If you're someone who watches select committee hearings on Parliament TV (I confess I am), you might have noticed an intriguing backdrop to proceedings in the Thatcher Room at Portcullis House. Recently, while watching an evidence session of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (PACAC), I was struck by the relevance of the artwork – a tapestry called Democracy, by Pat Taylor – to current debates here on Brexit and the role of Parliament.
These days, in what Julian Baggini has called 'the rise of degenerative democracy', demands that the will of 'the people' must be enacted have led to our constitutional crisis over Brexit in the UK and the demagoguery of President Trump in the US. Populist parties are on the rise throughout the world, threatening the protection of minority rights and interests and norms of good governance and accountability.
Taylor says that some people, including MPs, were baffled why Aristotle's name appears in the tapestry. Some MPs may have included Aristotle in their responses, but also Taylor's intention was to reflect her understanding that Aristotle considered democracy, for all its flaws, as the best form of government, that if individuals pool their virtues they are better at governing as a whole than a few elites. A useful reminder at times like these, when little 'virtue' is on display and it is a few elites who have brought the people and our democracy to this sorry impasse. But linking Aristotle and democracy is problematic; aside from the fact that entire parts of the population were excluded from governing, and today his prescription of government by the virtuous can be read as both elitist and as fuel to populist calls for direct rule of the majority.
For some, the referendum on the EU in 2016 was sold as an opportunity to restore Parliamentary sovereignty; its result is now being used to undermine the role of Parliament. As Julian Baggini notes, 'the constitutional obstacles that stand between the expression of the people’s will and its enacting are actually the best protection we have against the tyranny of the many over the few, or of leaders who claim to represent all while really standing only for themselves.'