Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Catholic Herald, October 21, 2016

Why not choose our politicians by lots?
Abolish elections and save democracy, says Patrick West

Against Elections
By David Van Reybrouck, Bodley Head, £9.99

Democracy today is in crisis. Never in modern history has there been more discontent with the democratic system in the West, with voter participation at the ballot box and party membership falling, and mistrust of politicians growing. Cynicism and apathy seem to abound. 
Yet the appetite for democracy is stronger than ever, as the emergence of protest groups and counter-mainstream populist movements bear witness. How do we resolve this paradox?
One radical solution, put forward here by Van Reybrouck, is to abolish elections and have democracy by lot. Those who legislate should be chosen at random, he says, as a means to eliminate bickering, factionalism, media distortion and corruption and to erase the distinction between the governed and those who govern.
This is not as outlandish as it first sounds. After all, we still choose juries on this random principle. And democracy by “sortition” was the norm in ancient Athens and Renaissance Venice. Our mental association of “democracy” with “elections” is but a legacy of the American and French revolutions, which borrowed the concept of elections from the papacy, in order to retain landed interests in large nation states. More than 200 years later, elections and political parties still prop up our now tottering “elective aristocracies”, he says.
There are problems, though. Sortition might have worked in small, culturally and racially homogenous ancient city states, but may not be suited to today. 
In response, Van Reybrouck argues that when citizens of all capabilities are brought together to make decisions that will affect their lives, they behave rationally and exchange wisdom and expertise. 
Having served on a jury this year, I am well inclined to believe that ordinary citizens of all hues are well suited to making responsible, sound decisions. Far from being facetiously contrarian, as it initially presents itself, Against Elections makes a compelling argument indeed.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Spiked, October 21, 2016

Remainers, please rein in your petulance
Will there be no end to their wailing and hollering?

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The TLS, October 14, 2016

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau
The secret codes of French conversation revealed
320pp. Duckworth Overlook. £16.99.
978 0 7156 5125 4

A traditional complaint from English speakers who go to France and try to speak the language is that such efforts are usually met with indifference or hostility. Unless your French is grammatically correct and pitch perfect, the nonchalant reply will either be in English, or – as used to be far more common – an actual reprimand. “Vous écorchez la langue!”, British visitors would often be corrected – “you’re flaying the language!” This has helped to shore up the Anglosphere stereotype that the French, especially Parisians, are incorrigibly rude. But, as the two French Canadian journalists Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau explain in this anthropologically flavoured guidebook, this perception is based on a misapprehension. The French don’t merely speak a different language. They communicate in a different code.

The French will correct you because their language is intrinsically bound to their national identity. In 1789 less than half the population even spoke French. Most spoke regional dialects. Thus, the acquisition and implementation of formal French subsequently became core to universalist Frenchness. This is why they don’t refer to a linguistic mistake as “une erreur”, as anglophones might, but rather as “une faute” – a word with a graver moral inference. This fear of being “at fault” explains such correctness. It also explains why French supermarket assistants, bus drivers or civil servants will never admit to being wrong.

The two most important words in the French language, write the authors in this fascinating and delightful work, are “bonjour” and “non”. The first signals less a mere “hello”, but instead: “hello, here I am, ready to engage and talk with you”. The French love rhetoric and argument. They consider conversation to be a sport. That is why the second most important word is “non”. When the French say it, appearing obstructive and unhelpful, they aren’t necessarily being negative. They are daring you to answer back. This is the country, after all, which created the salon, the place where one went to display one’s rhetorical prowess.

The authors conclude by recommending not to broach the following subjects: family, work, money or race relations. These are faux pas. Never try Anglo-Saxon-style, self-deprecating humour, either. You will look a fool. In France – the land of the public intellectual – one must instead display wit.


Spiked, October 14, 2016

Corbyn's Labour is not a socialist party
Socialists don't pity or fear the poor like the Corbyn crew does

The Tablet, October 8, 2016

Friday, 7 October 2016

Spiked, October 7, 2016

Leave voters are the real wise ones
Remainer rage is fuelled by ignorance, not knowledge.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Catholic Herald, September 30, 2016

The 'rational' revolution that became unhinged

The French Revolution
By Ian Davidson, Profile, £25

In the popular imagination, the French Revolution was a bloody episode that witnessed France’s dishevelled and impoverished rise up against a hated and spoilt aristocracy, whose heads they proceeded to chop off. It’s a narrative laid down by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and the stories of the Scarlet Pimpernell, and later cemented on stage in Les Misérables. It’s a perception that Ian Davidson seeks to challenge and dismantle. 

As every schoolboy learnt, the Revolution’s origins lay in middle-class discontent. It had begun as a bourgeois protest against the inequity of the tax regime, from which the nobility had earned outrageous exemptions under the centralising reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV as a compensation for their loss of powers. Middle-class anger was also fuelled by the fact that they were effectively barred from taking posts in the army and the Church, the two traditional avenues of advancement in France. It was the muscle-flexing bourgeoisie, in the guise of the Third Estate, who forced the hand of the nobility and king. They initially sought mere reform, not revolution or regicide. 

Alas, as Edmund Burke predicted, and as history has a nasty habit of reminding us, circumstance and human avarice inevitably caused matters to spiral out of control. Louis XVI was a spineless, vacillating king who had the capacity to alienate even sympathetic factions with his dithering and lack of scruples. The French state was already in financial dire straits, and the emergency measures adopted by revolutionaries only made things worse. France happened to be hit by food shortages, antagonising the sans-culottes, whom Maximilien Robespierre mistakenly hoped to both use and contain. 

The fanatics and anti-clerical elements eventually took control. Hence, the enduring image we have today of the Revolution is that of aristocrats in tumbrils being taken to their appointment with Madame Guillotine. 

Davidson is the former Paris correspondent of the Financial Times, so it’s no surprise that The French Revolution should be written with authority, clarity and journalistic immediacy. The Revolution as remembered today, with its Terror and mass beheadings, only took place between 1793 and 1794. And even then, the Revolutionaries spoke not for France as a whole; most of the rest of the country was appalled by the increasing fanaticism and anti-clericalism of the protagonists in Paris. The counter-revolution in the Vendée of 1793, writes Davidson, was not so much an overt pro-royalist or pro-Catholic affair, as a revolt against the centralism and militant secularism found in the capital.

The frustrated and educated French middle-class, who had set the Revolution in motion, were well-versed in the philosophy of their home-grown Enlightenment, so there was always the chance that a simple reformist urge was going to assume an ideological bent. And when a movement becomes an ideology, it will inexorably drift ever more to the extremes, as protagonists each seek to prove how more pure and righteous they are. 

The worst types will always rise to the top in such scenarios – in this case, Robespierre and the awful Jean-Paul Marat. The first was a lawyer and the second a journalist. Indeed, so many of the Revolutionaries came from these two professions: the two types that are perhaps least-well suited to running a country, governed as they are by arrogance and resentment. 

The problem with the French is that they are too logical and literal-minded. That is the source of their genius, but it’s also their downfall. Shortly before his death, Robespierre famously pronounced: “Virtue, without which Terror is fatal; Terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is thus an emanation of Virtue.” It took a special kind of embittered Frenchmen, in thrall to ideology and reason, to utter these chilling words. 

The Revolution could never settle down into the messy Anglo-Saxon compromise between monarchy, church, state and democracy. The French had to take reform to its last, logical, legalistic, rational conclusion, in which the new religion of laïcité (secularity) would trump all. This has been the poisonous legacy of the Revolution, writes Davidson, which was “for a long time disastrous for the polity and the society of France”. The rival claims between Church and state were only officially resolved in the Concordat of 1905, which enshrined laïcité, but this was less a peace treaty and more of an armistice. 

One could argue that the doctrine of laïcité continues to cast a disastrous shadow, as witnessed with the French state’s war on Islamic dress, which has backfired terribly, alienating an already volatile Islamic underclass. No wonder the Church in France doesn’t support the ban on burkinis: it has been besieged by the literal-minded, secularising militants of the French state for more than two centuries now. Why would it support what the late, somewhat enigmatic Fr Jean-Marie Charles-Roux called “the regicidal state”?

Patrick West