MONTHLY BLOG 127, World citizens in the twenty-first century are generating an ‘international sphere’ of public opinion, outside and beyond the control of national governments.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Fig.1 Globe in Speech Bubble by Moilleadóir (2009):
from WikiMedia Commons

There is today a growing international sphere of public opinion. It stretches well outside and beyond the control of national governments. It is purely informal; often fragmented; and lacking direct power. Nonetheless it is an identifiable liberal trend in world history – which is causing particular anxieties for repressive states. As a result, there are also hostile forces, working against the emergent international sphere. Yet the global advance of mass literacy since c.1800 is laying the foundation (in 2015. 86% of adults across the world were able to read and write);1 the diffusion of print continues to fan the fire; and the advent of personal computing, plus especially the invention of the world-wide-web in 1989, has thrown (metaphorically) petrol on the blaze.

Not all, but many citizens are now sharing and debating ideas world-wide. The numbers participating are likely to grow. And, in time, the strength of global public opinion, when united, will increasingly influence governments. To take one example, there may well be international people-power calling for faster action to cope with climate change. Of course, global public opinion will not always agree – any more than does public opinion within any nation-state. But debates are part and parcel of all civic life. In other words, it’s better to have people arguing and voting rather than fighting and killing.

This collective arena has recently been identified as a ‘global civil order’.2 And others detect the operation of an ‘international sphere’.3 That latter terminology is a verbal adaptation from an earlier usage, popularised by the German social philosopher, Jürgen Habermas.4 Writing of western Europe in the eighteenth century, he identified the advent of a new ‘public sphere’ or civic arena, which he contrasted with the ‘private sphere’ of the domestic household. Details of his interpretation are disputed. The two spheres were not as separate and self-contained as Habermas assumed. And his dichotomy between the supposedly ‘male’ and ‘bourgeois’ civic sphere and the supposedly ‘female’ household was not nearly as clear cut either.5

Nonetheless, an adapted version of overlapping, rather than separate, spheres is a helpful one, In the course of the eighteenth century, an increasingly literate population across Britain joined in debating ideas and ideologies in books, newspapers, homes, schools, theatres, market-places, coffee-houses, and debating chambers – all the way from private societies to national legislatures.6 And today the debates are taking places not only in household, local and national spheres but also internationally. There is no need to choose between one civic forum or another: they interconnect and overlap. Individuals can thus share interests not only locally but also with others across Planet Earth.

One criticism of this emergent trend was voiced in Britain in 2016 by the then Conservative premier Theresa May. Those individuals who view themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ are really, she claimed, ‘citizens of nowhere’. She further implied that the would-be internationalists were talking just to other international elites, and were betraying their fellow citizens ‘who live down the road’.7 Some cheered. But many, including some of her fellow Conservatives, rebuked her myopia. People should be praised, not blamed, for taking seriously their responsibilities to the global community that lives on Planet Earth. Today, that point is being underlined, more emphatically than ever, by the Covid pandemic and by galloping climate change.

At this point, it’s worth stressing that the emergent international sphere is not in itself hostile to the world’s governments in general (even if specific governments may be strongly opposed). On the contrary, the global exchange of ideas and opinions depends upon a degree of international order. Chronic armed conflict between rival nations clearly does not promote reasoned discourse.

So the achievements of national governments, from the early twentieth century onwards, have been vital, in establishing an institutional framework for international cooperation.8 It doesn’t always work. Crucially, however, this framework does exist. Key bodies include: the League of Nations (founded 1920), followed by the United Nations (1945); plus Interpol (1923); the World Bank (1944), the World Health Organisation (1948); the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT: 1948), followed by the World Trade Organisation (1995),9 the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare (1949); the International Telecommunications Union (1965), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996) and, not least, the International Criminal Court (1998). Support for such initiatives came from national populations who backed governments in thinking internationally; and these changes in turn encouraged further international thinking among ordinary citizens.

All the ensuing non-governmental global conversations are thoroughly diverse. Some are initiated by individual activists. The role of Greta Thunberg, the youthful Swedish environmentalist, is one remarkable case in point, as she tours the world to highlight the need for urgent action on climate change.10

At the same time, many non-governmental links are sustained by an immense number of global organisations.11 Sporting associations had practical reasons for collating their rules. Leading the way in 1881 was the International Gymnastics Federation. Another leader was the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA; founded 1904). Other groups which think globally include the churches; trade unions; professions; academics; librarians; scientists; doctors; and many specialist occupational groups, such as investment bankers. All these, and many others, run international organisations. One venerable and still thriving body is Apimondia, founded by the world’s bee-keepers in 1897.12

There are also numerous international aid or development agencies (some with government funding; many without). These bodies indicate that the charitable impulse, found within most countries, is now being energetically applied world-wide.13 Significantly, too, global lobbying on contentious global issues has grown ever more vigorous. In 2007, Avaaz, an American non-profit web-based organization, rallies international support to advance a liberal-left (non-ideological) agenda, opposing climate change, corruption, poverty, and conflict – and supporting human rights and animal rights.14 By contrast, some international networks deliberately operate on the dark side: those of criminals. money-launderers and people-traffickers, being prime cases.15 Unsurprisingly, these people do not contribute to the global discourse, but are instead the   subject of earnest international debate, in the difficult quest to curb them.

Another admirable set of organisations are devoted to literary and cultural matters. One congenial case is the Robert Burns World Federation, founded in 1885. Run by enthusiasts, it is a charity that promotes and celebrates Scotland’s most famous poet and song-writer. And it provides organisational links for a world-wide network of Burns Clubs (numbering over 250 in 2013).16 The fact that this Federation has now flourished for well over a century is impressive.

Robert Burns has also proved to be a song-writer for the world. In 1788, he wrote Auld Lang Syne, celebrating friendship and remembrance. Set to a traditional Scottish tune, the song has now been translated into at least 41 languages. Not only is it sung at private parties, but it is regularly performed in many countries at graduations, passing-out army parades, and festivities at the turn of the Old Year/New Year.17 It has thus become the world’s most frequently sung song, giving the international sphere an unofficial anthem. (‘We’ll drink a cup of kindness then/ For the sake of auld lang syne’). Once on a visit in Japan, I gave an ad hoc rendering, only to be asked by my audience, with pleased surprise, how I knew this traditional Japanese song so well.18

These internationalist thoughts have been triggered by my participation in the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies/ Société internationale d’étude du dix-huitième siècle, of which I am currently President.19 This body, founded in 1963, is now nearing its 60th anniversary. It is run on a shoe-string, without any institutional backing, and has 35 affiliated national and regional societies (some more active than others). Together, its membership may be viewed as an update of the eighteenth-century scholars’ ecumenical Republic of Letters.20 And today the Society proudly contributes to the international sphere.


1 See variously D. Vincent, The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2020); M. Roser and E. Otriz-Ospina, Literacy (2013) in website:

2 See D. Laqua, W. Van Acker and C. Verbruggen (eds), International Associations and Global Civil Society: Histories of the Union of International Associations (2019).

3 See two recent book titles: B. Winter and L. Sorbera, Contending Legitimacy in World Politics: The State, Civil Society and the International Sphere in Twenty-First Century Politics (2018); and C.R. Alexander, Frontiers of Public Diplomacy: Hegemony, Morality and Power in the International Sphere (2021).

4 See J. Habermas, Strukturwandel der Bürgerlichen Öffentlichkeit (1963), in 4th edn. (Neuwied, 1969), transl. as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Mass., 1989). p. 40.

5 For one pertinent critique among many, see J.A. Downie, ‘The Myth of the Bourgeois Public Sphere’, in C. Wall (ed.), A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2004), pp. 58-79.

6 See e.g. H. Barker, Newspapers, Politics and Public Opinion in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford, 1998); H. Kerr, D. Lemmings and R. Phiddian, Passions, Sympathy and Print Culture: Public Opinion and Emotional Authenticity in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Basingstoke, 2015); and M. Ellis (ed.), Eighteenth-Century Coffee-House Culture, Vols. 1-4 (2017).

7 For the full text of Theresa May’s speech to Conservative Party Conference on 5 October 2016, see The Spectator:

8 See e.g. I. Trauschweizer, Temple of Peace: International Cooperation and Stability since 1945 (Athens, Ohio, 2021); and meditations on future prospects by D.R. Kelley, Understanding a Changing World: The Alternative Futures of the International System (Lanham, Md, 2021).

9 B. Spiesshofer, Responsible Enterprise: The Emergence of a Global Economic Order (Munich and Oxford, 2018).

10 See A. Chapman, Greta Thunberg and the Climate Crisis (2020), and a detailed summary, covering her achievements, her school-fellow colleagues, and her critics, in:

11 Listed in Laqua, Van Acker and Verbruggen (eds), International Associations. as cited above n.1.

12 See

13 See S. Harland, D. Griffiths, and L. Walker (eds), The International Development Directory (2001); and Directory of International Development and Relief Agencies (2021), in

14 For details, see

15 See e.g. D.R. Liddick, The Global Underworld: Transnational Crime and the United States (2004); and M. Glenny, McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld (Toronto, 2009).

16 For further information, see

17 See

18 Translated as 蛍の光 / Hotaru no Hikari.

19 See the ISECS/SIEDS website, hosted by the University of Trois Rivières, Canada:

20 Among a large literature, see D. Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994); A. Goldgar, Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680–1750 (1995); G. Ostrander, Republic of Letters: The American Intellectual Community, 1776–1865 (Madison, Wis., 1999); J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 (Oxford, 2001); S. Dalton, Engendering the Republic of Letters: Reconnecting Public and Private Spheres in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2003); and A. Lilti, The World of the Salons: Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Oxford 2015).

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Elections again! And public moodiness at being asked to decide on weighty matters once more. The last thing that Britain’s campaigners for a democratic franchise ever imagined was that electors, once enfranchised, would not use their votes. Was it for nothing that the democratic campaigners known as the Chartists in the 1840s were thrown into gaol? or that imprisoned suffragettes in the 1900s were force fed? But it’s turned out that achieving a flourishing democracy, defined as the full participation of all citizens in the political process, requires more than simply legislating to extend the franchise.
2017-06 No1 who-cares-1-620x250
People have to want to use their vote. One immediate possibility is to adopt the Australian system, where since 1924 it been compulsory for all citizens to register for elections and to cast a vote.1 Spoiling the ballot paper, to cast a non-vote, is allowed. It amounts to ‘abstaining in person’, to borrow a resonant phrase from Frank McGuire (an independent Irish Republican MP), when he travelled to the House of Commons from Belfast on 28 March 1979 but declined to vote to save the Callaghan government. It then fell by a margin of one vote, ushering in eleven years of Margaret Thatcher.

I personally hanker after the benefits of compulsory voting, provided that the system always gives scope for returning a blank paper. On the other hand, there are arguments against as well as for this process. Voters don’t always like it – their democratic choice? Hence some countries have switched from compulsory to optional systems. Take, for example, the Netherlands: in 1917, it introduced compulsory voting, along with the advent of a universal adult franchise; but in 1967 it abolished this requirement.

Another complication comes when voters resist compulsion, even while it remains their legal duty. That’s reported as happening in Brazil, which is the world’s largest country to have compulsory voting. Nonetheless, at the presidential election in 2014, over 30 million electors (about 21 percent of all those registered) did not vote. It’s still a good turnout but the sheer number of people flouting the law is very high. In effect, their aggregate non-participation means that compulsory voting has been de facto sidelined.

Anyway, in Britain this option is not on the political agenda. So what else might be done to encourage voting? One answer is instrumentalist. Tell young people in particular that their interests are being overlooked because their percentage participation has fallen steeply from the levels once taken as the norm in the postwar years. In 1992, 66% of young adults aged 18-24 and on the electoral register voted, compared with 38% in 2005 and 44% in 2015.2 And the decline is even larger, if the number of young people who are not on the electoral register is taken into account. No wonder politicians have turned their attention to the older generations and there is talk of ‘intergenerational warfare’.

It’s true that there are no reserved ‘student seats’, so young people’s votes are widely scattered across many constituencies. Hence many say (rather than ask): why bother? Nevertheless, politicians will get their statisticians to pore over survey data to see which demographic groups bothered to vote. So the answer is: you have to bother, to get noticed politically.

Yet it’s clearly not good enough to view the questions in purely instrumentalist terms. Voting means contributing to the full democratic community, not just calculating ‘what’s in it for me?’ So it’s sad and even sinister for the good health of a democracy to have lots of young people who are either apathetic or alienated. Spoiling one’s ballot paper is one thing. Not bothering to turn out to vote is bad news for society as a whole and also for the absentee young voters themselves. They are depriving themselves of constitutional involvement (no matter how dry and dusty) in the world in which they live: as it were, consigning themselves to victimhood.

So what can be done to encourage voting among the won’t-vote brigades of all ages? Some of the answers point to the politicians. Their campaigning styles, for example. Electors are alienated if those seeking their votes appear too robotic, lacking spontaneity and authenticity. Even more depends on politicians’ achievements in office. If they offer high and perform low, then cynicism becomes rife. (A degree of scepticism is good – but not corrosive cynicism).

There’s an additional major problem from the mainstream press, which loves melodrama. It slams politicians as robotic if they conform boringly to the party line but equally attacks them as confused or ignorant or dastardly if they stray the tiniest bit off-message. Let alone the problems generated and multiplied endlessly by the social media, which encourage an unsavoury mix of either undue adulation or venomous personal hostility.3

Another big looming question focuses upon how much governments themselves can buck the big impersonal trends of global history. So many things – like international finance markets, international businesses, international social media, international terrorism, international crime, world-wide climate change, environmental pollution, and so forth – seem to operate beyond the current scope of democratic control and regulation, which is depressing, to say the least.4 If politicians in a national forum seem powerless, then no wonder that individual voters at grass roots level feel even less in control of their own or the nation’s destiny. But, in response to such challenges, the answers have to be more, not less, democratic engagement.

It’s not just the politicians who are responsible. So what about the voting process itself? Can the system be made more user-friendly? In the eighteenth century (in the minority of large constituencies with a wide franchise), voters cast their votes publicly.5 An election was a community occasion, with elements of the carnivalesque. Crowds turned out to hear the candidates speak from the open hustings and to cheer or boo the electors as they voted. Flags were flown and party favours sported. The fact that voters literally stood up to be counted, before all their friends and neighbours, made open voting the purest form of voting, in the opinion of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. It would force citizens to think of the public good, and not just their personal self-interest: ‘The best side of their character is that which people are anxious to show’.6

13.4 Rowlandson Westminster Election 1808

Fig.2 Rowlandson’s 1808 view of a Westminster parliamentary election, where candidates address the crowds from the specially constructed wooden hustings, erected in front of St Paul’s Covent Garden.

But, ever since the introduction of the secret ballot (1872 in Britain), the process of voting lost its element of community participation. And that’s become even more noticeable since the advent of postal voting on demand (2001 in Britain). The process has become not just secret but utterly individualised and secretive. No doubt that’s one of the reasons that the traditional party posters have virtually disappeared from people’s windows.

There were and are excellent reasons to protect electors from undue pressure. But it’s not good to lose the excitement and community involvement involved in an election, which is a collective event with a collective impact.

Perhaps there might be parties or at least a cup of tea on offer for those who vote in person in polling stations? And/or an on-line App for millions of people to record: ‘I’ve voted! Have you?’ And what about practice elections in schools? And constituency or regional Youth Parliaments? And networks of local societies – and/or student societies – linked for campaigning purposes? Let alone shop-floor democracy at work? And ways for isolated workers in large-scale enterprises to link up into organised networks? Plus, of course, an effective electoral registration system, which encourages rather than discourages people to get into the system.

Political life should never be a simple top-down process. Instead, democracy is an entire lifestyle and lifetime commitment to participation. Voters are invited to insert their own meanings into the processes. All the same, it’s no surprise that the Chartist demand for annual parliamentary elections is the only item of their visionary six-point programme that has not yet been adopted.7 Moreover, voters’ election-fatigue suggests that it is unlikely to gain mass support any time soon. Instead, it’s more important to revise and update the electoral processes to recover full community involvement in a true community event.

1 The information in this and the following two paragraphs comes from:

2 E. Phelps, ‘Young Adults and Electoral Turnout in Britain: Towards a Generational Model of Political Participation’ (University of Sussex European Institute [SEI], Working Paper 92, 2006); ‘Why Aren’t Young People Voting?’ University of Warwick Background Paper’ (c.2006); and

3 Among a growing literature, see e.g. A. Bruns and others (eds), The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics (2015); T. Highfield, Social Media and Everyday Politics (Cambridge, 2016); S. Shaked (ed.), The Impact of Social Media on Collective Action (Oxford, 2017).

4 For a meditation on that theme, see J. Lanchester, ‘Between Vauxhall and Victoria’, in London Review of Books, 39/11 (1 June 2017), pp. 3.6.

5 See variously P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting, Standing Up to be Counted?’ Monthly BLOG/53 (May 2015), in; and website ‘London Electoral History, 1700-1850’,

6 J.S. Mill, Considerations upon Representative Government (1861), ed. C.V. Shields (New York, 1958), pp. 154-64, esp. p. 164.

7 The Chartists’ six demands were: (1) universal adult male franchise (achieved in 1918; and matched by the adult female franchise in 1928); (2) voting by secret ballot (achieved in 1872); (3) equal representation via roughly equal sized-constituencies (implemented by an independent electoral commission from 1885 onwards); (4) no property qualification for candidates to stand as MP (achieved 1858); (5) payment for MPs (achieved 1911); and (6) annual parliamentary elections (not achieved). See M. Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007); D. Thompson, The Dignity of Chartism: Essays by Dorothy Thompson, ed. S. Roberts (2015).

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I know that I am not the only person with an interest in and affection for Britain’s Universities, who is deeply worried by the Universities’ collective failure to stand up to successive central governments. Many people raise this point with me. There is a general perception that Britain’s Universities do not stand up strongly enough for the values of education – and for the supreme importance of knowledge that is not subject to tampering by political leaders. The old arms-length system of governance has already been much eroded. Ministers now talk as though Universities are agencies of the central state, instead of being independent self-governing institutions.

So why are the Universities supine vis-à-vis successive governments, whether Tory, Labour or Coalition? In reply, I generally comment, rather supinely myself: ‘Oh well, he who pays the piper calls the tune’.

Yet consider the British Army. Or the National Health Service. Both are funded by central government. But both they and their supporters among the wider public can rally formidable protests at changes which they consider undesirable. So my answer doesn’t really tackle the question.

Of course, there is never universal agreement as to which policies of successive governments are or have been detrimental to academic life. That point, however, is not my concern here. Public opinion is often divided over changes to the Army or Health Service but that has not stopped campaigns either against specific changes or in favour of other innovations. The debates over what is now called the ‘Military Covenant’ constitute one example. This traditional, if entirely unwritten, pact between the armed forces and the state may potentially be traced back to sixteenth-century levies to assist disabled solders. The term, however, is novel. It arrived in 2000, courtesy of a Ministry of Defence booklet, entitled Soldiering: The Military Covenant. And it has already become a hot political issue, with contested proposals (the Coalition currently against; Labour currently in favour) to codify the vague unwritten pact into positive law, which is likely to be costly.

By analogy, is there anything like an Educational Covenant? Or, if that’s too grand, then a general Educational Concord between the state and lifelong learners? What would it comprise? But no, education is a fragmented cause. And in the UK the Universities fall within the remit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Skills! Yes, they are necessary. But what an insult to Knowledge and Learning, without which skills don’t work.

Why was there no outcry from the Universities? One answer must certainly be that the elite institutions within the tertiary sector view themselves, and are reciprocally viewed, as part of a nebulous but nonetheless discreetly powerful ‘Establishment’. That perception works against any forms of public lobbying or confrontation. Sound ‘chaps’ (both male and female) apply pressure discreetly behind the scenes.

The perception applies particularly to Oxford and Cambridge. And it holds whether individual Oxbridge dons are languid establishment-types; or scatty bohemian-intellectuals; or (comparatively rare these days) earnest workerist men and women of the people; or (even rarer) zingy Morris Zapps jetting around the world from conference to conference; or (very common) harassed professionals with a preoccupied look as they continually chase behind a hundred tasks that are never done.

Behind-the scenes lobbying, however, doesn’t work nowadays – even for the elite. And it does nothing to combat out-of-date assumptions about Universities. The power of traditional assumptions is sufficiently great that Tom Sharpe’s satire of Porterhouse as a bastion of upper-class privilege, anti-intellectualism, anti-feminism, organisational incompetence, and elaborate feasting is too readily believed to be the institutional apogee to which all other tertiary institutions secretly aspire.

april001In fact, the reality is different in many ways. The tertiary sector is very variegated. It has faults, but they are often too neo-brutally managerialist rather than slumberingly Porterhousian.

Thus a second reason for the strangled public voice of the Universities stems from the divisions within the University sector. The tactics of the old-Establishment no longer work but there is no new-Establishment consensus to make a new case. The non-Oxbridge campus novels by academics Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, witty and penetrating as they are, provided further satire of a sector in quest for a viable role in a doubting world.
april002april003Divisions between Universities are now institutionalised into rival lobby organisations. The Russell Group (founded 1994) represents 20 Universities, self-defined as the research elite, constituting a limited company (no: 6086902), operating from a base in Cambridge. Feeling excluded, another 19 smaller research institutions created the 1994 Group to defend their research credentials. It operates with an Executive Board, chaired by an academic, with at least five permanent staff members. A similar corporate structure services the University Alliance, which represents 23 ‘major business-focused’ Universities. And from 1997 onwards the Campaign for Mainstream Universities (CMU) has organised 27 former Polytechnics and University colleges – then known as ‘new’ Universities although many already had long histories. This group now operates as a London-based Think-tank, known as the Million+ Group. These divisions mark a classic case of self-divide and be ruled.

Off-setting this plurality of voices and competing interests is the pan-University alliance, known as Universities UK (UUK). It began with informal meetings in the nineteenth century of a handful of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Now it serves 133 Universities and University Colleges, together with two national sub-groups comprising Higher Education Wales and Universities Scotland. Together they seek to provide a ‘definitive’ voice for all these institutions. And they do good deeds. Recently, for example, UUK helped to pressurise the Coalition government into a partial climb-down over the conditions attached to visas for overseas students – restoring some possibilities for post-study work within the UK. Nonetheless, this umbrella organisation has a difficult task in view of the organised separatism of its constituents. UUK can campaign at the level of general policies that affect all but has to tread cautiously or not at all on issues that divide its membership.

Furthermore, there is no one governmental Department that speaks to and for the educational sector. No equivalent of the Ministry of Defence, battling for the armed forces. And without such protection, education politicians often seem to be battling against the very sector which they are supposed to be leading.

Thirdly and lastly, therefore, the Universities have an urgent job of education to do. They need to explain their intrinsic value. Higher education is not only a massive economic multiplier but it’s also an essential component of the human educational endeavour – developing and transmitting to the next generation the corpus of stored and codified human knowledge to date. The more we have of it, the better for all.

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