What Price Democracy?

By Ken Noble

Ken Noble

This article is an opinion piece that follows on from an article written in April 2022.

To live a fulfilling life, two elements amongst others are essential. One is to have a purpose that motivates you; and you need a values-framework so that you make decisions that are in line with the person you aspire to be. Could similar considerations apply to countries, too?

Of course, if you live in a country where the leadership is in the hands of a dictator, this may be a largely academic question – your national aims are what you are told they are, however misguided.

But in a democracy, you have more freedom, and therefore more responsibility. The national aim is, in theory at least, that which the majority of adults wants it to be.

With mid-term elections in the US; political ructions in the UK; and the heroic efforts of Ukraine to maintain her freedom, there has been a lot of discussion about ‘democracy’ lately. We have always lived with external threats to democracy but have perhaps taken for granted the strength of our own democratic way of life in the UK. Research suggests that there is growing disenchantment among young people around the world with democracy as a system. A report published in 2020[1] suggested that satisfaction with democracy was in steepest decline among 18–34-year-olds ‘in almost every global region’. Exclusion from economic opportunities seems to be one of the biggest factors in these results.

It would seem that the ‘me-first’ attitudes of many older people are causing younger people to feel that democracy is not for them.

From a non-researched perspective, my feeling is that the issues in the UK Parliament, where people seem to make the rules and then ignore them, can be doing little to make young people feel more favourable to democracy.

Values, it seems, are just as important in the countries that want to be democratic as they are to individual people.

This should be self-evident. You only have to look at the effects of a lack of moral values, to appreciate how important they are to the smooth functioning of a democratic society. What happens if politicians lie, or fail to tell important elements of the truth? Or if millions of voters put self-interest before what is best for the country as a whole? Who suffers if people don’t pay their taxes or salt their wealth away in off-shore tax-havens? If there is so much crime that the Police don’t have the resources to investigate? If manufacturers cut corners when building vital infrastructure or housing? Or we fail to care for the sick and vulnerable, including the refugees in our midst? You don’t need to be particularly clever to conclude that a nation with widespread corruption, selfishness, cynicism and callousness is going to be a challenging place to make democracy function smoothly.

But what about the other element that we need – a clear purpose that is worth devoting our lives to? Is this of any relevance to a democracy?

I grew up in the era immediately after the Second World War. I got the sense that for many who lived through that conflict it was both the worst and the best time of their lives. The suffering and loss were terrible. But there was also the sense of comradeship and pride in defying the odds in the most fearsome circumstances;  the conviction articulated so brilliantly by Churchill that a battle had to be won for freedom in a global context. In short, the Allied nations had united around a clear goal for the good of humanity. For many, a return to normal life after the war was an anti-climax.

To listen to many politicians now, our national purpose should be about ‘economic growth’. Yes, we must deal with problems, but the way to do that is to grow our economy to the point where we can afford to employ more doctors, nurses, police, teachers, etc. Of course, some politicians have nobler goals, just as some have less worthy ones. But, in general, our thrust as a nation seems to be towards increasing our standard of living whilst putting varying amounts of energy into dealing with global inequalities, climate catastrophe, loss of biodiversity and the ambitions of tyrants.

My hypothesis is – and it is only a hypothesis despite the ‘straws in the wind’ provided by World War II – that we would be much happier as a nation if we took on some needed global challenge that was beyond self-interest.

Could we, for example, commit to ‘twinning’ with a developing country of comparable size, a former colony perhaps, with the aim of bringing their standard of living up to ours within a generation? Could we provide excellent education and training for their young people; could we invest in their transport and health infrastructure; share technology; learn together how to implement democratic values; work out ways of conserving energy, water and other natural resources; exchange sporting and cultural talent – the possibilities are many.

Such a project may sound fanciful, but I suspect that we would gain a lot ourselves in the process – and who knows, perhaps it is something that would restore people’s faith in democracy.

[1] Foa, R.S., Klassen, A., Wenger, D., Rand, A. and M. Slade. 2020. “Youth and Satisfaction with Democracy: Reversing the Democratic Disconnect?” Cambridge, United Kingdom: Centre for the Future of Democracy.

Ken has been working and volunteering with Initiatives of Change since 1971, having had ‘a profound about-turn’ in his life whilst studying physics at Imperial College, London, in 1969.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.

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