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Restoring confidence in democracy

Winston Churchill is reported to have said that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all the others”. It deters the possibility of revolution, encourages politicians to be accountable to the people, prevents a concentration of power in a few hands, helps to educate citizens and creates a sense of obligation to them by those in office. If we cherish those values we should be concerned about the increasing evidence of disillusionment in and distrust of our Government and politicians.

The evidence is seen in the fact that almost a third of those entitled to vote no longer bother to do so. Turnout in December’s election was 67.3% whereas after the World War, in 1950, it was 83.9%. Underlying recent poor turnouts were some cynical attitudes about politicians, especially after the MPs expenses scandal in 2009. These were reinforced by the three year delay in implementing the result of the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the EU because there was no majority in Parliament for that. This provoked a distrust of politicians and a disaffection with a politics that seemed to marginalise the many and privilege the few, creating the impression that democracy is being subverted by vested interests and ordinary people are being marginalised.

There is another side to this matter. Whatever their political views only 1% of voters are party members, actively involved in politics. Many of the issues and problems addressed by Government are complex and simple solutions are unhelpful. That suggests that restoring democracy needs to include giving voters more understanding of the political processes and the issues on the political agenda. That will require MPs and civil servants to make those issues intelligible for the average citizen.

The need to reduce global warming to minimise climate change is an obvious test case for this.  Policies to substantially reducing carbon emissions are an essential part of that. For example we have to replace our petrol and diesel vehicles, install solar panels and remove gas fired boilers, fly less and probably eat less meat. All of this will affect everyone in some way or another. Failure is likely to have major consequences for future generations so the more we all collaborate the better but the necessary changes we have to make need to be explained and the means found to help those for whom the changes would present major problems.

There are a number of ways in which the Government can help to restore confidence in democracy.  Departments can publish popular Green Papers on hot issues to explain what they are doing and why this is necessary and how it might affect people. In some cases they might even make informational programmes to be broadcast. This would also encourage more openness in Government Departments and a shift from a control mentality to one of public service. There is also a case for doing more to educate the public about politics in general and specific issues in particular. Citizenship education in schools would prepare young people for adult citizenship. This would be especially helpful for immigrants, helping them to integrate as citizens.

Such initiatives are just about making the present system work more democratically but there are other possible reforms that might change the way we do politics. The electoral system could be changed to some form of proportional representation. The voting age could be lowered to 16. Voting could even be made compulsory, as it is in Australia. MPs and Local Councils could make greater use of town meetings to inform citizens and to listen to their responses.

Our citizenship is an important part of who we are. We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-7; 9:6) and whilst, from a Christian perspective, our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) our earthly citizenship should also be respected and that is surely part of what makes democracy important.

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