‘Why I believe online petitions are pointless’

Power to the people: The 1848 petition for workers’ rights is delivered to Parliament.
by Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton is one of Britain’s most influential conservative philosophers. He has written over 50 books on philosophy, art, music and politics and was knighted in the 2016 Birthday Honours list.

An online petition to stop Donald Trump’s UK state visit has garnered over a million signatures. But Roger Scruton argues that petitions confuse the common good with the whims of the crowd.

Almost every day there pops up on my screen a petition from change.org, urging me to experience the one-click passport to moral virtue. The causes are not always wrong; what I object to is being asked to add my vote in the absence of any institution that will hold me to account for it. Nobody is raising the question of what other interests need to be considered. Nobody has the responsibility of getting things right, or risks being ejected from office if he fails to do so.

A petition only needs 10,000 signatures to force a response from the government. This means that opinions of the most vocal can be easily heard by our lawmakers without going through the political process.

In one speech, Edmund Burke distinguished between a representative and a delegate. A delegate is chosen by a group of people to relay their opinion or decision. His responsibility begins and ends with the announcement of a decision made by others.

Today’s online petitions represent the mass expression of opinion, without responsibility or risk.

If politicians were delegates, they could never say: ‘Be it on my own head what I now decide.’ They would be the mere instruments for opinions and decisions that they cannot change.

A representative is not like that; he is elected to represent the interests of his constituents, not their opinions. He must make decisions according to his own conscience. That is what it means to take responsibility.

Today’s online petitions represent the mass expression of opinion, without responsibility or risk. Nobody who signs the petition, including those who compose it, will bear the cost of it.

The common good, rather than mass sentiment, should be the source of law — and the common good may be hard to discover and easily hidden by crowd emotions. This is why we elect people to represent us.

The US Constitution was designed to ensure that it would be the common good — rather than the temporary enthusiasms of the majority, or interests of determined factions — that would be consulted by lawmakers. We can all see the point of this, just as soon as we imagine mass campaigns being mounted for causes that are repugnant to us.

Do we think our representatives should be influenced by a Twitter storm advocating the expulsion of the Jews? Do we think issues like the death penalty or the treatment of refugees should be decided by a vote of internet addicts?

Of course, only a foolish MP would ignore public opinion. But public opinion in a democracy is not a matter of saying yes or no to some question posed on a website. It is the result of a collective discussion. It emerges from the currents of argument among people who are ready to defer to facts and to acknowledge the right of others to disagree.

To think that petitions on the internet are a reliable guide to what the people think is to make a profound mistake about human nature. We are not creatures of the moment; we do not necessarily know what our own interests are, but depend upon advice and discussion. Hence we need processes that impede us from making rash choices and which bring us face-to-face with our real interests.

It is precisely this that is being obscured by the petition culture. Decisions are being made at the point of least responsibility, by men and women in the street with their iPhones, asked suddenly to click yes or no to an issue they have never thought about before and may never think about again.

We should rely on our legislators to be brave in the face of their constituents, and tell them where necessary that it is not their opinions that matter, but the common good.

This is an extract from BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View. See Become An Expert for the full speech.

You Decide

  1. Are petitions desirable or valuable in politics?

Activities

  1. Research one successful petition from history and give a five-minute presentation about it to your class.

Word Watch

Edmund Burke
Widely regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, Burke was an Irish-born statesman, author and orator who, after moving to London, served as an MP in the House of Commons with the Whig Party.
Death penalty
In 1969, the year the death penalty was abolished in Britain, 80% of the public supported retaining it. Only last year did a poll reveal that, for the first time, the majority of Britons are against the death penalty.
Ignore public opinion
This question is currently on the minds of many British MPs. Some who backed remaining in the European Union now have to balance the victory of the Leave side with their own views on the matter when Parliament votes on the leaving process. Others say they must have regard for the way their constituencies voted in the referendum, while others are conscious that it was Parliament itself that voted to put the issue to a referendum. Some have claimed that the referendum is simply ‘advisory’.

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