Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Friday, 29 May 2009 17:21 UK

Bowing to a higher authority

Billboard encouraging women to vote in the Lebanese parliamentary elections


Despite its drawbacks, democracy is the right system for running a country - it just doesn't stack up as the best way of choosing a poetry professor, says Clive James.

This is the last column in my current stint and I would like to thank little Kim Jong Il of North Korea for handing me, at the 11th hour, a useful peg around which to do a wrap up. Throughout the series I've been trying to stress the advantages of liberal democracy over less representative forms of government.

I didn't pretend that liberal democracy can infallibly deliver justice to everyone in all walks of life, or always deliver a sensible foreign policy, or even deliver a disk full of secret personal information without leaving it in a taxi.

Clive James
It was as if the murder of Christopher Marlowe had been succeeded within a fortnight by the revelation that the boy genius Thomas Chatterton was a forger.

But I did try to point out that liberal democracy is more likely to guarantee a life lived under the rule of law than any system that rules according to the desires of an oligarchy or a despot. Sometimes the despot has been democratically elected but that doesn't make his regime a liberal democracy. So let's just call liberal democracy "democracy" for short, and save a word.

The minimal definition of democracy that was devised in New Zealand by the exiled philosopher Karl Popper during World War II still holds: it's a democracy if the government can be changed at the people's whim. The French writer Albert Camus added a valuable nuance when he said that democracy was the form of society devised and maintained by those who know they don't know everything.

One way or another those two descriptions are at the heart of the case for favouring a mechanism by which no group can consolidate itself in power or any individual rule alone unchallenged. Democracy gives justice its best chance to realise itself as a principle.

This fact is obvious, and in effect every commentator in the West accepts it even when he earns his living by railing against its deficiencies as if they were built in. He still calls the police if his house gets robbed and sometimes the police even turn up. If they don't, he can write to his MP.


Aha, you might say, our MPs are currently in disrepute. They've all had their hands in the till we scream, even though it's remarkable how many of them haven't, despite a temptation that amounted to a standing order.

I've already pointed out in a previous broadcast that the expenses scandal could have been far worse. At least we were shocked. In a truly corrupt non-democracy we might not have been shocked, we might have thought it normal. Here it seems abnormal enough to crowd the headlines.

But I've already made that point and even though the headlines continue to be crowded week after week, it would have been a feeble wrap up to make the same point again, except to say that it's high time to remember just how hard and long, including during the holidays, most MPs work for what really is a tight salary.

Kim Jong Il
Kim Jong Il 's North Korea has carried out nuclear tests

Those who bumped the salary up by claiming their expenses were doing what was allowed, and those who made too good a thing of it will either walk the plank now or lose their seats next time. So really our form of government is still democratic, or else the rogue MPs would have staged a coup by now, roped in the army and shot us down in the streets.

But I can hear you nodding off already. Again, it's obvious. Damaged doesn't mean destroyed and repairs can be made. Indeed the party that shows it knows how to make them will probably win the next election, which might even have a high turn-out, as people remember what their vote is for: changing the government at the people's whim.

That was the sublime cunning of Karl Popper's minimal definition. He said the people's "whim". He didn't say that the people had to be fully informed or wise. He said that all it took was for enough of them to want a change and it could be made to happen.

In a "despotism" you can want all you want and there will be no change, except that if you do any of your wanting aloud the police really will turn up on time and set about demonstrating to you and your family exactly why Saddam Hussein, of fond memory, won every election by 100% of the vote.


If you are fighting sleep as I grind out these truisms, get set to be propelled even more deeply into the arms of Morpheus when I launch into a short version of the other wrap up I thought I might be stuck with, namely the Oxford poetry professorship imbroglio.

Yes, poetry, normally a narrow little world, got itself into the headlines for the second time in three weeks when, after Carol Ann Duffy was appointed to the laureateship, not only did Derek Walcott pull out of the election for the Oxford poetry professorship, but the winner, Ruth Padel, resigned from the post.

Never before in the history of English literature had poetry been a news story twice in quick succession. It was as if the murder of Christopher Marlowe had been succeeded within a fortnight by the revelation that the boy genius Thomas Chatterton was a forger. Yet the dust-up over the Poetry Professorship wasn't really the fault of the participants, it was a fault of the system.

Ballot box
Elections may not be the best way to choose everything

Carol Ann Duffy was appointed to the laureateship, whereas Walcott and Padel both hoped to be elected to the professorship. Election proved to be a bad way of choosing a poetry professor because the press got into the act, not just to report the issue - which was its right and duty - but to help decide it - which wasn't.

The great 16th Century French poet Ronsard is only the first of the poets I can think of whose candidature for election to the Oxford post would have been sunk by press coverage of his attitude towards personable young women. Ronsard was of advanced years when he repeatedly struggled up the stairs of the old Tuileries palace, before it burned down, and made advances to a young lady of the court called Helene, to whom he undoubtedly used inappropriate language.

After she gave him the freeze Ronsard took revenge, warning her in a sonnet that when she was old and grey she would regretfully remember that Ronsard had sung of her when she was young. Ronsard me célébrait du temps quand j'étais belle. It was a wonderful sonnet and he would have been able to deliver a wonderful set of lectures on how to write sonnets, but the press would have screwed his chances of winning an election.

If Byron had run, he would probably have been jailed for what the press uncovered about him. Sodomy, incest - forget about it. Nice draft lecture about how you wrote Don Juan, my Lord, but sorry, no chance. Goethe was more than 80 years old when he proposed marriage to the beautiful teenager Ulrike von Levetzow and the whole of Europe burst out laughing after she turned the old goat down. He consoled himself by writing The Marienbad Elegy, one of the triumphs of German literature. But there goes the Oxford Poetry Professorship, lost in the blaze of a Sun headline: Kraut Bard's Last Grope. Ulrike says: "What part of the word Nein don't you understand?"


In our own era, the ageing WB Yeats, sustained by monkey gland injections, wrote some of his greatest late poetry while not only pursuing young ladies, but catching up with them. And Philip Larkin, the supreme poet in English of the late 20th Century, customarily kept half a dozen women on a string at once, while avoiding marriage with the dexterity of a dodgem. After his death it all got into the papers, and it would have got into them before his death if he had ever run for the Oxford Poetry Professorship. A gifted critic as well as a mighty poet, he would have been ideal for the job but he would have had to be appointed, not elected.

How, you might say, if I am so much in favour of elections to government can I not be in favour of elections to a professorship? Because Camus was right: the whole democratic system depends on the realisation that we don't know everything. The people know enough to know when the government needs to be changed in order to preserve democracy, but a fully developed democracy contains within it all kinds of areas where specialised knowledge really counts and popular opinion - especially when it is whipped up by the press - is largely irrelevant.

Poet Ruth Padel
Ruth Padel resigned as Oxford's professor of poetry

We don't have popular elections to a medical board. We ought to have government oversight of a medical board through the people's representatives, but a popular election in every field would be government by plebiscite and would produce more injustice than it avoided. Within a properly constituted democracy there is room for all kinds of alternatives as long as they are enlightened.

Theatre for example, is always an enlightened despotism. And a poetry professorship falls within that realm of alternatives. The professor shouldn't be elected by the whole of the people or even, as in Oxford, by a bunch of graduates. The professor should be appointed by a panel of properly qualified literary figures who are fully aware that good poets are often frail people, and people who are not frail are seldom good poets.

It's an essential part of democracy that it can shape and employ the idea of authority, so that authority can stave off the effects of populism run rampant. As for authority running rampant, well, in a democracy it can't or at any rate shouldn't: a consideration which makes democracy superior to any system where power is concentrated perpetually in a few - or sometimes only two - hands.

But so obvious a point would have been a pretty down-beat wrap up if a sudden flash of light on the other side of the world had not suddenly made the point so terribly clear. The all-knowing Kim, a bouffant hairstyle joined to a pair of elevator shoes by a psychotic personality, has got his own atomic bomb. And he can drop it whenever he likes. I hope I'll be speaking to you again one day.

Here is a selection of your comments.

I'm unsure about the analogy between a medical board and the election of a professor of poetry. Nor do I fully understand what "properly qualified literary figures" are. A great doctor is great because he or she is knowledgeable and skilful in their field - it is an absolute view. Keep on healing people and you are good, keep killing them, not so good. What constitutes "great poetry" is highly subjective. As for these suitably qualified literary figures this will just be the usual list of establishment hacks that have ruined every other sphere of our lives. Can't we just have "poetry" without the "professors"?
Matthew Howes, Brentwood

Why is a photograph of a pretty girl with the slogan "sois belle et vote" for a Lebanese election used to promote an article on academic voting at Oxford University? Mind you, she is a lot easier on the eye than Gordon Brown...
Nicholas Wood, London

One aspect of this question is the development of a permanent technocracy, i.e. a body of bright and competent civil servants, which survives all political tides and, at the end of the day, pursue a certain form of un-democratic government over a potentially long period of time, while ministers last two to three years at most.
Michel Daillet, Doha, Qatar

Why does such a narrow field of literature need its own professor anyway? It's a bit like having a professorship of torts within the broader field of law. Poetry should be part of languages, or if it must be narrower, English.
IJ Kelly, Adelaide Australia

I do have to pick you up on one significant error: "Most MPs work for what really is a tight salary."

Maybe compared to your income, but their basic pay is higher than 95% of the UK wage earners. It wouldn't be so bad if they earned it, but most of them just vote as they are told, and promise Mrs Jones that they will try to help get her bins emptied.
Alistair, Silecroft, England

"Those who bumped the salary up by claiming their expenses were doing what was allowed, and those who made too good a thing of it will either walk the plank now or lose their seats next time. So really our form of government is still democratic."

You're saying, because abuse of power for personal gain was legal on paper, it is justifiable. Just as it may be legal under a system which you deem undemocratic and (perhaps, subsequently) corrupt, with dubious laws with various loopholes that allow abuse, for an official to abuse his (or her? - Nah) power for personal gain. Not too consistent.
Dan N, Edinburgh

And think of the pristine lives of Day-Lewis, Betjeman and Hughes (all laureates) and Auden (professor of poetry). Examples of fine writing and questionable behaviour, every one. I'll take the fine writing.
Peter H Salus, Toronto, Canada

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