Democracy vs Ochlocracy

The Government’s hideous Rwanda asylum plan has been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.

Under the plan, people who applied for asylum in the UK after arriving via an irregular route would be deported to Rwanda, and have their claim processed there. Not everyone realised that successful applicants would be granted asylum in Rwanda.

My view is that the policy is wrong on the most fundamental level. We take far fewer refugees than we should, if they were dispersed proportionally throughout the world. There are reasons why people choose particular countries for their asylum claim and it’s often to do with prior links to that country. It’s absurd that a person who already has family living in the UK, and who applies to the UK government for asylum, should be sent elsewhere.

It’s therefore annoying that the basis for the Court’s rejection of the policy is Rwanda’s human rights failings: I would still oppose the policy, even if the third country was Norway or New Zealand.

But at least our human rights obligations (which are principles that our country and culture played a leading role in developing) have prevailed. The rule of law has prevailed.

There will be a section of the political class and the public who are angered that the decision, and the underlying human rights rules, are thwarting the policy. Those people should be reminded that this kind of frustration is “a feature, not a bug” of the human rights framework. Their purpose is to hinder the ability of governments to abuse individuals.

Some will point to the fact that a majority of people supported the Rwanda policy. Leaving aside the issue of whether people knew precisely what the policy was (and I repeat, even some well-connected Tories had totally misunderstood its effect); leave aside, too, the fact that asylum seekers and illegal migrants are lumped together into a single class of undesirables. Even if the plan did have popular support, that is the weakest argument in its favour.

To say a policy is right because it is popular is evidence of lazy, simplistic thinking.

We live in a Democracy, not an Ochlocracy

‘Ochlocracy’ is mob rule. This is sometimes called the “tyranny of the majority,” a phrase first used by John Adams.

The twentieth century taught us that majority rule, when implemented alone and untempered by other principles, devolves into a Bad Thing.

Democracy, by contrast, is the rule of the demos, the people as a whole.

This is not synonymous with ‘the majority’ although some decisions are indeed made through plebiscites and referenda.

‘Rule of the people’ means that each person matters.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main.

John Donne

Every individual is, and remains, part of the demos, the ultimate sovereign body. This is true regardless of whether they agree with any given decision that emerges from the system. It is also true regardless of whether they are part of a majority or minority group.

There is a baseline value that is inherent to every person, which must be respected and cannot be overridden by the majority. Civil liberties such as freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial are derived from this principle, as are the prohibitions on torture. Inherent human worth is also foundational to many religions.

The Rule of Law is also derived from this principle, because it is that which ensures that everyone is treated the same. It is an essential component of democracy, and a principle the majority are too often and too easily persuaded to ditch. Democracy demands respect for the laws already enacted by the democratic system.

When the Tory Party Chairman Lee Anderson says that a Court ruling should simply be ignored, because the government has the raw power to ignore it, he is not acting as a democrat, no matter how many people may support him.

Suella Braverman, and all those who cite the ‘will of the people’ and popular support for their mean policies, are not democrats. They are ochlocrats, who prioritise the power of numbers over principles.

Which is another way of saying they are bullies.

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