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The Olympics versus democracy

Politicians do love their Olympic Games. They make them feel so important. There are people to be expelled from their home, blameless businesses to be relocated into bankruptcy, photogenic new sports stadia and shiny new transport links to be constructed, opening ceremonies and firework displays to be arranged, all at vast public expense, and involving vast opportunities for grandiose displays of political self-importance, to say nothing of more private sorts of gain.

Nevertheless, the following story about the mutual impact of the Olympics and politics takes this natural affinity to a whole new depth of creepiness. I am rather surprised that David Carr has not beat me to noticing it. I guess (see immediately below) he has other worries on his mind:

London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, today called for his term in office to be extended if the capital succeeds in its Olympic bid.

Mr Livingstone was speaking after an intense hour-long grilling by Conservative London delegates at the Tory party conference in Bournemouth.

Speaking of his hopes for a successful Olympic bid following forceful lobbying by a team spearheaded by the Olympic gold medallist and ex-Tory MP Sebastian Coe, Mr Livingstone said that if London won, the mayoral term would need to be extended by a year to ensure that preparations for the games were not disrupted.

I know that it is not received opinion here to be any sort of admirer of democracy, but I actually do rather admire it, basically because it is so vastly preferable to civil war as a method of swabbing out one bucketload of politicians who have become frightful beyond all redemption, and squirting in another lot who are not yet quite so terminally disgusting. And I believe that it has other benefits, many of them quite subtle, and unexpectedly non-collectivist, despite the fact that at the heart of democracy lies the brutal and morally repulsive idea of majorities – more precisely their elected representatives – being able to do whatever they please.

See for instance this New York Times article, which argues that democracy, far from depending on economic development, is actually the way to get economic development. For reasons I hope Real Soon Now to be writing about here, I am greatly attracted by this hypothesis, despite the fact that, in terms of the stark principles involved, democracy is just the latest of many negations of the idea of individual liberty.

But if democratic politics is to work, even by its own crude standards, one of the most basic rules is that the rule for when the next election is to be held must be stuck to. Postponing an election, for whatever reason, is a step down a very slippery slope indeed, at the bottom of which lies naked tyranny.

Has any elected politician in modern Britain ever made a suggestion like this before? Except during a major war? If any has, I missed it.

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12 comments to The Olympics versus democracy

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Brian Micklethwait breathlessly queried:

    Has any elected politician in modern Britain ever made a suggestion like this before? Except during a major war? If any has, I missed it.

    I presume the Long Parliament of the 17th century isn’t modern enough?

  • “Breathlessly”. This is an unworthy cliche. I was breathing freely throughout.

    And yes, the 17th century is not what I meant by “modern”. I had in mind since the mid nineteenth century, when mass representative one-man-one-vote democracy was getting into its stride in Britain, the modern franchise having been perfected, if that is the word, when adult women got the vote, in 1918, or thenabouts. Is that about the right date? I know that this was debated in the Commons in 1916.

    Since then, other than during the two world wars, has any politician suggested postponing an election in order for him to stay in power?

  • I think the English Civil War can safely be considered a Major War.

    For all its many flaws, democracy does, for the most part, provide a check on the ambitions of the rulers. Of course having an armed population AND democracy really scares them, which is why they are so fond of gun control.

    Brian You are absolutely right about the Olympics I hope to God they don;t come here to New York. I think they should be done away with altogether they are nothing but a “festival of nationalism” as my father once put it.

    If we must have these silly games let the Greeks have them, permenently. Or maybe only allow the seven or eight poorest nations on earth to hold them. That would at least be a better way to get them some hard currency than foreign aid.

  • For what it’s worth, there was discussion of keeping Rudy Giuliani as NYC mayor after September 11, at least for a few months. The proposals obviously never went anywhere.

  • Doug Collins

    In much of the US, a recent, more hopeful, trend has been toward term limits: a restriction on how many times one threat to the wives, daughters and property of the citizens may be re-elected before another must replace him.

  • Guy Herbert

    On the NYT point, Americans tend to be particulalry bad at distinguishing democracy from liberty, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they live in a republic not a democracy. But it does seem to be a common mistake all over the place.

    Likewise radicals of the left tend to say “democracy” when they mean socialism. To them a “more democratic” society is one where the people have a choice as long as that choice is equality and collective good.

  • To be truthful, I was quite astonished when someone told me that the British parliament had been extended beyond the normal time for an election during World War 2. In Australia we would not dream of doing such a thing (not to mention that it would be unconstitutional). Australia has not only held elections but also referenda during the World Wars. Most famously, there were two referenda on the subject of conscription held during the first world war. In both cases the proposal was voted down, the key votes being reputedly those of people in the military who did not want non-volunteers to be serving beside them.

    (There was no constitutional reason why compulsory military service could not be imposed by a simple act of parliament – and a later government did impose it and send conscripts to Vietnam – but the government of the day did not have the votes).

  • Jacob

    Why do you hate the Olympic games ? It’s just a show, and a lovely one. If we could only privatize it ! Get the pompous politicians out of the play – we could sit back and enjoy it.

  • Tedd McHenry

    I like to use the term “popular government,” rather than “democracy,” when referring strictly to a system of elected representatives or referenda. It makes it clear that I’m not simply shortening “liberal democracy” to “democracy” (which I sometimes do and which inevitably causes confusion).

  • Guy Herbert

    “Get the pompous politicians out of the play….” That’s the problem. It is too bound up with politics for that to work. It is no more going to be privatised than the UN, being equally a creature of governments. (And privatised, it would have no raison d’etre in anything like its current form, the sports featured would shrink to those the public would actually watch, and no taxpayers billions would be pumped into uneconomic display.)

  • Jack Olson

    The American Civil War was so grave an emergency that President Lincoln suspended the Bill of Rights. Yet, when it was proposed to him to postpone the election of 1864, which he was likely to lose in view of the Union Army’s lack of success in the war, he answered that the election must be held. He said, if the Confederacy can force us to postpone an election then aren’t they winning the war? The election proceeded and Lincoln was re-elected.

    If adminstering London’s role in hosting the Olympic Games will absorb so much of the Mayor’s time and attention, then he should delegate the task to an appointee who can concentrate on it. Or, he could resign a year early and conduct a special election whose schedule does not conflict with the Games.

  • There are various specific policies relating to an Open Society which are often conflated with overall “democracy” as being prereqs for economic development.