I stumbled on this question that posted a bounty and received much attention here. But are Dicey's two implicit assumptions true, that the

  1. UK electorate are the true political sovereign

  2. UK electorate's political sovereignty is ultimately supreme?

Unlike that O.P. I'm Canadian, not British. My guess is NO to both! Just Edward Bernays's 1928 book Propaganda, and how the electorate makes its own decisions.

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ...We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

Financial Times and The Conversation argued the UK is an oligarchy, and they remind me of inverted totalitarianism. In 1845, Marx and Engels wrote that "the ideas of the ruling class are, in any age, the ruling ideas". If I recollect, didn't the UK media conspire to "pull the wires" that Bernays wrote above, to derail Corbyn's chances of forming a working-class government? None of this affects nominal sovereignty, but isn't this all evidence against Dicey's two assumptions?

  • 5
    The question sounds a bit rhetorical, and can't it be asked in any representative democracy? Commented May 15, 2020 at 22:33
  • @Fizz But Dicey was writing this for the UK. He wasn't asserting this for any representative democracy.
    – user6241
    Commented May 30, 2020 at 5:21
  • Isn't this basically how a functional democracy works according to common sense? Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 13:07

3 Answers 3


The answer hinges on how you consider the popular will.

  • In Dicey's view the electorate make up their minds and then vote, or otherwise make their will known. It is then for the government to carry out that will, in exactly the same way as if the country was an absolute monarchy and the government was carrying out the will of the King.

  • In the "inverted totalitarian" view the electorate are manipulated into making up their minds in the way that the government desires, and the government is then free to carry on doing whatever it chose to do so.

These views are not mutually exclusive. Just as a weak king might find himself always agreeing with his advisers, but still be an absolute monarch, so the opinions of the electorate might be manipulated while still remaining sovereign.

  • 1
    Democracy is probably best understood as a system in which there is some opportunity for manipulation in both directions, the systemic benefit of which is to promote integration between the ideological mindsets of politicians and those of the public. Rehearsing the dictum that the "people are sovereign" is probably not meant to be taken literally, but designed to create ideological ballast against autocratic seizure of power, since the main temptation the powerful suffer from is never giving the people too much power, it is accruing overwhelming conflict with the people and losing legitimacy.
    – Steve
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 21:18

One of the unspoken rules of political theory is that one should never become so enamored with an ideal as to forget the coarse pragmatics of power, and one should never become so obsessed with the coarse pragmatics of power as to forget the beauty of the ideal. One needs balance.

Dicey captures an ideal. It's probably a bit pie-in-the-sky, but it's certainly an aesthetically pleasing ideal, and it's good for all of us to appreciate it and hold onto it. Bernays captures a perspective on pragmatic politics. It is jaded and thoroughly Machiavellian, though not the worst I've heard by any means, but it is decidedly not an aesthetic triumph. The trick is to take Dicey's view as an aspiration and Bernays' view as a caution, without over-committing to either, and keep things moving in the right direction. The system never needs to be perfect; it just needs to be better tomorrow than it was yesterday.


Why does propaganda target the masses? Why doesn't it target the nobility?

The answer is rather obvious. Targeting the nobility would be pointless, as the UK electorate are the political sovereign. The UK's nobility does have a disproportionate power compared to modern democracies, but still there's little to be gained by influencing the House of Lords.

As for supremacy, again propaganda is your answer. If the electorate would take orders, there would be no need for propaganda. But the electorate doesn't take orders, it's supreme.

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