The European: When I came to Britain, I first realised that it is a very traditional country and people do very hard to change traditions. Which impact has tradition on British politics?
Grayling: We have a messy situation with our constitution in this country, we do not have a written constitution. The standing joke about our constitution is that it consists in ‘understandings’ that nobody understands. Before the last election when Mr. Brown was the prime minister, he invited some people, myself and few others, to come to Downing Street to talk about the possibility of constitutional reform. He had the idea that by 2015, which would have been an anniversary of Magna Carta, we could have implemented a constitutional reform process. I asked the policy advisers: What do you mean by a written constitution? Do you mean we write down the constitution we have now, which would be a complex thing to do, because we would find many anomalies and problems and it would be necessary to harmonize them with new laws, but which politically would be fairly easy to do. Or do you mean to write a completely new constitution, which would be the simplest thing to do – perhaps, take a model constitution, maybe the German constitution, and just enact it. That would be simple to do, but politically very hard. They did not seem to be clear about the answer! And yet the situation with the UK constitution is not sustainable. At some point there has to be a major constitutional convention, where we discuss what to do.
The European: So do you think there is any chance for change? Isn’t this flexible constitution part of British tradition and part of the British idea of politics?
Grayling: It used to be the case that the flexibility of the constitutional arrangements was very useful. In the 18th century Voltaire lived in England for a couple of years and he said that the great advantage of this country has nothing to do with the constitution of the state but everything to do with the constitution of the people. This was because the people were fiercely independent, and were protected by Habeas Corpus. But times are changed and we need to protect our civil liberties, and entrench our democratic institutions, more securely than on the basis of a series of ad hoc constitutional measures that are not codified and systematised.
The European: What about membership of the European Union?
Grayling: In our complicated world, no country is any longer autonomous, and in Europe all the member states are plugged into each other and need each other. We British are despite appearances of reluctance part of the European Union, and despite what the Tories say we can never get out of the EU. There are people in this country – like myself – who are strongly pro-Europe and federalist; I think we should go much further towards federalism. I can see the problems of a European Union which has such different economies in it, but eventually the great ideal, and it is a romantic but wonderful ideal, of a unified Europe, seems to me the right way to go. The whole stream of history is moving in that direction.
The European: Do you feel more European than British?
Grayling: Yes, I feel British, but what does it mean to say that? The people in the south of Britain fell different from the people on the north, the Welsh feel different from the Scots. Some of the Scots hate the English – the small country resentment – and the Irish are different from everybody in their own special way. We are already a federation, and our history shows us that it ought to be possible for quite different people to get along. Cultural identity and national, political and economic identity are all different things. There is a lot of internal diversity in Europe. What we want are structures that permit all people to deal with one another in an easy and relaxed kind of way, allowing those cultural differences to remain.
The European: You mentioned identity. In Western states, identity is seen as the foundation for values, for moral principles such as decency, honesty or loyalty. But more and more people realise that these virtues are aspirational rather than real. So why do people still demand these characteristics from modern politicians, which are obviously unrealistic?
Grayling: I think in general terms we expect honesty, decency and trust-keeping from any human being, so these are not national or cultural identities, these are basic human requirements. You say they exist as aspirations and not as realties, but I think that they exist as realities in enough cases to allow the following wonderful phenomenon: that in most cities, towns and villages of the world today people keep their promises, do their job, keep trust, behave reasonably well. The rate of murder and rape is relatively speaking low in human transactions. The very fact that human society exists is evidence that those principles are generally operative. People who are in exposed positions with great responsibilities and therefore stresses might sometimes be more likely to yield to natural inclinations when they should not. It is a question of a generous understanding of human nature and not always thinking that the conventional requirements and moralities are black and white.
The European: How would you describe the relationship between representatives (politicians) and the represented (people)?
Grayling: Consider the nature of societies or polities which are democratic and which respect civil liberties. Democracies are in their aspirations better than the people who live in them. For people to make the best of living in a democracy they have to be educated, informed, thoughtful, reflective, calm in their judgements; they should read political manifestoes at election times, and should vote according to their best understanding of the interests of everybody. This of course doesn’t happen. Democracies tend to be noisy, divided, inefficient, and decision-making is complicated. Individual self-interest is a powerful influence. The leader of a democracy is like somebody who tries to herd cats. The result is that there is always compromise, which is almost always second best and messy. But there are some advantages in messiness and inefficiency. Inefficiency is a great protector of liberties, because information concerning an individual is hard to focus. But nevertheless the advantages of democracy are greater than the disadvantages. This is where the idea of representation comes in. Consider a democracy run by referenda, the best example is Switzerland. Given the character of the Swiss state and people, they can do things by referenda, so we see that most of the decisions are conservative, such as the position of women in Swiss society, or whether mosques can have towers. There are some virtues in ‘small-c’ conservatism, because moving somewhat slowly means you don’t make too many mistakes in the wrong direction. But if you had governments by referenda, people would be hanging from the lamposts, because most popular attitudes are hasty and mass psychology kicks in. So you don’t want democracy by referendum, you want representative democracy. But there is a difference between a delegate and a representative. A representative is not there to say only those things we told him to say, but to be informed and reflective, and to take decisions on our behalf. If we don’t like what he does, we can vote him out next time. Representative democracy is the best form of democracy.
The European: Over the last decades, European integration changed the political frame of reference fundamentally. We now live with a plurality and complexity of political decision levels. How does this phenomenon change our behaviour as political actors in society?
Grayling: People who are sceptical about the European Union see all this as evidence of a major democratic deficit; they think that the structures of the EU are removed from proper democratic scrutiny and control, and that functionaries who take the decisions on their own account operate the machine. This is true, but it is not true for the reasons people think. It is not because the institutions of the EU are genuinely removed from democratic scrutiny and control, but because people just do not inform themselves enough or take enough interest in, for example, the elections to the European Parliament. Every effort made – as for example in the last constitutional treaty – to introduce offices like the representative for Foreign Affairs or a President of the EU is opposed not on any principled grounds but on the ground of ignorance, fear and anxiety of loss of local control.
The European: Trust is a fundamental basis of an inter-human relationship, and also in politics. Mutual knowledge is a precondition for trust. So how could you trust someone you don’t know? Is that the key defect of the EU?
Grayling: Here is a typical philosophical answer: yes and no. There is the psychological problem when you are not acquainted with people or you don’t understand their language, when you do not understand the nuances which are part of the national character, distance and mistrust can result. But as soon as you meet people individually you find that almost everybody has an instinctive understanding which in the end rests on the fact that it is in their own interests both to trust and to be trustworthy. And the further fact is that within our own governments and in the EU, we have institutions embodying control and scrutiny mechanisms with guidelines and checks in order to overcome the trust deficit, if properly applied and carefully watched. We can require the institutions to carry the burdens of trust, but it is up to us as citizens and members to make the mechanisms work.
The European: What is the key to all these problems?
Grayling: In the end the answer to our problems about democracy and civil liberties is education. We need people to be educated so well that they are genuinely thoughtful and enquiring and base their decisions on facts. That is the ideal. We know to achieve that, but it is costly in resources and time, and we need to accept that we have not yet done nearly enough. If you look at the billions that have been spent in Western education system over the last decades, and if you look at the quality of thinking on the part of voters, we see a serious disconnect. This is why a lot of ‘small-c’ conservatives think countries are always going to be led by elites. But we should not give up hope. If we fly to the moon and look back at planet Earth and at humankind on it, and if we look what people believe and do, we will realise that actually humanity is at a very early stage of it’s development, it is still in the stage of infancy. We must strive to advance.