Standard Operating Procedures for Dictators (*), First Edition


Very shortly after the Brexit Referendum, I blogged about how it is not such a good idea to hold referenda at which irreversible decisions are able to be made by a simple majority. Now, more than three years later, we know that the British parliament had a number of stomach cramps about how to implement just such a decision, and it is truly no longer just a throw-away comment to say that Britain is facing a political — if not constitutional — crisis.

Time and events proved that there are more reasons than I had grasped back then for not letting a country be ruled by referenda. In his interview in the Guardian today, the author Philip Pullman says “The EU referendum was a terrible thing, a terrible mistake. Parliament now is not so sovereign anymore. It’s the will of the people that’s apparently sovereign, and this is terribly dangerous because the will of the people can easily be manipulated, as we saw in Germany. Dictators love referendums.” I happen to agree with him. But I don’t want to simply leave the point at that as if it’s just an opinion: The reasons why referenda can be dangerous can be explained simply and analytically. As is my usual preference, we use a bit of garage game theory, i.e. exaggeration and abstraction, to distill how referenda can provide fuel to dictatorships.

The Brexit Paradox is that Parliament delegated its sovereignty — on one momentous yes/no decision — to the masses who promptly voted that Britain should exercise more sovereignty: “Take back control” was one of the slogans, and in the context of the British constitution this meant — as can be attested by plenty of news articles at the time — for Westminster to take back control from Brussels. But that was when BoJo was a member of parliament. Now he is the Prime Minister, and he’s telling us that what it meant — even back then — was that the government should take back control from parliament if parliament doesn’t follow the vote, and government should deliver on Brexit at any cost. Recognize a pattern here? Yes, apparently “the people” want him to take back control from whoever might have a different opinion or constitutional role and might be able to check him. But much more sinister is the cunning use of linguistic ruses easily deconstructed by Boris’ Etonian friends, but not so obvious to the public at large. The “will of the people” must be respected. “Democracy” must be upheld, and a “dead” parliament which “has no moral right to sit” (albeit the High Court has ruled the opposite the day earlier) has “surrendered” to Europe. To quote BoJo himself: “I’ve never heard such humbug in my life”; truly. scary.

But why does the linguistic ruse about democracy and the will of the people in particular work? Are these concepts the same? If you ask the people to decide everything by a simple majority, it is undeniably democratic. The unspoken truth, however, is also that this reflects a majoritarian democracy, which is but one of many democratic models, one which has been discarded almost all developed nations (except Switzerland; more about that later). What Britain has instead, at least since the English Civil War, is a representative democracy, with a sovereign parliament elected directly by the people, and a government (executive) existing only by the explicit acceptance of that parliament; The monarch’s power are, in practice and in precedent, severely curtailed by parliament at least since Charles I was sentenced to death by the parliamentarian High Court of Justice in 1649.

One view is that representative democracy is simply more efficient: complicated decisions get out-sourced to full-time members of parliament who are hopefully free of conflict and represent their constituents. They are expected to exercise their votes to the best of their abilities and conscience fully learned and informed, while the public doesn’t have the time or facility to understand the complex business of government through and through, day after day. Disagreements can be hearty but are generally contained to the chambers of parliament instead of leading to civil commotion on the town squares or worse.

That, however, is a simplistic view. Representative democracy has survived for so long in so many places, not simply because it regrettably must be tolerated for efficiency’s sake, but because the alternative is dangerous. On the long, painful and often violent road to most modern constitutions, it simply didn’t make it into the finals. The danger in a majoritarian democracy is that those who pose the questions to be voted on can always get their will, by making sure the effects of whatever their desired outcome is will benefit the many at the expense of a few. Life is a misery for recognisable minorities. And where no recognisable minority is at hand, those who have the power to pose the referendum questions can define and single out any arbitrarily delineated minority to rob of rights and assets. Every action that takes from the few to give to the many will pass. You could for example vote that citizens born in 1967 have no rights at all. Next, you vote that citizens born in 1968 should pay 100% income tax. Next, you vote that immigrants should be deported. It’s all very democratic. Really, it is! But it has obvious problems, with the major one being that if you continue this system long enough, you are left with the dictatorship of those who gets to decide the referendum questions every time.

But this is only the final stage in the full recipe for democratic dictatorship (*). The full dictator’s cook-book takes you from backbencher (or further away from power) to absolute power. It’s not a sure-fire recipe: I won’t guarantee it will work for you, but it has worked for some. The first step on your way to dictatorship is:

  • Soften the ground: Push for, hope for, or wait for a referendum, unrest, or demonstrations, about something which
    1. you don’t care about
    2. you know which way the public will decide
    3. you know is impossible to deliver because…
    4. the public agrees on some high-level “what”, but not on the “how”, and
    5. the differences in the various “how”s are truly consequential

This first step lays the ground for widespread disillusionment, with the public believing that they have no say, and that they agree on the “how”. I think we can agree the Brexit referendum and Boris Johnson’s role in it is a textbook example of how these first steps can be executed. Once they are executed cleanly, these steps create a political climate in which you can

  • Own the populist agenda:
    1. state clear intent to give the public what they want, at any price
    2. ignore any disagreement on what the public actually wants: they are going to get “it” (it helps if “it” has a name which is a word never used before [at least not in a similar context], to make sure no-one really knows what it means. “Brexit” is a good candidate; the best definition Theresa May came up with: “Brexit means Brexit”; The “third” Reich or the “Aryan” race are other examples of names that used to be either meaningless or have a totally different meaning, until everybody suddenly believed they knew what they meant from the context alone).
    3. For added measure, you may wish to flag or pretend that you are prepared to die for the cause. In a ditch even, for added effect.

      You will of course fail spectacularly to deliver something so impossibly un-defined, but
    4. you must be seen to fail spectacularly, and your failure must be credibly blamed on the present power structures. This is the difficult step, where a high command of deeply confusing linguistic tricks is essential. If you fail in this step it’s game over: You will not reach the next level, and you may be asked to deliver on your promise to die for the cause.

But if you succeed, then the angry mob is now ready to elevate you to the status of the only enlightened strong-man (or woman) able and willing to deliver the ephemeral “it” which they can name, which they say they want, but which they cannot describe in any more specific terms without disagreeing violently with each other. You may be elevated into real power, or alternatively into the status of a resistance hero. Definitely one of the two. But either way, you will now be listened to. The low-resistance route to total control from here is in both cases:

  • Exclusively suggest policy packages which
    1. Get you something you really want (duh!), but make sure this aspect is rather unimportant to the public at large, compared to the next point:
    2. Take something from the few to give to the many. Flag this as the important element of the policy package
    3. Make sure the minority which suffers is different every time you suggest a new policy package. This means that for any given member of the public, the number of measures where they win a little outnumbers the number of measures where they lose a lot. They are still net losers, but there’s nothing they can do about it because, and here’s the catch,

each of these measures could have been put to a public vote and would still go through! Can you see the mechanism? A majoritarian democracy can easily turn into the dictatorship of the group who gets to pose the questions to be put to a vote!

A majoritarian democracy does not necessarily equal a dictatorship of this kind; It merely supports such a dictatorship (*) where one is already in place. You should rightly ask how Switzerland escapes this conundrum. It does so in two ways: (1) the body which poses the question is the public itself, and (2) there are extreme burdens on the government to inform voters in details of all the pros and cons of exercising their vote in a particular way. Recently, the high court in Switzerland asked for a referendum to be re-run because it deemed the public to have been improperly informed by the government pamphlets. However, even Switzerland has its majoritarian problems: A vote to abolish minarets led to a law abolishing them. The outcome is as predicted in my theory: if the cost is borne by a minority, the vote goes through. Lastly, it’s difficult to ensure that what the public in Switzerland wants agrees with Switzerland’s international obligations and prior treaties (ring a bell?), so Switzerland’s parliament has the same headaches that the British parliament does now, which is deciding how to give the public what they want when they can’t have it or when it’s not clear how it can be made to work. Except the Swiss got used to it and take it in their stride.

Back to the dictator’s cookbook: go back, read it, and tell me: which stage is BoJo at? He’s clearly got very far already, to somewhere between steps 3 and 4 of the second of three blocks of instructions. He’s now at the most difficult step: If he can persuade the public that his failure is due to existing structures and institutions, he is ready for step three in which everyone but him and his inner circle are losers. His behaviour follows the cook-book to the letter: He is desperate to prove that the failure is due to just such reasons. If, however, the public understands that his impending failure to deliver the Brex-“it” is inevitable because it isn’t clear what the “it” is which the public (or the parliament for that matter) could agree on, then it’s game over for that particular player. It doesn’t mean things will be less interesting necessarily thereafter.


(*) I use the term “dictatorship” here in the same sense as it would be used in game theory or in Arrow’s impossibility theorem: a state where one member always gets what he or she votes for (or would vote for if asked).

2 responses to “Standard Operating Procedures for Dictators (*), First Edition

    • there are a few differences: Tsipras cared about the outcome, but didn’t get the outcome he wanted and expected, but got the one he campaigned for instead. He waneted the public to decide in a way he didn’t have the guts to decide himself, but it was an issue he cared very deeply about. Boris didn’t care about Brexit either way.


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