Winston Churchill is reported to have said that “democracy is...
You may think that my question relates to Egypt, or those nations where dictators fix elections to give themselves the appearance of credibility without the reality.
Sadly, my focus is not on them but on our own political system. Surely, that cannot be true, you may think, but please think again.
We may have free elections, a Parliament to hold government to account, the rule of law and a free press, but how well do they function and how secure is British democracy? As events in Egypt demonstrate, there is more to democracy than political institutions and elections. They only deliver genuine democracy if they operate in a healthy democratic culture.
That does not exist in Egypt and there are grounds for concern that Britain’s political culture is not as healthy as we might wish. First, our election system is unnecessarily biased towards Labour. For the Conservatives to gain a majority in 2015 they have to win at least 7% more than their opponents. That was why Mr Cameron wanted to reform the system but was blocked by the other parties. He also said he would legislate to enable voters to recall their MP if he or she behaved badly but it has not happened. He also suggested that if sufficient numbers petitioned on an issue the Commons would debate it.
These measures could have motivated more active citizen participation. So too could Police and Crime Commissioners, directly elected local mayors and proportional representation but voters boycotted the PCC elections and rejected the other two changes. Therein lays the second issue, voter apathy. In the last three elections less than two-thirds of electors bothered to vote, compared with 80% turnout in the 1950’s. Consumerism has infiltrated politics. Few people were excited by the ‘Big Society’ vision because they had no time or willingness to accept the responsibilities of active citizenship. Yes, there are exceptions. People participate in ‘neighbourhood watch’ to protect their properties. A few also serve as street pastors and in running food banks but the majority just live for themselves. This is not how it should be. God created us in his own image and gave us all responsibilities in his creation. Moreover we need democracy because “Man is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows”.[i] More positively, Jesus called his disciples to be salt and light, different from the world but involved in it as agents of change.[ii] Thus Christians, at least, have a duty to be active citizens and not retreat into a pietistic irresponsibility. To opt out is surely a sin! Without active citizen participation democracy really is in danger. Party membership is shrinking so joiners participating in candidate selection and policy debates could make a difference. As Edmund Burke said, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing”.
[i] C. S. Lewis, “Equality” in “Present Concerns” p17 (Mariner Books, San Diego 2002)
[ii] Matthew 5:13-16; 13:33; see also Romans 12:2