Isn’t it time we got serious about democracy?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, December 12th 2019

Democracy is not in good health in the UK or across most of the developed world. The UK election has not been, putting it mildly, an edifying spectacle or healthy clash of ideas and interests. Instead, it has signalled something deeply wrong in the democratic process – something that the political classes do not seem to understand needs to fundamentally change.

This election has not felt owned by people. Rather it has felt like something done to voters by others. This malaise is evident everywhere in the ever present vox pops with one voter declaring on Monday that politics and politicians were even invading morning TV, sighing about the election: ‘we cannot escape it’.

The inference is that we are far removed from the age when people themselves created and could see themselves collectively in the democratic process. No longer do people feel this is their democracy; rather it feels like someone else’s story – an exercise in window dressing run for the benefit of the political classes.

Once upon a time election campaigns happened out there – in constituencies up and down the land – and then those events and occasions were reported in the media. Nowadays, there is little real campaigning in the traditional sense, but all sorts of stand-alone, pop up, voter contact and virtual events and happenings. Much of this, if not nearly all of this, is done to provide the media, particularly the broadcast media, with content and pictures. We have turned full circle in the campaign-media relationship, with the latter reporting activities that are not organic or grass root, but rather a replica and pretence – and voters can sense it.

This is not an attempt to blame the media for deep problems of democracy and civic engagement. That would be too easy and superficial. What has happened is that a wider and long-term crisis of democracy has occurred across the globe that has then been magnified and multiplied by the way politics is covered in the media.

This has led to an environment across many countries where the purpose, practice and civil understanding of what democracy is, and how it is lived out in everyday life, has become significantly eroded. This is evident through numerous studies and threads about democratic engagement in the UK – and is now staring us in the face at this election.

A major breaking point in the UK came with the 2016 Brexit vote followed by three years of parliamentary and public deliberation. This is not a pro or anti-Brexit point, but instead about the state of democracy. In the three years hence, there has been a rising tide of anger, frustration and incomprehension about the actions and behaviours of elected representatives in the Commons. Some have argued that the sacrosanct ‘will of the people’ is being denied. Others that the Leave vote was won on a fraudulent mandate by a campaign which broke electoral law.

Running through these sentiments is people, Remain or Leave, feeling that their views are not being respected or honoured. Underpinning this is a widespread confusion about what the role of elected national representatives is meant to be, particularly in light of a UK-wide referendum: one which was obviously sanctioned by those same MPs.

One central tension in this is between representative and participative democracy. The former was once one of the main pillars of the British constitution and of the Burkean-Bagehot tradition of seeing MPs as representatives who do not take their direct orders from the public. Instead, they deliberate, have an independent mind, take a judgement on an issue, and on occasion, act on their conscience. In this view, MPs are not meant to be delegates; the dominant view trying to hold to this for fear of the mob and revolutionary fervour, without ever saying so too explicitly.

Representative democracy is not in a good state. It has been let down by political parties which have been hollowed out, become much more remote and less anchored in social interests, and the rise of career politicians. The traditional role of politicians has been to be legislators and interpreters, which has weakened dramatically. They have become increasingly poor at the former, while in the latter they have come under increasing competition from a host of other voices.

The malaise is a much more profound one than the above and just focusing on contemporary problems. It goes to the heart of democracy and the ambiguities that can be found there. Firstly, there has always a lack of consensus about what is meant by democracy. Academic Larry Diamond came up with a good try in his 2004 lecture ‘What is Democracy?’ giving four areas – choosing and being able to replace a government; active participation by citizens in public life; protection of human rights of all citizens; and the rule of law.

Secondly, where is the debate on the arenas of public life and society in which we express democracy? This has conventionally in all countries that see themselves as democracies come to be narrowly understood in the political sphere. Thus, across large areas of society, such as economic power, we have barely begun a serious attempt at economic democracy, and any initiatives to do so have nearly always been sporadic and short-lived.

Critical to the state of democracy is understanding its foundational story. This is usually presented in much of the literature as the notion that the Greeks gave us the modern meaning, if not quite the practice, of democracy. The writer Alev Scott was giving this conventional take of the roots of democracy only last week, promoting her book, ‘Power and the People: Five Lessons from the Birthplace of Democracy’. But just because the Greeks gave us the word ‘demokratia’ meaning power (kratos) of the people (demos) does not mean this is the complete beginning of the story.

The Greeks did not invent democracy. They gave the world the word which was given English and wider translation. The etymology is crucial, and is similar to how we now understand the rich mosaic of philosophy: another word the Greeks gave the world, but we now know has a much more global set of origins.

Thus, scholars of ancient societies have undertaking archeological exercises into cultures and found numerous examples of democratic practice pre-Greece. They have found in the world’s first city-states, in the Middle East, the Indus Valley in South Asia, and in China, cases of democratic practice. For example, in Mesopotamia in the era of the Assyrian Empire (2025-609 BCE) they found evidence of participatory democracy, checks and balances on power, people’s assemblies, and the rule of law.

This has led academics to come to the conclusion that when human societies begin to form the impulse to embrace democracy is universal. This is a very different take from the well-worn view that the Greeks gifted us the idea and practice. But this means more than putting the Greeks in the context of other societies. It means we have to rethink the story of democracy.

The usual Whig story of the march of democracy goes like this according to Benjamin Isakhan in ‘The Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy’:

… scholars of democracy and its history have been content to rattle off a familiar catalogue of events that emphasise the key moments of Western civilisation: the achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans; the development of the British Parliament; the American Declaration of Independence; the French Revolution; and the gradual spread of democracy across the globe at the end of the Cold War.

If some readers think that is a Ladybird book-like caricature which has long gone, here is Alev Scott and co-author Andronike Makres in their book published last month, writing about the long winter of democracy after Greece and Rome: ‘Democracy effectively vanished from the world until the eighteenth century, when it returned in spirit with the revolutions in France and America …’

This is a selective history, not only Eurocentric, but a privileged story of a very narrow part of humanity. It doesn’t have a fundamental curiosity for asking where did democracy come from, and what does the answer to that question say about the predicaments of today. In its linear path to the triumphs of 1989 and collapse of the Soviet bloc it also contains a belief in the superior values of the Western reading of this version of democracy: this narrow version which has after all only allowed the democratisation of a small slither of public life.

The future vibrancy of democracy, its relevance and wider direction and purpose is inextricably linked to understanding the rich mosaic of its roots across the world and how coming together to make decisions, exert power and become a civic people and citizens, seems to be something which goes to the core of what we understand to be human.

If that is the case we need to have a degree of worry about the retreat of democracy across the globe and its atrophy and decay in countries such as the UK. Democracy is about more than politics, and more than party politics and elections. It is about how we hold power to account and collectively inhabit and animate that power ourselves.

If we are to get serious about democracy we have to recognise that we cannot continue to put up with the shallow imitation that is the election we have just witnessed. Such pretences are not going to end in a good place: with the decline of trust, facts, debate and decorum, and the inability to hold lies, liars and fraudsters to account.

If we really want to get real about democracy we have to map out how to make it deeper, richer and more relevant: to embrace the democratisation of democracy which would take it beyond parties and politicians and beyond its current narrow frame, and into the economic and how to hold power to account whatever its form.

There is a long story to this – and a short story. We have only had an equal franchise in the UK of men and women since 1928. We have only had equal votes for all since 1948 – a mere 71 years ago – when the university constituencies and property owner votes were abolished – both of which gave a whole section of middle class opinion extra votes. We are barely at the start of extending democracy out into wider society.

The historian E.H. Carr wrote in his 1951 book ‘The New Society’ words which are as relevant today as then:

Mass democracy is a difficult and largely uncharted territory; and we should be nearer the mark, and should have a far more convincing slogan, if we spoke of the need, not to defend democracy, but to create it.