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What price democracy?

Several news stories this week provoked questions about how the noble ideals of democracy are worked out in practice.

Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy as ‘government of the people, for the people, by the people’ sounds right but only works if the people are sufficiently motivated, informed and intellectually equipped to grapple with the complex issues confronting us. It also calls for minorities to graciously accept defeat when they disagree with majority decisions. 

Applying these criteria to the present situation in Egypt illustrate how difficult it is to practice democracy. President Morsi was the first democratically elected head of state. To be turned out by the army after one year looks like a rejection of democracy. However, the twenty million Egyptians who signed the petition calling for his removal would dispute this. They claim he has governed for the good of the Muslim Brotherhood, not all the people. He is said to have purged from office his critics and had some tortured. The Egyptian economy is a mess with 40% living on less than 2$ a day. Instead of turning the economy around, the President has sought to move Egypt towards an Islamic state. 

Another story about democracy hit our headlines this week. It concerned how Labour Party parliamentary candidates are selected. The MP for Falkirk is standing down in 2015 and the UNITE union has paid for 100 people to join the local party to influence selection of his successor. Ed Miliband intervened to block this but it transpires that 70% of candidates already selected have union links, more than half with UNITE. The union is a major donor of the party and played a significant role in securing Ed Miliband’s election as party leader. General Secretary Ken McClusky openly admits wanting to transform the Labour party by securing the nominations of more left-wing working class candidates and fewer Blairites. He argues that the Labour Party was founded by trade unionists to represent workers and it needs to recover that priority. The former Home Secretary David Blunkett is one of a number of Labour MPs urging Ed Miliband to prevent the re-emergence of the divisions that made Labour unelectable in the 1980s and 90s.

This issue also has relevance for Christians campaigning to influence UK law and public policy. Naturally they want legislation and policies to be shaped by biblical teaching. They rightly recognise God as creator and sovereign and vehemently oppose such measures as the Marriage (same-sex couples) Bill. In that Christians are a minority in our increasingly secular society how far should we bow to majority opinion which we believe to be wrong? Churchill thought “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Os Guinness argued in the 2012 Premier Lecture that our goal should be a civil public square that respects everyone’s right to hold and manifest their beliefs, not a sacred or a secular public square. Is that the way to make democracy work here today?