There follows a guest post by Dr. James Alexander, a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey, responding to a recent suggestion of Dr. David Runciman, a Politics Professor at Cambridge, that the franchise be extended to six year-olds. In some respects, he argues, it’s not such a bad idea.
David Runciman is a Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge. I know him a bit, since he supervised me for the Political Philosophy paper when I was reading Part II of the Historical Tripos; and we have had some brief exchanges since then. I salute my old teacher – though he is not old: he is not much older than I am. Amusingly, he is also someone who was edited by Toby Young very early on, when he wrote a piece on Gascoigne the footballer for the Modern Review. Runciman is an extremely able writer about politics, with not only a handful of books but also a continuous stream of reviews for the London Review of Books and a podcast called Talking Politics to his name. Runciman in writing exhibits smoothness, acuity and skill; Runciman in speech exhibits, in addition, receptivity and geniality. He seems to enjoy politics, even when it may be the sort of politics he doesn’t like. I would assume that his views are fairly standard Late Cambridge stuff: liberal, tolerant, leftish, remainish, but I don’t know, and we don’t know, since Talking Politics holds onto the academic or BBC habit of preferring not to admit to an opinion when something more lofty or indirect is there to be had.
Recently Runciman has published an article in the Guardian advocating extending the franchise to everyone: and by everyone he means children: and by children he means everyone over the age of six.
This is interesting, and amusing. My own view is that Runciman may, consciously or unconsciously, be trying to reduce democracy to absurdity. Perhaps this will be Runciman’s greatest coup yet, his Modest Proposal. Instead of eating small children – recall Swift’s delicate attention to how to prepare them (fricassé and ragout) – we shall give them the vote. The formerly cooked shall now cook. In addition to Junior Masterchef we will have Junior Legislator. And why not? Since we live in an age in which men are women and women are men (if they say so), then why should children not be, in effect, adults? (Let us admit it: since adults are children, there is no reason why children should not be adults.)
I shall not argue against the arguments directly because I think that there is nothing wrong with such arguments when they are proposed in order to make us think: though they are to be handled cautiously when they come too close to politics. For the record, my eight year old son thought it was a very good idea. “When is the next election?” he immediately asked.
What I want to reflect on is Runciman’s reason for making this suggestion. It was, he said, that politics is stale. Now, this seems to me to be a preposterous claim. I’d say, on the contrary, that politics became almost spectacularly interesting in 2016, and that, in 2020, it became even more interesting, so much so that the events of 2016 now look like extremely wet tinder. Runciman talks about recent politics: and his complaint seems to be that politics is too predictable. He suggests that if you tell him how you voted in the Brexit referendum then he will probably be able to predict what you think about lockdowns and any number of other matters. This is, by and large, true – though it ignores the many old people who were pro Brexit but also pro Lockdown, and it ignores the serene and subtle Lord Sumption, almost the only living lord with any gumption, who was anti Brexit and also anti Lockdown: indicating that even a civilised Remainer of the Auberon Waugh type can step out of his trench and cross no-man’s-land to the other side when the entire historical inheritance of common law and history moving from precedent to precedent (and not from principle to principle) is at stake.
Nonetheless, I agree with Runciman. Something remarkable has happened. The nation – nay, the world – is divided. On the one hand, there are those who accept the Guardian and BBC narrative, who are sympathetic to Floyd but not Rittenhouse, who at the very least go along with and at the very most actively support the ‘unholy trinity’ of our nice totalitarianising ideologies of CLIMATE, COVID and WOKERY. On the other hand, there are those who cling on to sanity in the comments section of the Spectator website, take their opinions from YouTube rather than television or newspapers, and meditate continually on the central question of our age which is whether Toby Young or James Delingpole has eyes which are wider open.
Runciman thinks this is the death of politics. Hence his rather quixotic appeal to the children. His argument is that children are probably unpredictable. Even writing that makes me laugh. Bien sur! He claims that it is their unpredictability which is why he does not think that his suggestion conceals a conspiracy to get more votes for the Corbyn-Meghan-Greta left, or, perhaps more hopefully, the new post-Blairite coalition which would stretch from the Mandelson millionaires on the right to the Banksy T-shirt-wearing Anti-Colstonite rowdies on the left. He thinks that the unpredictability of children ensures that his argument is apolitical. We may doubt, especially since a large part of his argument seems to about how the nation is divided not by view but by age: as far as he is concerned, it is the old who are retrograde and unnatural, it is the young who are in favour of the narcissistic gnostic religions growing up on the left.
I think that the divide of recent years – the divide of Brexit and Trump compounded and exaggerated and forced-into-our-faces by Covid – is a sign that politics is more alive than it has been for a hundred or possibly two hundred years. Somewhere a historian wrote (it might have been Alfred Cobban) that Burke-and-Paine was the last time there was serious political debate in England. (Before that there was Rainsborough v. Ireton in the Putney Debates; and, before that, of course, Coke v. James I, and Becket v. Henry II.) We do not have any Burkes and Paines nowadays. But in the interstices of our literature there are positions which are as clear, as resolute and as well stated. Serious political debate is non-existent in Parliament, or even outside Parliament. Marr and Peston avoid it. But it is there nonetheless. Perhaps it is not a fit subject for polite society. But politics which is fit for polite society – especially a mass polite society – is superficial politics. The point about the current argument – even when it is not being had and, in fact, especially because it is not being had – is that it is eminently political because it goes down to fundamentals.
On the one hand, there are those who are defending almost any aspect of the older order. The reactionaries and the liberals are making common cause. Anyone who believes that tradition is the democracy of the dead is on one side of the argument. Anyone who wants to defend any aspect of Christianity, the Common Law, Monarchy or even the status quo of before 2020 is on one side the argument. This side I call, for want of a better word, the populist side: for it is now actively defended usually, but not always, but certainly in the last instance, nowadays, by those whose politics is called or disparaged as ‘populist’.
On the other hand, there are those who are on what I call, for want of a better term, the constitutionalist side. These are those who defend the new social media politics of Facebook, Amazon, Greta, Fauci, Merkel, Blair and the EU, plus the ranks of educated and professionalised and administrating people who play along with the strange new politics (if we dare let the cat out of the bag) of Placating Victims as a means to Perpetuate Current Inequalities and Perhaps Increase Them. By ‘victims’ I of course mean the victims identified by the ideology of the ‘unholy trinity’: the victims of Covid being the old, the sick and the healthy, the victims of Privilege being the marginalised, the minorities and the aggrieved, and the victims of Climate Change being – all of humanity!
This is politics in the most fundamental sense. For it is a question about what the nature of our state is. Is it something which carries it with a respect for its origins and traditions, or is it something which is constructed out of its zero historic ideals? This divide was evident to everyone after the French Revolution. The question made Edmund Burke hysterical. It motivated the writings of Michael Oakeshott. But the question is no longer simply a Westminster or University question. It is being asked up and down the land.
Now, if by ‘politics’ we do not mean discussion of the fundamentals of our arrangements, then this might seem very destructive. Indeed, it is destructive, as everyone says, to have fundamental disagreement, fundamental cleavage, at every point. The Greeks called this not politics but stasis, which was their wonderful word for not only faction, but also for the conflict between factions, and ultimately for civil war. So Runciman may have a point about this not being politically good, not good for calm order as such. But he cannot argue that stasis is stale. Stasis is anything but stale: it vivifies everything it touches.
If nothing else, we can say that Britain is alive politically.
What this means for the six year olds is unclear. Runciman seems to want them to be alive too, to join us in our stasis. But if this stasis is a bad thing, and if what Runciman really wants is an exciting politics of Cameron-versus-Miliband (or, as the Beatles put it, ‘Ah, ah, Mr Wilson, Ah, ah, Mr Heath!’), then it does not seem likely that we shall get this by consulting the children.
Jesus famously rebuked some of his adult disciples who were trying to steer children out of the room by declaring that the Kingdom of God belonged to such as these. Runciman appears to be trying to provoke his disciplines in the same way for the sake of the City of Earth. Even if we can see Jesus’s point, which was that children are in some way innocent and unoccluded and therefore holy in a primitive sense, it is harder to agree with Runciman’s claim that political innocence is likely to offer us some sort of secular deliverance. Unless the children remain coolly Beatlesque, won’t it just mean that schools become divided? Surely, by Runciman’s own argument, it would be better to remove the politics from schools, universities, and lock it firmly down inside Westminster?
There is another problem. If, as many suggest, we are in age of almost unparalleled infantility, then it seems hardly likely that an actual infantilisation of our politics would help us get rid of the cultural infantilism which is ruining it.
Instead of changing the age for voting to that of six, I could equally and oppositely suggest that the age be 60. Indeed, perhaps only 60 year-olds should be allowed to vote, like consuls, for one year. Everyone who knew a 60 year-old would then have to petition them, and allow the 60 year-olds to do what they do best, which is adjudicate. The problem with universal suffrage is that it makes us selfish, since everyone has a vote: a wiser politics would surely require us to think of others. This was, at any rate, one of the justifications of the hereditary system and noblesse oblige, a principle which Runciman surely understands.
There is one final argument against ‘Now We Are Six’ (or ‘Brave New School’). It is that our education system has already become a dangerously and monotonously centralised system of indoctrination. It seems to me that this phenomenon would only be exaggerated further if teachers were not only the guardians of future voters but guardians of present voters. For then the state would certainly have more of an interest in altering textbooks to get everyone to think what they ought to think. This seems a decisive counter-argument. Even if children were to remain unpredictable that would not change the fact that an entire Goebbelsian apparatus would be devoted to creating the codes of thought within which the young would be expected to operate.
One last thought. I would be prepared to consider changing my mind if Runciman were to be really bold and say that under the new dispensation only six year-olds would be allowed to vote. This is a cry that would deserve very serious consideration. Here at last we would have a constituency not yet morally ruined by schools, smartphones, computers, and adminicorporacademitechnocratic ways of thinking, strongly aware of the difference between justice and injustice, having vivid knowledge of both good and evil, possessed of a vital interest in defending the family, and bestowed with a primitive interest in the beauty, sanctity and divinity discernible within an established order.