I’m thinking about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit (or indeed, Brexit itself), the inability to respond well to Covid, leading to “world beating” infection rates and economic decline, Trumpism (which is not limited to the USA), the tragically slow response to climate change, the prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom and the obscene inequalities in wealth and opportunity that persist. In the UK, as in many other countries, we seem to be incapable of making fair and sensible collective decisions.
Why? Does it boil down to the self-centred ambition or mere incompetence of our politicians? To some extent, no doubt, it does, but it is far too easy to shift the blame in this way. Those who make decisions on our behalf are products of our own decisions in the ballot box. We entrust them with this responsibility, and they reflect our values.
If democracy is failing, then why? Can it be revived? In the world of the twenty-first century, has power swung decisively away from nationally elected politicians? If so, where does it now lie? How can the powerful be made accountable for the decisions they take?
For democracy to work, people need to understand and value it. We need to feel we are in a position to participate in our government, and to make properly informed decisions when we cast our votes. Political education at school is so important if this is to be acheived. It is vital that children and young people develop a sense of how their government functions, and why democracy is important. In the UK, we have not paid enough attention to this.
The way news and opinions are broadcast is also crucial. The mainstream media has too often given the impression that politicians as a breed cannot be trusted. This cynical atmosphere undermines democratic government.
The freedom of the press and broadcasting from political control has always been an important feature of democracies, but the arrival of electronic methods of communication means it is more important than ever. Also, it has also never been more difficult to achieve. Clever political marketing and spin, sometimes deliberately intended to mislead, can now with breath-taking speed be heard and seen by millions, giving new power to political opportunists.
We all have a tendency to justify the opinions we hold by seeking out other people who agree with us. The social media now make this much easier, with the result that prejudices are reinforced and mutual understanding is made more difficult.
Another challenge confronting democratic government is that national boundaries now matter much less than they did. Globalisation has profoundly changed our lives in a myriad of ways. The decisions made by individuals and businesses are increasingly only understandable when looked at within a global context. Most political decisions, however, are still made at the level of the nation state. This disjunction is highly significant, as it makes it much more difficult for politics to address the issues that matter most. To make matters worse, the power of trans-national political bodies like the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the European Union seems to be reducing.
Whether and how democracy can survive these, and no doubt many other challenges, is far from clear. No-one can pretend to know how things will unfold in the decades to come. The mess we’re in, nationally and internationally, shows that things need to change. Perhaps we need a greater emphasis on collective action, and less on individual freedom, in order to take decisions in an effective and timely way.
There will be a price to pay, and without a new kind of political leadership we will not succeed. We need stable and courageous leadership based on values and an integrity we respect. A leadership that can take on the vested interests of the minority. The only way this is likely to happen is as a result of a significant change of mood in the country as a whole. The mess we’re in will probably have to deepen before that happens. Perhaps, in time, the present Covid crisis will prove to be a wake-up call.