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An enjoyable and eclectic short read: Lord Herbert reviews 'The Vitality of Democracy'

3 min read

A mix of history and philosophy, Baroness Gisela Stuart has produced an interesting treatise

Gisela Stuart is one of our most enigmatic parliamentarians. Born and brought up in West Germany, she was elected a Labour MP yet became chair of Vote Leave. For a section of political opinion, this nicest and most thoughtful of politicians crossed to the dark side, consorting with Beelzebub (Boris Johnson) and Satan (Dominic Cummings), and helping to secure the wrenching of Britain from the European Union. They cannot forgive her.

Stuart seems to have emerged from the fires of hell unscorched. Now a crossbench peer, she was made lead non-executive director of the Cabinet Office by the third demon, Leviathan (Michael Gove), before being appointed first civil service commissioner last year. She is even chair of Wilton Park, the Foreign Office’s treasured conference centre. And so the Remainer-inclined institutions of the British establishment have fallen. The chairmanship of the BBC, perhaps soon to be vacant, surely beckons.

All of this is bound to make Stuart’s new book an interesting tale. Yet the publisher’s branding of this series of volumes – Haus Curiosities – is an apt description of a bemusing, short read. It is intended as a plea for participation in democracy whose “vitality and life force” demand public engagement. Democracy, the author concludes, is not a spectator sport.

Stuart rejects devices to improve participation such as direct democracy, pointing instead to the real remedy: trust. The way to conquer voter disillusion is for politicians to deliver. Trust is “fostered by accountability, transparency and predictability”. Perhaps – as the triple earthquakes of Brexit, Covid and the oil price shock continue to break our political foundations – the electorate has seen too little of these qualities in recent years.

Inevitably Stuart’s reflections on Brexit are of most interest

Inevitably Stuart’s reflections on Brexit are of most interest. Those hoping for any hint of recognition that the event might, after six years, not quite have delivered what its leading advocates promised will be disappointed. Rather, Stuart is properly critical of those who sought to overturn the referendum result and suggests that a set of ground rules for plebiscites might be needed in future. The economic consequences of the decision are clearly beside the point; her defence of Brexit is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the reassertion of democracy. 

Some will agree that there should have been an earlier referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, but Stuart’s assertion that “in years to come, our decision to join the Common Market in 1973 will be seen as more remarkable than our decision to leave the European Union in 2016” may raise eyebrows. We’ll see.

Alternately educational, historical and philosophical, the book includes interesting accounts of the author’s experience in her former constituency. The Independent described this series of books as “the thinking person’s commuting read”. Politicos working at home while the train drivers strike will indeed find much to enjoy in Stuart’s eclectic volume.

Lord Herbert is a Conservative peer and chair of the Project for Modern Democracy

The Vitality of Democracy
By: Baroness Gisela Stuart
Publisher: Haus Publishing

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