Democracy – not what it says on the tin?

Abby Simkin - Murray Edwards College 1st year PPS 28 February 2013

Democracy is meant to be for the people. The very word conjures up images of freedom, liberty and honesty. But in reality, we are being deceived by a label not wholly unlike those unfortunate buyers of certain ‘beef’ ready meals. Indeed, whilst today we all seem to know exactly what democracy is, in an age of big government, popular apathy and the online bubble, our awareness of the ideal might be about as real as it gets.

Free elections and popular involvement theoretically stops governments from accruing absolute power: theoretically. In reality, each of these protective measures is flawed, and the worst part is that most of us haven’t even noticed.

Government ‘by the people’ is void of any meaning when the people have become so focused on other areas of their life that they no longer have the time for or interest in politics. We are meant to provide the line that the politician doesn’t cross; we set the standard.

Democracy gives people the freedom to do what they like, yet in so doing facilitates its own neglect. Politics becomes a hobby that nobody wishes to pursue. Even during elections citizen participation is so limited – just 14.8% in the recent Cambridge Police Commissioner election – that we must ask ourselves whether modern democracies deserve their popular acclaim.

Even if people queued up outside the polling points in their droves, the voting cards would offer very little choice. Democracy should provide choice, but all we are presented with – certainly for Westminster candidates – is a disproportionate number of WASP clones. White… Anglo-Saxon… Protestant… Usually male.

And, according to the 2010 data, five times more likely to have attended a private school than the average member of the populace. When considering whether this limited choice Ford’s maxim ‘You can have any colour, as long as it’s black’ springs sinisterly to mind.

As for the real effects of elections: since when did we elect a lobbyist or a banker to run our country? A clue – we didn’t. But they do it anyway. Apparently it is a sign of progress that politicians are committed professionals. As far as I can see, all they seem to be committed to is securing their election, and I find any sign of professional expertise sadly lacking.

Since we must all work for our survival, we have also lost democracy’s most staunch defenders. Today, there is little time for purely intellectual pursuits. The era of class elites with nothing to do but watch and think has gone (and quite rightly so). But it was such elites- Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville – who were the original proponents of more inclusive politics.

With few of their ilk left to examine, criticise and call for improvement, democracy is threatened with being left to its deprecation. The equality imposed upon all by democracy, and the assumption that that democracy is secure, has prevented the continued thriving of that oh-so-useful breed of democratic watchdogs, who were previously so good at barking us into acknowledging the sorry state of affairs we have allowed to develop. Without them, we are in danger of becoming ever more complacent.

If such writers were around today they would surely be shocked at the lax state of democracy. It is arguably those countries – like the UK – where democracy is felt to be so intrinsic to the national identity that there is the most risk of despotism. Where citizens assume that their liberty is assured, whether by constitution, convention or law, they further assume that it is irrefutable. Attention wanes, and thus democracy can become eroded with little protest – indeed, with little recognition.

If we do not pay attention, at some point anybody could wake up and realise what we have been too blind – or too stupid – to recognise thus far. Conditions are ripe to take today’s half-hearted ‘democracy’ and transform it into a sly tyranny. Some would argue we’re already there.

Far-fetched, you say? I don’t think so. In the age of ‘big government’, politicians don’t just run politics; for better or worse, they run our lives. If we continue to allow our democracies to decay, if we lose control of our governments, we stand to lose a lot more than a say in whether we join the Euro or not.

Abby Simkin – Murray Edwards College 1st year PPS