In a recent Spiked article (yes, I know!), Brendan O’Neill (yes, I know that too!) had this to say about Carrie Johnson:
Anyone remember voting for Carrie Johnson? Any Red Wall inhabitants recall being canvassed by this West London New Tory, this granddaughter of a baron, this most plummy of political operators? Anyone recollect the Conservative Party in 2019’s General Election not only saying that it would Get Brexit Done but also that it would permit an unelected PR person to stomp around Downing St (allegedly), dishing out ‘advice’? I don’t. Which is why I’m perplexed that every time I open a newspaper, there she is, Ms Johnson, telling us what she thinks and telling the party of government what it ought to do next. To use a British phrase I’m sure has never invaded Carrie’s dainty ears: who are ya?
The rest of the article goes on to bemoan the platform being afforded to the Prime Minister’s wife and particularly the influence she is having on her husband. Much of it, if I’m being honest, sounds more like O’Neill railing against what she is saying more than that she is saying it. But he objects on the grounds that she shouldn’t be saying it at all in a democratic society like ours and that ‘she does seem to have a worrying amount of political influence over her husband.’
Now, I don’t want to get into any discussion about the views she offered here. I can’t help thinking Mr O’Neill would have less to say about this if the views being spouted by Mrs Johnson if he happened to agree with them. That he doesn’t is evident and one senses landing on what feels like a question of democratic importance is merely a cover for objecting to what she has been saying.
And it is here where I want to take exception. I don’t think the argument about it being a democratic issue of an unelected speaker holds much water. Nor, incidentally, do I think the argument that she has a specific influence over the Prime Minister – seeming to have his ear – makes much difference here either. In fact, I don’t think it is remotely an issue of democracy at all.
O’Neill seems vexed that the working class people who voted for the Johnson government almost certainly don’t share Mrs Johnson’s views. Well, maybe not. But lots of working class people who voted for Tony Blair didn’t share his views either. Indeed, lots of middle class people who thought they were getting one thing with New Labour were pretty miffed when Mr Blair started doing things they didn’t like. Such has it ever been with every stripe of government ever. Sometimes, people are elected and they don’t do what they promised or they start to do things for which they have no mandate. That isn’t a challenge to democracy; the very democratic process exists so we can get rid of such people if we like later on. Nothing is undercut by it. If Mr Johnson begins to espouse views that the working classes didn’t vote him in to propagate, they have as much right to vote him out at the next general election as they did to vote for him at the previous one.
The argument is weak in the extreme. It is also somewhat hypocritical. O’Neill seems to be arguing – over and against his usual ‘free speech is everything’ schtick – that this shouldn’t extend to Prime Ministers (or their spouses) who happen to say things he doesn’t much care for. If he was being consistent, he wouldn’t be insisting they shouldn’t and would instead just argue he didn’t like it and they should be voted out. Trying to make this an issue of democracy doesn’t hold water.
But, he will no doubt shoot back, the issue isn’t the Prime Minister advocating anything in particular, it is an unelected person having his ear and exerting obvious influence on him. Except, that isn’t a very credible argument either. Which spouse in the history of Prime Ministers with spouses – and that is the overwhelming majority of them – hasn’t had their ear or specific access and influence? Of course people are influenced by their wives and husbands! And if you happen to see them every night, and chew over your day with them, and chat to them when you’re in bed, you will inevitably hear their views. And you may even come to agree with them. It is just a nonsense to pretend that isn’t an influence on any leader.
Even aside from spouses, there are loads of unelected people with access and influence on Prime Ministers. There are those embedded in our system who are unelected but with access and influence; The Queen, for one, and the Lords for a bunch of others. Then, there is a whole unelected civil service. You can call them politically neutral all you like, but ultimately, they have influence. Then there are back room advisers, spin doctors, publicists, party workers. All unelected, all with access and influence on the Prime Minister. There are also their friends. I assume you don’t just cut everyone out of your life when you become a national leader. No doubt, those friends have influence on you too. Then there are the everyday people you happen to meet as you go about your daily life. Admittedly, less influential, but still having some influence and access.
Leaving aside the ones embedded in government – over which we can have a discussion as to whether they should have such access and influence – the rest are all just part and parcel of how any of us form views and opinions on anything. There is nothing wrong with that of itself, it is the Prime Minister who must wear his own decisions. None of it is really a question of democratic propriety. If you don’t like their influence, and it begins to tell on the Prime Minister, vote him out.
But what about the platform she is afforded at the Conservative Party conference? Well, what about it? What about the platform given to the unelected student in Kevin Rowland-esque dungarees? What about the platform given to all sorts of unelected people at all sorts of conferences? Unless we are saying only elected people are even allowed to speak – and that does create something of a major problem for O’Neill’s own free speech stance (one which I broadly agree with him on) – that surely can’t be what he is suggesting? If that isn’t what he is suggesting, it’s entirely unclear what problem he has with Carrie Johnson speaking. It is no different to the fact that the Prime Minister himself has risen to office, in part, because he was afforded a newspaper column and other platforms before he was elected to anything. Then people seemed to know him and gave him further platforms which he used to get into office down the track. If unelected people can speak legitimately, people with platforms will use them to speak to a wider audience and those who own the platform will determine who else they are happy to let use it.
None of these are democratic problems. If you don’t like what Carrie Johnson has to say, then disagree with it. If you don’t like the Prime Minister affording his platform to his wife, speak out against that consistently against anyone else he might platform. If you don’t like the influence his wife is having on him, don’t vote for him. The democratic system isn’t threatened by these things, it provides the vehicle for resolving them if you see them as a problem.