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At this critical time reflections on “Cultivating Democracy”

July 21st, 2019

Occasionally I have planted a gorgeous looking plant; it has flowered briefly then died.  On digging it up I find the dreaded wine weevil or roots which have made no attempt to spread into the soil and find nutrition.  It is a reminder that nourishing the hidden roots is by far a gardener’s most important task.  A plant not strong and well anchored will be blown away by the winds, destroyed by frost or succumb to malicious bugs and parasites.

As with plants, so with democracy.  The assumption these days is that its most important aspect is the ability to vote.  Elections are the visible, exuberant expression of a democracy, its flowers if you will.  These days scarcely a day goes by without some politician referring to the 2016 referendum as the biggest democratic exercise in Britain’s history, as if this were an unprecedented event, of such preciousness that nothing else should come close.  Of course voting is essential or, rather, obtaining people’s consent to their government is.  But elections, on their own, are not sufficient to make a democracy.  Iran has elections.  But even its most fervent admirer would be hard pressed to call it that.  For democracy to flourish, something more is needed: what might be termed a democratic cast of mind and approach and culture informing how the various institutions in a state and everyone from voters to political parties and politicians behave.

What does this mean?

  • An understanding that state and government are not the same.  State institutions are there to serve but are independent and impartial and not party political.  The civil service, for instance, enacts government policy but also exists to warn, improve and advise.  Blind obedience is not necessary for good policy-making and implementation; indeed, it may hinder it.
  • Winning does not mean winner takes all.  The state is not there to be plundered, stuffed with your placemen and used for your own ends.
  • Understanding that the ends do not justify the means.  How one exercises power is, in a democracy, as important as what one is trying to achieve.  A party which comes to power is – for a time – custodian of the powers and institutions of the state and has a duty to pass these on in a workable state for the next government.  The rules of the game, the constitution, the conventions, the protocols, the implicit understandings of the limits of power may be of little interest to most voters, may indeed be seen as old-fashioned, out-dated, incomprehensible folderols but they exist in all democracies and are there to ensure that power is obtained and exercised fairly and in a way which does not place such excessive strains on the system that it breaks (or comes close to doing so).
  • Realising that your time in power will be not be for ever.  One day you will be in opposition and will need the tools which can be so irritating to governments facing challenge.  If you accrete more and more power to yourself, your opponents can use it against you when are in opposition.  It is, therefore, wise to ask yourself whether you would be happy to have the worst possible opponent in government with the same powers (that you, of course, are only ever going to use wisely) at their disposal.  Perhaps those in power could remind themselves of Lord Acton’s aperçu about power and corruption.
  • Accepting the concept and reality of opposition, that the very fact of opposition or a different point of view is legitimate and that this forces you to raise your game, to justify what you are doing, to think again, to take account of different viewpoints, to modify, to realise that you may not have all the answers, to understand that the tension inherent in having to reach agreement with those who disagree can often lead to a better, more long-lasting outcome.
  • Independent institutions who have their own role to play in ensuring good governance, proper scrutiny and a properly democratic culture: the press, the judiciary, all sorts of bodies from Burke’s little platoons to bodies set up by government to scrutinise and challenge and review.
  • Leaders who understand that they are and should be open to challenge and scrutiny and MPs and others who are unafraid to challenge and scrutinise.
  • A realisation that while it is parties which win elections, once in government your primary duty is to the country.  The interests of the party are separate from the interests of the country, however much parties like to pretend otherwise.  Of course, governments make choices about who their policies will benefit and about what is electorally popular.  But only a government in the grip of hubris should claim that it represents the British people as a whole or that the winning side in a vote is somehow the Will of the People as if anyone who opposes or disagrees is somehow unBritish and to be ignored.  A difference of opinion does not make one a traitor or even misguided.  There is more than one way of analysing a problem, thinking about an issue, devising a solution.

And as in government, so for political parties.  Parties have always tended to be broad groupings with a range of opinions.  A narrow purist approach to what it means to be Labour or Conservative or Liberal or Liberal Democrat has never really taken hold.  In part, this has been because the electoral system has forced internal coalitions on parties while, at least until recently, making actual coalition governments less likely than in other European countries.  (One of today’s ironies is that just as parties become ever narrower and purist the more likely it is that they will not gain a majority but be forced into coalition with others.)  Whatever the reasons, this has reinforced an understanding that a democratic culture within parties – as well as within the country – encompasses negotiation, compromise, accommodation.   Compromise and barter are the essence of democratic politics.  They are at the heart of how differing interests and viewpoints are managed, of how trust and tolerance and respect for others are lived rather than merely asserted in speeches.

As Burke put it, it is: “a very great mistake to imagine that mankind follows up practically any speculative principle, either of government or of freedom, as far as it will go in actual argument or logical illation.”  Politicians would do well to remember this.

Idealistic: yes.  Naive: almost certainly.  In practice, politicians have not always paid attention to these principles or not as much as they ought.  But better to aim for ideals and fall short than ignore them altogether and undermine them.  And the latter seems to be happening now.  The travails of the Labour Party over anti-semitism and of the Tories over Brexit show us politicians with little implicit understanding of what a democratic culture really means:-

And so miserably on.  Implementing a referendum result should not mean taking a sledgehammer to the very democracy which made it possible.  Wanting a radical set of policies to help the less well off need not mean behaving like a nasty spiteful sect lashing out at anyone outside the charmed circle.  Perhaps the Brexit referendum caused this.  Maybe these tendencies were always there and were exacerbated by it.  It scarcely matters.  What matters now is that politicians try to remember that their biggest duty is to nurture our democracy, to make sure it lasts and flourishes and is handed on to future generations in good order.  For all the talk of Votes and Mandates, their actions are those of destructive parasites.  If not checked, they will end up killing what they claim to love.

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