BRITAIN IS IN a frenzy of popular participation. Its voters have gone to the polls in three general elections and a referendum in five years. Politicians attempting to “take back control” from institutions they deem unaccountable invoke the will of the people. Yet in one area of long-running controversy, the people are being disenfranchised. On February 27th, it was announced that James Newman, a singer-songwriter, will represent Britain at the Eurovision Song Contest in May. In a departure from recent form, Britons had no say in the choice; it was imposed by the BBC—which, unlike some Britons, has apparently not had enough of experts.
The policy is undoubtedly elitist. Yet the trouble with voters is they can back the wrong horse. Last year they plumped for Michael Rice, a former talent-show contestant who came last in the final, winning 11 of a possible 960 points. That proved the system’s Waterloo after two woeful decades, during which Britain earned the ninth-lowest tally of points of 49 competing countries. In 2003, Britain’s entry won no points at all.
Apathy may be to blame. Only 1.2m viewers tuned in to the selection show in 2019, down from 5.2m a decade earlier. By contrast, two-fifths of Swedes tune in to pick their contestant. That dedication seems to have paid off: Sweden tops the 20-year chart. For a democracy to produce the right outcomes, it may require mass participation.
Technocracy has been tried before. A panel of BBC bigwigs and music-industry types picked contestants between 2011 and 2015. None made the top ten. Bringing Engelbert Humperdinck, then 76, out of semi-retirement was particularly questionable. He finished 25th. “You can’t pick a hit by committee,” insists an industry wallah. This time the decision has been outsourced. BMG, a record label, picked both song and performer.
Britain’s problems ultimately lie with another sort of democracy, the pan-European telephone vote which—combined with the verdict of an expert panel—decides the contest’s ultimate winner. That Greece keeps voting for Cyprus may not entirely be explained by the Cypriots’ undoubted lyricism. In a popularity contest, it helps to be popular. But the only countries who consistently back Britain are Ireland and Malta. Brexit will hardly have won more friends. Britain should focus less on its routines and more on diplomatic footwork.
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Taking back control”