Among the speakers at Galway International Arts Festival’s autumn session of First Thought Talks in NUIG on Saturday October 3, is David Runciman, Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, who has written seven acclaimed books on politics and democracy.
His How Democracy Ends was an international bestseller, while Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers has just been published. He writes regularly for The London Review of Books and runs the popular podcast, Talking Politics. In Galway, Runciman will discuss ‘The Health of Democracy’ with Caitriona Crowe and, ahead of his visit, he talked with me about some of the ideas explored in his work, as well as his thoughts on recent political events in Britain and internationally.
I happened to ring Runciman just an hour after the UK’s supreme court had quashed Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament and he was absorbing the dramatic news. “Like everyone else I am reeling from it," he says. "I thought the court would be split so the fact it was unanimous sends a strong signal. However, I don’t think it solves anything because it puts the problem back to parliament who have been sitting on it since 2017 and can’t agree a way forward.
"It is possible that Johnson will resign, though I don’t suppose he will. Johnson’s position looks weak but the prospect of Corbyn replacing him is probably less than it was, just 48 hours ago, after the Labour Party Conference. It is not like there is a government in waiting, there isn’t, that is our big problem. The system only works when there is an alternative government ready to step in if the existing government fails.”
Eton old boy
David Runciman was born in London, the son of historical sociologist and author, WG Runciman, Viscount Runciman. In terms of his own writing David also cites the influence of his great-uncle Steven Runciman, author of the classic three-volume History of the Crusades.
“He would say himself that he wasn’t so much a historian as a writer,” Runciman recalls. “It was all about the book and how you expressed yourself and the clarity of your ideas. His books were almost read as novels as they are great story-telling, and he was that kind of historian. I am an academic, and do a lot of journalism, but I have always been attracted to story-telling.
'Governments in Westminster have often been ignorant and cack-handed in how they have dealt with the constituent parts of the Union; it is not a new thing for Westminster to be cut off from Edinburgh or from Belfast but what is different now is that they are making a virtue of it'
"When I write about politics, as in my latest book, I always try to make sure there is a story, and politics, especially today, has great stories. Also, there is a difference between reading a book and hearing a speech or trawling through Twitter. I don’t think Twitter is a mind-changing machine but books are and they have always been. They are probably the most successful vehicle for changing people’s minds because they are richer and deeper.”
Like Boris Johnson, David Cameron, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, Runciman attended Eton College, an institution that has been accused of fostering the elitism underpinning Brexit. Runciman reflects on his alma mater. “This has been an interesting week in British politics. Not only has the Old Etonian prime minister been found to have broken the law but the Labour Party Conference voted to abolish Eton and all private schools if they get into government," he says. "I was there at roughly the same time as Cameron and Johnson and I remember them a bit.
"It was a school which felt then as if it belonged to the past and if you’d told me that these people would one day be running the country I’d have been amazed. I never had the feeling that it was a school which was training future leaders. Most of the people I remember there wanted to be actors or to make money in banking; there weren’t many who were interested in politics.”
A new way of doing democracy is needed
While Runciman’s How Democracy Ends was garlanded with glowing reviews, some critics felt it advanced a pessimistic view of its subject. He counters this idea. “The title sounds bleak but I was posing the question that we should think about how democracy ends and we shouldn’t assume this is the end," he says. "I didn’t feel pessimistic when I was writing it because I was trying to take a much broader historical perspective.
"The story of democracy is over 2,000 years old and what has happened in the last few years is a really small part of that story. A big part of what I was arguing in the book is that we can get trapped into thinking that the democracy we have got used is the only way of doing it. My view is we’re not going to be able to hold on to the democracy we’ve got; it is failing in lots of ways but the alternative is not between that and fascism, the alternative is between that and new kinds of democracy. We should open up our minds to the possibility that you can do democracy in lots of different ways and that can be an optimistic message.”
''If democratic states want to control Facebook they are going to have to find a new kind of democratic control, it won’t be the old way of government oversight'
One of the present day problems Runciman addresses is that of wealthy corporations paying only minimal tax. “If you look at the long history of democracy, the contest between the democratic state and corporations is one of the fundamental struggles,” he observes. “We’re not the only period of which this is true; it was true at the end of the 19th century also. Sometimes the corporations have the upper hand and sometimes, such as after World War II, the states have the upper hand.
"At the moment big multinational corporations are running rings around democratic states but we shouldn’t assume there is nothing we can do about it. We have to think of more imaginative solutions, the old ways of controlling corporations aren’t going to work because corporations are too nimble; they are not located in one place and sometimes it is hard to know what the corporation is.
"If democratic states want to control Facebook they are going to have to find a new kind of democratic control, it won’t be the old way of government oversight. We are at the start of that story, in the 21st century a big part of the story of democracy is who gets the upper hand in the battle between Democracy and Facebook and at the moment we don’t know who’s winning.”
Brexit will break up the UK
Where Runciman finds reasons for optimism in pondering the future of democracy he is less certain of the prospects of the United Kingdom remaining united. “When people look back in 30/40 years on this period of British history the thing that will decide just how significant it was, probably, in the end, won’t be Brexit, it will be whether the Union survives or not,” he suggests. “Governments in Westminster have often been ignorant and cack-handed in how they have dealt with the constituent parts of the Union; it is not a new thing for Westminster to be cut off from Edinburgh or from Belfast but what is different now is that they are making a virtue of it.
"A feature of contemporary politics is how you have the prime minister’s senior aide, Dominic Cummings, and possibly even the prime minister himself, who is quite comfortable with being indifferent to the fate of the Union. Johnson hasn’t said it, but he is channelling some of those sentiments. They used to try and hide it or be embarrassed to think that Westminster wasn’t up to the job of holding the Union together, and now the embarrassment is gone and that is different.”
David Runciman’s First Thought Talk, with Caitriona Crowe, on the health of democracy and the qualities of political leadership, is on Saturday October 12 at 5pm in NUIG’s Aula Maxima. Tickets are €12/10 from www.giaf.ie/talks/upcoming Other talks on the day see food writer Bee Wilson at 2.30pm, and TDs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly talk with Vincent Browne at 7pm.