Vox populi, vox dei

June 24, 2016

In the era of democracy, this slogan — “the voice of the people (is) the voice of God” — has come to be understood as a positive, almost exalted idea. Even in a secular age — or perhaps precisely in that environment — the concept of the people and their collective wisdom, expressed through a democratic process, is seen in a quasi-religious, quasi-mystical light.

Yet the pedigree of this well-known Latin saying is not from the Roman Empire, nor does it have a particularly spiritual source. Rather, it is believed to have been coined by a religious persona, but in a very unreligious context: the earliest known reference to equating [vox populi] with the voice of God (“Vox populi, vox Dei)—in a disapproving way—is attributed to Saxon scholar and teacher Alcuin of York (735-804), then Master of the Palace School at Aachen. In a letter to the Emperor Charlemagne in 800, he wrote, “And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always close to insanity.”


Thank you, Master Alcuin, a bona fide member of the European Establishment of 1200 years ago, an elderly Saxon academic from Angle-land who had returned to his Germanic roots in Aachen and was buttering up the new Emperor of Christian Europe, Karl the Great (aka Charlemagne).

Thank you for that tweet from the Dark Ages, confirming to us that the voice of the European elite has remained pure and unchanged for twelve centuries. The mob, the populace, is never to be listened to, let alone have its judgement trusted, since it is always a mere step away from insanity. Rulers should avoid listening to the unelected, self-chosen elite, because they know better.

Four hundred years later, the English Establishment produced Magna Carta which, over the next five/six hundred years of Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, developed into embryonic democracy, first in Britain and then in the US — and eventually, on Continental Europe, too. But whether the European governing elites ever truly bought into popular democracy is an open question.

What is certain is that the European project, from its visionary inception after the Second World War, through all its developments and expansion between 1950 and today, has always been a top-down project in which the self-appointed elite proposes to and, where necessary, imposes on the peoples of the member states an ideology and set of ideals.

But, for various valid reasons, recent decades have seen steadily-growing tension and underlying distrust between the peoples of Europe and their leadership class. That is why referenda are disliked and distrusted by the latter: the theory underlying them, that the people can and should decide major issues for themselves, is wrong; the practice is flawed, because if the process is not strictly monitored by responsible adults, it can run out of control; and even a properly managed campaign can be upended by a ‘black swan event’, such as a terrorist attack days before the vote.

Nevertheless, referenda have taken place — and have often gone wrong. The most egregious example came in 2005, when the proposed European constitution, which would have smoothed the way for the EU to move rapidly toward a much closer union, was derailed by both the French and Dutch electorates — both founding members of the European club!

Given this historic context, there is nothing surprising or even shocking — in the fundamental sense, not in the tactical sense of what people were led to believe would happen yesterday — in the British people’s decision to utilize the opportunity of directly voting on the existential issue of European membership, to rise up in revolt against the European elite and against their own political, financial and cultural Establishment.

But if the British don’t like the EU, why did they vote in favour of remaining members in the first referendum on the issue, back in 1975?

This crucial question has at least three answers:

  1. In the 1970s, the British people still believed what their elected leadership told them and felt confident in their own country and its traditions. Yes, I know that statement is difficult to believe for people beneath the age of 40, but it’s true; I know, I was there.
  2. The British, as well as Europeans (Ok, not Italians…) generally then had faith and confidence in the European leadership and in leadership generally. If you don’t believe that, just consider: In 1975, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt intervened directly in the campaign and this intervention swung votes toward staying in; in 2016, American President Barack Obama intervened directly and drove votes away. The idea of the current French President, or even German Chancellor, appealing to Britons to stay in Europe is risible (to be polite).
  3. The EEC of 1975 was a far cry, not just in size but in power and in ambition, from today’s EU. Consequently, the balance of attraction/ repulsion was completely different.

None of this changes the fact that the Leave campaign was full of lies, mendacity, distortion and, above all, self-delusion and make-believe. The balance of argument was overwhelmingly in favour of Remain, for reasons that there is no longer any point in rehashing. But once confidence in leadership, belief in the ideology and faith in the system are gone, facts, figures and rationality will not win the day.

The collapse of confidence, belief and faith is not a peculiarly British story, but rather a Europe-wide phenomenon and, as the 2016 US election campaign so clearly illustrates, one that is at work around the world, wherever some form of democratic expression still exists. “The people have spoken” — but they probably have a lot more to say.

Stay tuned, therefore. The next event in the popular revolt against the European elite is scheduled for this Sunday, June 26, and the venue moves to Spain.

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