Defenders of Democracy: A C Grayling

Portrait shot of AC Grayling
A C Grayling. Photo credit: A C Grayling

At a time when parliamentary democracy is under threat as never before, those few courageous voices in the media and in public life who are prepared to come forward and expose corruption, wrong-doing and lying sometimes appear to be the only upholders of democratic government. This is the seventh in a series of articles that will profile some of the key figures in the fight for right over might.

Easily recognisable, the Remain cause’s very own philosopher, Professor A C Grayling was often to be spotted at pro-EU demonstrations during the Referendum campaign, grey hair flowing, the flag of the EU held high – or heard on platforms around the country speaking in passionate support of the European Union.  

Philosopher, author, eminent academic, journalist, social media activist… it’s quite a list, and there’s so much more! But underlying all Grayling’s interests and involvements with causes from the culture of tribal peoples to opposing Brexit is his profound concern for democracy which, unsurprisingly, he considers to be under threat in the UK under the current government. 

“With a few honourable exceptions there is hardly anyone who compares today with the likes of Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey or Iain Macleod. Public discourse in this country has been polluted by the tabloid press and non-dom billionaire owners whose interests are not aligned with the interests of the people in this country. We are in an era of clique politics, we do not live in a democracy.” 

Meeting him on a Zoom call is a reminder to anyone who has heard him speak on a public platform of his ability to cover an enormous amount of ground in advocating causes close to his heart. All in support of “explaining, of making sense”. “After all,” says Grayling, “philosophy is the great enterprise of trying to make sense, of taking that step beyond knowledge, of understanding what that knowledge means, how to use it and what its significance is.”  

AC Grayling giving a speech
Grayling speaks out at Manchester anti-Brexit protest in 2017. Photo credit: Ilovetheeu, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

His childhood and early life in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) is perhaps a pointer to his amazingly precocious decision at the age of 12 that he was going to be a philosopher. “My parents and others around me were very bad at explaining and, being an extremely curious child, that piqued my curiosity and made me desirous to understand and make sense of things.”  

He describes an occasion when his father took him outside to look at the night sky and asked if he could see the man in the moon. “To me at the age of six, a man was a thing with arms and legs in a suit, and I looked very hard but could see no such thing.” This puzzling adult world where things were not as they seemed, where actions were not explained, gave him an unquenchable desire to understand, to introduce some order into his environment.

The experience of growing up in a colonial household where the “masters” and “servants” quarters had very separate and distinct personalities also, he thinks, had some effect on his choice to study political philosophy and ethics. “When I was small, the part of the house that was the friendliest, that had food, comfort, warmth and laughter, was the kitchen.  And then there was the colder part of the house where everyone kept telling you to shut up because they were reading the newspaper or listening to the radio. And I realised, when I was very young, that I had the same colour skin as the people in the not so nice part of the house.” 

More articles in this series by Ginny Smith:

The many hours spent browsing through encyclopaedias as a child introduced him to a “great country”: “The country of the mind, the country of music, of literature, of art. And given the history of the past 500 years, that country was, of course, Europe. So I grew up thinking of myself as European. It didn’t occur to me that the great artists I read about were separated by artificial boundaries or national borders. I’ve always been a passionate European, even before I knew that I was.” 

He describes as “devastating intellectually and emotionally watching what this ridiculous Brexit has done to our participation in the great peace project that is the European Union”. He returns to this theme in our conversation several times – the chaos and bloodshed that border wars have caused in Europe across the centuries, and the unprecedented 75 years of peace ushered in by the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community, later the EU. 

So what is the way forward? There is a long pause while he reflects. 

“I think two things,” he eventually says. “If we believe that the UK should be part of the EU project it would be a mistake to pedal back at all on the pro-EU endeavour. We must keep the issue very alive, keep hope alive, and keep the pressure and the noise up. We must not do what Keir Starmer has done – alas and alas,” he says in a quiet aside, “which is to say it’s all over and we’ve got to make the best of it. NO!” (His emphatic “NO!” is the only time he raises his voice during our discussion.)  

And the second thought? 

“There is a way back. We have to campaign to get all the opposition parties to make common cause to drive electoral reform. When we have a reformed parliament it’s likely that our demand for another say on EU membership will be listened to. In politics, what is possible can be made actual.”  

Grayling is not gung ho about a united Europe, rather a believer in regionalism and devolution but, he adds impishly, “If in a hundred years there was to be such a move, let’s hope that the stem cell and genetic engineers will have made it possible for us to be alive to see it happen!” 

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