Defending democracy

Last night, I was delighted to be invited by the Crick Centre for the Understanding of Politics to respond to an outline by Professor Stephen Brennan of his book Against Democracy (some of the key points of which are summarised in this article).

I characterised my response as being one of “blunt Australianess” – a stereotype from my origins that I probably sometimes live up to.

I argued that this book is built on three fallacies:

  1. That we currently have democracy, particularly in the UK (where we have a government that has the support of 24% of eligible voters) and the US (where 3 million more people voted for Hillary than Trump). Saying our current systems in two countries don’t work doesn’t tell us about democracy.
  1. That voting/running for office comprises entire and complete democratic engagement. The anti-fracking campaigners currently walking between Yorkshire and Lancashire, to bring support to the campaigners devoting their lives to stopping the practice are doing politics, just as the people at a workshop at the University yesterday discussing how to intervene if they see discriminatory behaviour are doing politics. The personal is political is an old feminist slogan, but it is also a reality.
  1. That “experts” can decide complex questions that include politics, economics, sociology, science, psychology, better than people whose lives are influenced by it. I want a doctor to decide whether I need an antibiotic and what antibiotic that should be. Deciding how to tackle child poverty or climate change is not something anyone is expert in in the round.

Whatever other argument you want to make, democracy is better than the alternatives. The most democratic societies in the world – the Scandinavian countries – are also broadly considered the most successful societies. I’d suggest you could create an index for genuine democracy – citizen engagement in decisionmaking, localism, proportionality of elections versus successful societies and the correlation would be very close. Finland has what’s generally agreed to be the best education in the world – and not every citizen is an expert on education.

A society in which experts decide for us would be a society of not agents, but of automatums. Professor Brennan suggests we might be creating art, or tending gardens or caring for children – without politics in those things, they’d be very dull matters indeed. I’d suggest pretty well all art is political. You might suggest that “chocolate box” scenes of pretty cottages isn’t – but in its own way that’s highly political.

Levels of knowledge about politics in the UK and US are generally low – that’s an indictment of our education systems and lack of democracy. Go to Scotland in an election and referendum campaign and knock on doors and you’ll find voters know a lot – particularly since the independence vote, when people knew their vote matters, and engaged their attention accordingly.