The worst form of government?

By Ken Noble

Ken Noble

Ken Noble

Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst form of government…. except for all the others.

When you look at the election process in the USA and the bitter struggles for Boris Johnson’s ear by unelected officials in the UK, you do wonder whether the ‘democratic West’ is functioning as it should.

In the meantime, mostly young people in Belarus, Hong Kong, Thailand and elsewhere are risking their lives to try and win the freedom to choose their own destinies. Democracy, it seems, is the aspiration of the vast majority of people around the globe. But those who have it often don’t seem as willing to nurture it as those who do not.

The chief threats to democracy come from two sources: aggressive hostile powers; and a failure within democratic societies to practice what it takes to make them work for all. Democracy can decay from within, just as the Roman Empire decayed before the Vandals and the Visigoths finally decimated it.

What makes for an effective democracy?

First, there has to be a viable system in place so that government of the people is by the people and for the people. This implies honest elections, accountable politicians, impartial officials, a sound legal system, separation of powers and all the safeguards needed to prevent the abuse of power.

Second, people need to participate. In a functioning democracy, anyone has the right to put their views forward and seek popular support. If you don’t like any of the political parties, you can start a new one. And you can vote the old order out.

Third, there needs to be respect for the rule of law. Again, if you feel that the laws are wrong, seek change through democratic means.

No one is above the law, whether they be head of state, elected or unelected, or an admiral or a newspaper owner or a multi-billionaire.

Yet even in a perfect system of government, things start to go wrong when people abuse their power; cheat on their taxes or expense claims; manoeuver for power ‘behind the scenes’; exploit people’s trust; bribe, bully or con others; spread ‘fake news’….

The list is endless but the common factor is a failure to live by the highest moral and ethical standards. The truth is that the way that we live our day-to-day lives does have a positive or a negative effect on those around us and, multiplied by millions, on the quality and stability of our democracies.

There is an old saying that people get the governments they deserve. It is so easy to blame everything on the government – or the weakness of the opposition parties. But it is always a fairer principle to start the needed change with myself. Anything else is hypocritical.

I wonder if that is what Churchill was implying – the vulnerability of democracy is that it depends on millions of ordinary people making the right choices, not just in the ballot box but in their daily lives. Yet that also offers the hope that things can change for the better.

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