Democratic government in the UK can only prosper when the country’s institutions are strong and functioning well. A healthy institutional life prevents ambitious individuals from gaining excessive personal power. Many of our most important institutions are closely connected to the Government itself – Parliament, the Civil Service, the Judiciary, the Police, Local Councils. It is vital, in the interests of democracy, that they have independent identities and clearly understood and defined responsibilities. Other institutions are more detached from Government. Some have a national role, like the BBC, the NHS, leading charities and Trades Unions, but most are more limited in scope. They are nonetheless important in maintaining a social structure within which democracy can operate.
Two processes are undermining these institutions. One is globalism, which has resulted in the creation of world-wide corporations beyond the political control of the UK, or any national government, other, perhaps, than China and the USA. Their financial muscle and their ability to shape opinion are huge and expanding. The other process is political opposition, which has the effect of a steady decline in respect and trust for these institutions. They are often depicted as wasteful, enemies of the interests of ordinary people and bastions of a minority’s self-interests. Financial penalties follow.
There may be truth in some of these accusations, and reforms may need to be made. The overall effect of such “populist” attacks, however, is a fragmentation of society, which means that those who seek power can appeal unhindered directly to the people. This endangers true democracy. Sometimes a measure of delay and inefficiency is a price that has to be paid to avoid an unhealthy centralisation of power.
One effect of Covid-19 has been a sudden and unprecedented centralisation of power, at least in peace time. This has been necessary, for a while, in order to save lives. But the disease has also highlighted the vital importance of public institutions. The NHS, the BBC, the Police, the Civil Service and Local Authorities are all absolutely vital to tackling it.
Hopefully, when it has all calmed down, the country’s debt to these organisations, and to a multitude of others, including religious and charitable ones, will result in a greater respect for their social role and an increased willingness to provide them with the money they need to do their job well. In view of the global nature of the threat, like others we face, there will hopefully also be a increased desire for more international co-operation among the world’s democracies. Part of the benefit of this could be to achieve some measure of political control over ever-more powerful international business.
There is a danger, of course, that once Government has taken increased power, it will be reluctant to give it up. It is not hard to imagine the plea being made that today’s challenges need strong leadership, action not debate, and that losing personal and institutional freedoms are sacrifices worth making if they get in the way of decisive and effective action. That way lies autocracy, and must be resisted. Another danger is a continued retreat into a narrow nationalism, in which problems are blamed on outsiders and barriers are thrown up in order to protect ourselves from the alien other.
We need to hope and pray that we learn the right lessons from Covid-19, that democratic Government survives in good health and that the world unites in confronting whatever challenges lie in the years and generations to come.