All is not well with our democracy. The referendum campaign and its consequences (not least the horrible murder of Jo Cox), the Iraq war enquiry report and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party against the wishes of its MPs, with the resulting fiasco, tell us that. A lack of trust in politicians of all persuasions is pervasive. We commonly hear the view that they are habitual liars, and are only in it for what they can get out of it for themselves.
Democracy is the political principle by which we govern ourselves. Few would deny its importance, but applying it well in practice is not easy. Sophisticated institutions and practices are required to achieve genuine democratic rule, including regular and free elections, a free press, political parties that offer genuine alternative priorities and an efficient civil service. Fundamentally, though, people need to believe in it. Once respect for democratic government is lost, and people no longer believe that those who are supposed to be representing them are serving their common interest, democracy is in trouble.
The majority of people, it seems, believe that MPs were wrong about the importance of belonging to the European Union; they were disastrously wrong to lead us into war in Iraq; they failed to control the banks; they are not in command of national finances or the economy; they are not serving the interests of large parts of the country. These criticisms may be justifiable or not. The point is that many feel our politicians are stupid, wicked, or both. And that is dangerous.
The underlying causes of this state of affairs are naturally complicated, but some things seem clear enough. One is that politicians are no worse now than they were in the past. No-one is perfect, of course, and the temptations associated with power are considerable, but with today’s greater scrutiny, standards are probably higher now then they were. I wonder how some of the great political figures of the past would have fared in the political climate of today – Gladstone, Lloyd George and Churchill, for example?
It is also clear that the crisis is not limited to the UK. Events in Europe and America, and across the world, show that it is a global challenge to democratice government.
Democratic government operates at the level of the nation state, but in many areas of life, decision making by national governments is severely limited in its effect. Nations are subject to global forces over which they have no control. Many of the major challenges we face – climate change, the mass movements of people, changing patterns of trade, etc – require an international response.
The power and character of modern media is another important challenge to democracy. Public opinion is being shaped in new ways, inconceivable until very recent times. Vivid images and slogans are constantly beamed into our homes and onto our mobile devices. We have access to more information than we can ever hope to evaluate; stories come and go with bewildering speed, some going viral and dominating the airwaves for a few days; gossip now has no limits, no longer belonging to the street or the community; thoughtless gestures and phrases are laughed at by millions; cruel lies can destroy reputations overnight. One asks how serious political life can ever survive in such an atmosphere.
In the face of such challenges we need politicians of courage and integrity. They do exist, in spite of what the media may tell us, and need and deserve our support and encouragement more then ever. We also need a realignment of our political parties to reflect more genuinely the nature of contemporary society. It is impossible to say what form this will take, but a measure of proportional representation and less adversarial confrontation between left and right (whatever those terms mean these days) would help.
We also need political structures to reflect our multiple geographical identities. We belong to our local communities and this needs to find effective political expression. We also have regional, national, international and global identities – I am a British citizen but I am also English and European, as well as a citizen of the world. If democracy is not working to some degree at these different levels, it cannot be effective as a means of government. Hopefully, the institutions that currently exist internationally will be able to strengthen their democratic credentials.
Political institutions are historically slow to change, as this involves people giving up familiar ways of accessing power. In the past this has sometimes been brought about by force or war, often with catastrophic results. Hopefully, the value of democracy compared to other forms of government can be recognized, and it will survive and prosper without such a disaster.
Peter Shepherd (July 2016)