In western Europe democracy emerged during the 19th and 20th centuries as the process of choice for selecting national governors. It came to replace the birth-right power of monarchy and aristocracy to rule, or in some cases to legitimise the power of the monarch. In the UK for example, the democratically elected House of Commons together with the aristocracy and appointed House of Lords and HRH the Queen form Her Majesty’s Government. In eastern Europe, after the fall of communism, democracy has emerged as the system of governance for nearly a quarter of a century, this with strong support from those other European countries already using democracy and extolling its virtues. Democracy is also the system that we foisted on the post-colonial world, India, Africa and others, the system that Britain, America and others export like religion – with little or no consideration for existing customs, traditions or systems of organisation. On the eve of the Athens Democracy Forum, I ask:
The purpose of democracy is to legitimise power. It identifies the rulers and provides a mandate for them to make decisions. It assumes that people are more likely to remain subjugated to a system and to people that they feel they have themselves had a hand in selecting. This is what leads politicians to make wild promises during an election (or referendum) campaign which they often fail to live up to after the event. However, democracy is, as Churchill (Hansard, 1947) put it, “the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried”. At least for those of us who espouse it. It also has its limitations, not least because to do it well – to really engage the people in self-governance – requires skill, magnanimity and courage, both by the rulers and by the people.
Is it fit for purpose in the UK in 2016?
Democracy does not work if it is simply a case of replacing the mandate to one group with that of another once every five years. It does not work if once in power the democratically elected fail to act as those who elected them expected them to act. This is where democracy fails, where political parties have taken over from imperial monarchies, creating dynasties of power. When in power they are able to create the type of democracy that will enable them to retain or regain their power: making constituencies follow voter intention lines, or social class lines; creating and defending an electoral system which favours larger, already powerful parties; selecting voting procedures that favour their existing voters and carefully selecting who is able to participate in the democracy. There are many, many more examples.
Time to look for another solution?
But how do we ensure that people have genuine power at the same time as delegating this power to an elected representative and while retaining democratic accountability? Democracy is different from ochlocracy, mob rule, but the two are easy to confuse.
The greatest weakness of democracy must surely be that it relies on people knowing – and caring – about democracy itself. People have to engage with it for it to work. It is dependent on every voter engaging with every issue – alternatively on every voter disengaging from issues, but trusting their representative to make decisions on their behalf. The problems with both these situations should be immediately apparent.
Democracy is a means of government whereby not only do people have the power to choose how they are governed, but they also have the knowledge and skills to do so wisely – to step up when they are useful and step back when they are not and to have the insight and wisdom to be able to tell the difference.
Do we prepare people to be democratic citizens? No. We have next to no citizenship education either for adults or children. We have no ministry for citizenship and democracy. We have no adult classes for democratic participation. We have no culture of teaching/learning about democracy in our society. We have no media who help inform and deliberate…
We need to reimagine a way for people to engage with society and to govern through co-decision, co-creation and kindly, inclusively, wisely and magnanimously. Not selfishly or spitefully. Not because they want power, but because they want to do good for society and in the greatest possible sense. To do that we need democracy that is kind, that listens, but also that engages people in constructive dialogue and supported decision-making.
We have a very long way to go.