Democratic culture is at a low ebb and in decline – unless something changes we could pay a high price.
Forgive me for repeating myself: for groups to succeed over the long term, they have to find effective ways of working together. There are three basic ways of solving the problem of social coordination:
- Hierarchical - based on leadership, authority and rules;
- Solidaristic - based on equality, shared values and membership;
- Individualistic - based on self-interest, innovation and enterprise.
There is also the fourth perspective – fatalism – which is how groups feel when the challenge of effective coordination seems intractable.
Each form of coordination has its virtues (as well as its vices), and the most effective nations, places, organisations and strategies combine all three active forms, managing the inevitable tensions between them. Currently in the West, and particularly in Britain and the USA we live in societies that over rely on the individualistic mode; a predisposition sometimes described as neo-liberalism.
People on the left blame the advocates of individualism for this state of affairs, but probably more important has been aspects of the modern world that have made solidaristic and hierarchical coordination more difficult. At a time of confused and conflicted values and ineffectual and disrespected institutions, it can feel that the capacity for social change lies only in markets, competition and individual endeavour.
The standing of our institutions, and particularly the most important one - government itself – is, therefore, vital not just in itself but because institutional failure weakens society’s overall dynamism and resilience. (Incidentally, this thesis is in line with the conclusions drawn by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their assessment of why nations have succeeded and failed across the span of human history.)
We should be deeply worried about the increasing signs of democratic sclerosis and fragmentation in the West. In America the Republican Party, hijacked by crude populism and the corrupt use of money to buy influence, is about either to choose Donald Trump as its Presidential candidate or risk all-out internal war to stop him. The Democrats are sticking unenthusiastically with the Clinton dynasty having come close to choosing Bernie Saunders, despite the fact that his policies would almost certainly have made him unelectable in a general election. Whatever happens in the remainder of the year, Congress will surely continue to be held in deserved public contempt.
In Britain we are contesting a referendum only called because the Prime Minister was under pressure from the right wing of his own party and sections of the media. The Chancellor – one of our most talented and ambitious politicians – has been reduced to laughable shenanigans to pretend that his economic policy is on track. And now the Conservatives are turning in on themselves as resentment, supressed ideological fissures and thinly disguised personal ambition bubble to the surface in toxic vapours.
Meanwhile, the Labour opposition is roughly split between those whose ambition is restricted to turning their party into a socialist pressure group and the other side which, while despising and condemning their leader, appear to have little alternative beyond electoral calculation and cliché.
Our response to all this is a dismissive shrug. We have almost forgotten what it feels like to trust and honour our leaders. But what of the impact of the failings of our democratic institutions on Britain?
In a few weeks our country could enter the difficult and divisive process of withdrawing from the European Union (itself a deeply troubled institution) and this is likely to be followed by a second referendum in Scotland - leading to the break-up of the UK. What is left of Britain will then need to find a way of defending citizens from global forces already bringing instability and danger to our economy, environment and security.
Yet we find it hard enough to deal with domestic challenges like low productivity in the workplace, inadequate infrastructure, threadbare social care, poor education standards and housing shortages. Over and over again instead of a grown-up debate about long term change requiring a partnership between government and civil society we get badly designed, opportunistic policy fixes from politicians desperate for a positive headline.
Arguably, true democratic renewal – a process which would involve major changes in behaviours and values - as well as radical innovation is one of our most urgent priorities. Yet it is hardly even debated. Why do those railing against the democratic deficit of the European Union have so little to say about our own deficit?
After all, if the referendum votes ‘out’ we are likely to have a new prime minister with all the executive power provided by our unwritten constitution, chosen not by the people (fewer than three in ten voted Conservative at the last election) but by the rather odd membership of the Conservative Party.
The number of thoughtful commentators questioning the lazy assumptions behind representative democracy is growing but is not matched by debate about alternative models. How many people in Britain are even aware of the successful and increasing use of citizen’s panels to shape public policy in Australia and Canada or even some of the innovations pursued in Scotland? As a Downing Street advisor I tried in vain to persuade ministers to experiment with similar processes but they opted instead for safer but much less powerful forms of consultation.
There have been some attempts to get democratic renewal taken more seriously. Thirty years ago there was Charter 88 and more recently the Power Inquiry. But neither was very effective and both focused too much on constitutional reform and not enough on the deeper failings of representative democracy and our political culture.
To find ways of creating democratic processes and institutions that are fit for the 21st century, locally, nationally and internationally is a daunting, complex, long term challenge. But shouldn’t we at least be looking?
In part two of the Our Way Through essay series, Anthony Painter considers whether our current relationships with money, power and technology are helping or hindering society's progress.
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Rory Campbell FRSA
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