This October, the Athens Democracy Forum will bring together actors from across the world to examine the current threats to democracy from the refugee crisis subsuming Europe, Africa and the Middle East and the rise of terrorist attacks which challenge the core ideals of democracy, to the rise of populism and the spectre of authoritarianism together with the accelerating erosion of trust in our political systems.
It is in this context that Ban-Ki Moon, secretary general of the United Nations, has asked the Athens Democracy Forum “How do we turn the democratic tide?” I ask, is it a tide that needs turning, or do we instead need to reimagine liberal democracy in the context of the 21st century? Is it in fact democracy being threatened, or is it rather that the power dynamics of the 20th century liberal elites is crumbling?
The British Context
The view from the UK is quite distinct and must be seen in the context of the vote to leave the EU in June 2016. The result of the referendum appeared unexpected to the governing elites and the nations of the UK received a jolt. The overall UK result was a mandate from the British people to leave the EU. The leave majority was clear in England and Wales, but majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. The UK is now potentially operating on the cusp of radical political change. Those leaders who were in place before the referendum have left the scene and new personalities and dynamics are emerging, but into what we don’t yet know.
The referendum shone a light on deep fissures in British society, but fissures which I suspect are not purely a British concern. Until this crisis point they had been concealed, perhaps by centrist politics and its attempts to provide a unifying umbrella over the last decades, perhaps not. Ugly divides have been revealed along a number of fault lines: between generations, urban and rural, Scotland and England and along social class lines. These are not new phenomena, but they are phenomena that the political system thought it had overcome. Perhaps, it turns out, it might just have avoided them for the last few decades. And the decades of peoples increasing alienation from the liberal elites has finally exploded into very public view? Old schisms are baring themselves once again, this time overlaid with added complexities from the current global context.
A new politics?
A new system of political affiliation is emerging in the UK: one that the current British political party system does not seem able to accommodate. Parties are polarising, with the 20th century socialist versus capitalist dichotomy reasserting itself, but against a background of liberal and neoliberal policies.
Is it democracy that has led to the situation we are in: is democracy the solution? I would argue that the EU referendum was anything other than democratic. Yes, it asked peoples opinion, but it failed to engage us in any further deliberative process. It asked a simple yes or no question about a multifaceted set of trade, political, cultural and economic relationships.
Failure of democracy?
The question itself forced us to select black or white as our political affiliation instead of encouraging us to investigate the innumerable shades of grey in between. The resultant divisions within the population, coupled with the clear lack of any roadmap for Brexit once the vote had come through lead to a plethora of top-level political resignations and the emergence of a divided people. Accusations of lying and of misleading the electorate have been levelled at both sides of the referendum campaign. This has served to polarise politics, according to whom people choose to believe.
In Scotland, where people voted 60:40 in favour of remaining in the EU, the First Minister has said that Scotland will not leave. This triggers further worries about a split of the United Kingdom as a consequence of the EU referendum. It starkly highlights the existing geopolitical fault lines between the nations of the Union.
One question being asked at the Athens Democracy Forum is How should nations, and citizens, navigate the ever-changing geopolitical landscape? This is particularly relevant in the UK in 2016.
The global context
The British example cannot be seen in isolation from the wider European, and indeed the global context. The political situations in Greece, Austria, France and Hungary, but also those in the USA, in Syria, in Turkey and in Somalia are impacting the development of attitudes in the UK and influencing political affiliations and responses.
In a globally interconnected world, each democratic engagement of any individual must be seen in the context of that persons attitudes not just to the nation state, but also their sense of identity, their sense of family and their relationship with the prevailing power structures locally, nationally and internationally. One nod to democratic participation in the form of a yes no referendum should shake the very foundations of democracy, but it seems self-evident that neither the UK, nor the context in which it operates can continue with business as usual.
The Athens Democracy Forum comes at a fascinating time in history.