The slipperiness of democracy
Please don't misunderstand what follows. I am no fan of dictatorship, of Platonic government of philosophers, of hereditary ruling monarchies, or of military juntas. I feel as strongly as most of us that the government is best when it is by, with and of the people. But I also remember one of those eye-opening moments when I was a student, sometime around 1974 -- a moment delivered by Moses Finley, the awkward, clever and charismatic Professor of Ancient History in Cambridge back then. He was lecturing us on Greek (largely Athenian) democracy, about which most of us were pretty dewey eyed and not very hard-headed.
I still remember the penny dropping when he pointed out to us that there was hardly a country in the world, of many different political systems, that did not claim to be a 'democracy' -- it was often, he insisted, used as a term more of approval than of analysis. He went on to explain that the slogan 'power to the people' was a warm one, but there was no agreed way of judging whether the power had actually been delivered. Who has a political voice in the shape of a vote is one factor (though many people happily think of Britain as 'democratic' decades, if not centuries, before women had the vote). Who has political initiative, that is who can form policy, is another. Freedom of -- and equality of -- speech often gets put into the equation. You might also take equality of access to key resources which enable full participaton in the political process, such as education or healthcare. And then there are all the differences between a direct democracy (Athenian style), a representative democracy and a delegated one (that is to say, we currently elect representatives to govern according to their best judgement not delegates who must necessarily follow the will of their constituents on each issue).
It was in recognition of this lightbulb moment that I used to ask first years when we started on ancient democracy to think of how a spokesperson for the then German Democratic Republic (which we in the west almost universally regarded as tyranny) might defend its 'democratic' elements, or conversely how the USA of UK could be presented as having a glaring democratic deficit. At first they would look baffled, but very quickly -- even if only for the sake of argument -- they would start to wonder how to weigh up freedom of speech versus freedom of access to health care, and to discuss the hereditary elements in the UK parliament and the role of immense wealth in enabling US citizens to exercise political influence. One 'man' one vote, as their definiton of democracy would usually begin, was soon looking pretty inadequate.
We could do with Moses Finley around at the moment, and with the acerbic comments he would no doubt have about our current reactions to the complexity of democracy and its discontents, both at home and abroad. How it is that both main political parties could have become so beholden to the idea of the votes of their individual party members that we nearly had the Prime Minister of the country chosen by a relatively small group of paid-up Tory constituency party members (unrepresentative even of Tory voters) -- no matter that they might have gone against the views of the majority of the elected representatives who had been voted into office by a far less unrepresentative body of voters. And the Labour party seems to have almost sold the right to choose its leader to anyone who was prepared to pay a few quid for the privilege (whether putting the price up, as they have just done, is more of less democratic I wouldn't like to say). In their case, the system was partly designed to curb the power over party elections of the unions, which since Thatcher at least have often been portrayed as an anti-democratic force in British politics. In fact, it was the unions that in many cases provided 'democratic' access to political power for those outside the traditional elite, and offered a schooling in political debate and arguent that was as good as the Oxford Union. I've heard a couple of times over the last week that May's new cabinet is the first since Attlee's to have a majority of members who did not attend independent school. How did Attlee manage that, so many decades ago? Well I haven't done all the checking down to the last man (sic), but I would be very surprised if it wasnt union training that lay behind the success.
And as for the attempted coup in Turkey, not much nuance was on show, in the first few days at least, when we discussed what this meant for Turkish 'democracy' (as if, in any case, it was identical to our own). Most 'democratic' western 'leaders' deplored the attempted forcible overthrow of an elected 'democratic' government. And fair enough, government by the force of arms is hardly compatible with the rule of the people (many of whom, on both sides, tragically died). But then neither is imprisoning journalists, as has been going on in Turkey at ever increasing levels, or now dismissing and imprisoning judges. So does that make the coup legitimate? Well, it isn't as easy as that (if it was, there would be a lot of other countries where the military might feel justified to intervene). But it would be good to remember, before we so confidently pontificate, that democracy is not simply reducible to the idea of 'democratically elected governments', and it doesn't come in just one form, and -- lets face it -- historically it has been brought about in many ways, including violence. From the very beginning Athenian 'democracy' wasn't the result of gradual, peaceful reform; it was literally fought over. That was also something that Finley tried to get into the heads of us dewey eyed, over optimistic, and slighty naive students.
PS: When I was putting this together I found this excellent blog by Conor Farrington on the House of Lords and the possibilities of unelected democracies... worth reading.