Remember ‘Lock her up!’ and ‘Build the wall’? Surely not a manifesto for government yet the foundation for Trump’s victory four years ago. We live in an age of populism in which messages matter more than manifestos.
Even backbench Tories are complaining that their leadership routinely bypasses them, parliament and democracy. Rule by the people, for the people or really rule by the executive for the unaccountable? Contracts without tendering given to friends of the executive. No parliamentary scrutiny of record expenditure. Vacuous claims of British exceptionalism. Let us hope, or assume, that democracy is not dead but wounded. No obvious acceptable alternative presents itself. Removing some of the obstacles to its viability would seem a good and practical start to mending it:
- Enforcement of parliamentary authority over the executive
- A written Constitution only amendable by super-majority
- Guaranteed independence of the judiciary
- A fair inclusive and proportional voting system
Of these possibly only the last would truly engage the citizenry and then probably only a minority. Parliament is being sidelined by the very party claiming to defend it; but public respect for parliamentarians is low. Constitutional and judicial matters are dry and of little interest to most. The proportion of citizens with any active interest in politics is small, so winning over an uninterested populace takes some doing. Stimulating voter engagement is what got us into this mess and, unfortunately, anti-democrats seem best at it. The autocrat’s playbook offers the tools for this. Of these, blatant lying and egregious ruthless behaviour are definitely non-democratic. The adoption, though, of simplistic mantras seems to work, so why not for the democratic too? Chosen to appeal to emotion rather than intellect, memorable slogans could promote the moral as well as the immoral. In today’s social media dominated politics, short and memorable is the order of the day.
Simplistic sloganizing alone is not enough though. ‘Black Lives Matter’ connects effectively and simply but was open to opponents hijacking and corrupting it to ‘All Lives Matter’. ‘Strong and Stable’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’ failed Theresa May. It is probably easier to grab attention when promoting something new than when merely advocating the status quo. Messages promoting continuity or complacency lack excitement compared to ‘Vive la révolution!’ Remember ‘Better together’? Context is everything and slogan writers must read the wind and consider consequences.
There has never in modern times been more of a threat to democracy in this country than now. The extended use of emergency powers we are currently experiencing makes even loyalist backbench Tory MPs uncomfortable. There is no better time to think about how to defend or promote democracy. Rational argument is not enough. How can words, ideas and connection be captured to save democracy itself in the teeth of a hostile headwind? ‘It’s our money!’ perhaps, or even ‘Where’s our money?’ ‘All together’? ‘Nobody left out’? ‘Parliament for the people’, maybe. How about ‘No more lies’? Get this right and three or four words will be worth more than riches.