The High Horse

Daire O'Criodain

One evening recently, Irish Times journalist, Laura Kennedy, was boiling water for tea in her London apartment when the power “went”. She soon discovered that the fault affected about a hundred homes and businesses in the area, though light continued to blaze in some apartments in their block.

Water has to be pumped up to their floor so, without electricity, the taps were dry. Going out for water, her partner, Jules, encountered a neighbour. “It’s shocking, totally unacceptable.” was her verdict. Jules offered to get her a bottle of water too. “I’m not paying for water! I’ve a right to it!” she roared.

Kennedy reflected in print: “It (the power cut) reminds you how reliant we are on things we can’t understand and on people with more specialised skills than us. …we can assure ourselves all we like that we have a right to water or electricity. We have to wait for someone else to fulfil their duty to provide it. …the darkness reminded us of our own vulnerability, of how the world as we know it runs by collective agreement and how, when the lights go out, all we can do is wait like huffy children or baby birds for a grown up to come and fix it.”

The same day, the newspaper published an opinion piece by David Thunder headlined: “Populism not going away any time soon.” He offered several reasons why populism’s roots run deeper than some might think. One resonates with Ms. Kennedy’s point. “…highly centralised and general purpose governments, insofar as they rely on generalised rules and policies, cannot effectively adapt themselves to the intricate needs of large-scale, complex and fast-moving societies and economies.” 

Translating that turgid mouthful into English, I believe he is saying that the government “apparatus” is not resourced enough or nimble enough to be proof against mistakes or failures that infuriate its citizens. Installing a new leader “to shake things up” addresses symptoms rather than causes and only temporarily. No longer fit for purpose, our political system needs radical reform.

Mr. Thunder is better at diagnosing the alleged disease than prescribing a cure because he presents only one possible reform; even then, tentatively. “Quite possibly, the time has come to undertake far-reaching decentralising reforms that anchor political power not in a hyper-centralised national state, but in grassroots institutions of civil society such as local citizen assemblies, professional associations and worker co-operatives.”

This, he concludes: “may greatly enhance the democratic accountability of our institutions and help us to significantly alleviate the crippling burden of governance currently afflicting the national state.”

These themes extended to another piece in the same day’s newspaper by John Lloyd, contributing editor to The Financial Times, about, yes, you’ve guessed: Brexit. “England – Britain – voted Brexit not because its citizens regretted the loss of empire, thought it could be reassembled, believed that the commonwealth could take its place or saw the EU as a sadomasochistic monster. 

They wished to be governed by a parliament and an administration that they understand, and on which they have a direct influence through their vote.”

Pausing briefly to marvel at Mr. Lloyd’s apparent capacity to see inside and discover the same reasoning in the head of every Leave voter, if he is right, does it mean that Ms. Kennedy will be at less risk of power cuts post-Brexit? Hardly!

And, as for Mr. Thunder who also hankers for bringing public decision making even closer to the people affected by it, will each of his autonomous grassroots “communes” generate their own electricity and, if so, by what means?  Wind mills?

We live in an immensely complicated and intricate world. We should delight in how well most things work most of the time, rather than despair when they occasionally don’t. 

Democracy is no guarantee of failsafe good government, but some bloodless, if limited, protection against bad government. Knowledge, not democracy, keeps the lights on.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.