Ah democracy! That inspiring dream, that brave and elusive venture, that noble truth! Well, not quite. Democracy is just a form of government. It is based on the idea that people should be in charge of their own destiny. But democracy is not an idea or a principle, but a very real attempt to give ‘power to the people’. As such, it is always imperfect, intrinsically faulty, as human beings are, and bound to historical changes. It cannot escape the conflicts that have shaped human history. Indeed, democracies have been forged precisely by the clash between the pursuit of power and the quest for justice. They are not a gift of the gods, but the ugly and clumsy child born from the belief in equality and liberty for all. They might be the best form of government, but that is so because they are the slow and painful process of recognising human beings as equal. Democratic institutions are always 'work in progress'. This means that nothing of democracy can be taken as a given or as sacred.
Portillo's Power to the People
The UK has a form of representative democracy with some elements of deliberative (direct) democracy, such as referenda and petitions. There is no one single model to be followed. As the times change, democracies around the world are required to change to be relevant. The 21st century seems to be stirring people’s appetite for more and better democracy. In short, democracy is ‘up for grabs’. This seems to be the message of Michael Portillo’s Power to the Peopletarget="_blank". It is an interesting programme that shows the intricacies of devising a better way for people to be ‘in charge’. However, it doesn’t ask two fundamental questions: what is power and who are the people?
Is power the ability to influence decisions that affect us? Is it the acting together for the common good? Is it taking decisions? What decisions?
Who are ‘the people’? In our system, it’s those who are registered at an address in a specific locality. So if you live in Penarth but work in Cardiff and have elderly parents in Swansea, three different local authorities take decisions that affect you directly.
Where is Democracy?
According to the EU principle of subsidiarity, decisions need to be taken at the level closest to the people most affected. The other EU principle of ‘proportionality’ establishes that whatever is decided ‘in Brussels’ needs to be interpreted and adapted to the local situation. This is generally ignored by Westminster. Our unimaginative civil servants love following the rules to the letter regardless of their impact. It all gets blamed on Brussels anyway, as if UK politicians weren’t those taking the decisions in Brussels!
The implementation of these two principles is where democracy is to be found. It is an every day thing happening in Councils, Assemblies, Parliaments, but also residents’ meetings and, of course, in the media.
It seems to me that notwithstanding all the rhetoric, the politicians and the people of the media are too often the same type of people stuck together in a bubble. I watch Question Time with intense frustration at the lack of imagination and originality panellists show. I can understand why people feel turned off by politics and that their voice is not heard. I’d like more of a say too (and I’m elected!). I’d like to see local democracy strengthened rather starved of cash and stumped upon by other legislatures and bureaucracies. I’d like more direct forms of democracy, but this needs to be thought out thoroughly.
The Power of Populism
Portillo looks at the example of an elected Sheriff in the US. The Sheriff, with all his tough rhetoric and practice is an excellent example of populism. Portillo doesn’t like that but doesn’t reflect on populism and is left perplexed. After all, we are all part of the ‘populus’, so why is populism bad and democracy good? I believe populism is bad because it does not empower people. It plays on fears and easy solutions. It uses popular support to trump the idea of democracy.
As above mentioned, democracy rests on the ideas of equality and liberty. Democracy is not a stand alone idea or a principle. It’s an attempt at implementing equality and liberty. Thus, populistic democracy, by denying the rights and liberties of the minority, denies equality and liberty. Of course, it is impossible to find out what each one of us wants and needs or, indeed, values. Thus, we delegate decisions to the representatives of the majority (that’s why it’s important to have good electoral arrangements). However, the ‘majority’ is a compromise, it’s the imperfect expression of what most citizens want and need. It is not enlightened. It has no better understanding what is ‘good’.
Therefore, the democratic will is not above rights, because it is these rights that democracies need to pursue. Democracy is a means to an end. It is the process through which we, as a society, seek to recognise and uphold the rights and freedoms of every one whilst living together peacefully. Human rights, so often vilified by some UK politicians as a foreign imposition, are what democracies are all about. Without rights and liberties, democracies quickly become tyranny: the tyranny of the majority.