also hosted on Acast, like this show so you can find their page on there. That is of course available at all of your favourite pod apps, so do check it out if you don’t already. David’s book ‘How Democracy Ends’, which again I have to say I hugely enjoyed and found it clear and insightful and oddly life affirming, it is available at all bookshops, who am I to judge if they are good or bad? They sell books, is that not automatically some good points? A bad bookshop would be one where you go in, ask for a book and they say ‘sorry, we only sell goats’. No one wants that. Sorry, I mean, go buy David’s book and listen to his podcast.
As always if you have anyone you’d like me to try to interview or a subject you think I should find someone to interview about, don’t keep it to yourself, let me know. And you can do that via the contact form on partlypoliticalbroadcast.co.uk, the facebook group, the @parpolbro Twitter or just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you replace all the letters of every tin of alphabetti spaghetti with just the letters that spell out your preferred guest’s name and I will fail to notice as I usually put them on toast and cover them in so much cheese even the meal has a heart attack. So again, it’s probably best to email.
And that is all for this week’s Partly Political Broadcast podcast. Ta for your aural receptings, and don’t forget to review this show on iTunes, Stitcher, Podbean, Podhole, SoundTrousers, Cast Weasel or any others I’ve just made up. If you can afford to donate to this show to allow me to spend more time making it less shit, then please do check me at least $1 at the Patreon page or buy me a coffee at the Ko-Fi page, links for both are at partlypoliticalbroadcast.co.uk.
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This show will be back next week when Theresa May insists she can fund the NHS by turning lead into gold, while refusing to answer questions on why 10 civil servants won’t stop vomiting.
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