Socrates And The People’s Vote




Is Brexit the right thing to do because the people voted for it, or is it because Brexit is the right thing to do, that the people voted for it?


For all remainers, it may be a ray of hope at the end of a dark tunnel. For the country as a whole, it resembles more a poisoned chalice, infinitely more potent than the one offered to an unsuspecting kingdom, one summer’s day, in 2016. It comprises few questions, the wording of which will lead to many answers – do you still want to leave, how do you want to leave, can you still remain, and last but not least, do you understand the question now being posed, and did you understand the question last time around? For those – and there are many – who oppose the people’s vote, I have but one question – is Brexit the right thing to do because the people voted for it, or is it because Brexit is the right thing to do, that the people voted for it? Welcome to the world of Socrates, the father of Greek philosophy who was very suspicious of yet another Greek invention – democracy.

In book VI of Plato’s Republic, Socrates asks a simple question – who would you want to decide who could run a ship. Could anyone decide, or only people who knew the skills required by those who navigate? The latter is the obvious answer. So, thought Socrates, why is it that any old duffer can vote for people to run the country we live in? If voting is not considered to be a random intuition but a skill that is learned, only those who have been properly educated should be able to vote in all their wisdom for the good of the country.

It is ironic that Socrates got a taste of his own wisdom. In 399BC he was found guilty of corrupting the Athenian youth. The trial was based on a pack of lies, and the vote was close, with 52% of jurors finding him guilty, and 48% wanting to acquit him. Now, where have I seen those figures before, I wonder? 

Socrates was not for only allowing a small group of people to vote. He just wanted to connect vote to wisdom. Even you and I would be eligible to vote as long as we had spent a lot of time thinking deeply and rationally about the question at hand. At long last, I have the answer as to why I was disenfranchised for the EU referendum – I just don’t understand what Brexit really means.

A lot has been said about those who voting for the UK to leave the EU, and what they really understood the EU to be and how it functioned. A Eurobarometer survey, carried out in 2015, asked a pool of 1000 people in each of the member states (that’s 28,000 people if I’m not mistaken) three simple questions:

For each of the following statements about the EU, could you please tell me whether you think it is true or false:

1. The EU currently consists of 28 member states.
2. The members of the European parliament are directly elected by the citizens of each member state.
3. Switzerland is a member state of the EU.


Only 27% of British respondents correctly answered all three questions, and 84% got at least one question right. The result made the UK bottom of the class.

Not knowing what something stands allows demagogues to attack their learned rivals with populist slogans and easy rhetoric. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates asks us to imagine an election debate between two candidates – a doctor and a sweet shop owner. The latter would say of the former, 

Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will. 

What, asks Socrates, is the audience’s answer to these attacks?

Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – ‘I cause you trouble, and go against you desires in order to help you’ would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think?

It stands to reason that those who do not understand are more prone to be manipulated by those who do, or pretend they do. In political democracies it is much easier voting for the owner of a sweet shop offering you candy than for the doctor who cuts you open and gives you bitter pills to swallow. The sweet shop owner offers you a life that is full of pleasurable sensations, whilst the doctor will only try to persuade you that present suffering is in the name of future well-being. 

In politics, it is all too often the pursuit of short-term pleasures and the fight against immediate perceived dangers that will attract the popular vote. The sweet shop owner serves out a tasty demagogy that can be heard by the many and ignored only by the few. It contrasts strongly with the doctor’s treatment that is long and unpleasant. You come out of the doctor’s office not yet benefiting from his advice. Although he has emphasized the long-term benefits of the therapy, you are still feeling poorly and will not recover immediately.

The problem with our present-day democracies is that too many sweet shop owners have been elected for our own good.