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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Summer Blog 2: Liberal Democracy under scrutiny

I make no excuse for returning to this topic. I regard it as of enormous significance. Although this is written from a purely British point of view, it is applicable across the Western Democracies, although the national context will pose different questions and different answers.

My observations are not profound but are written in the hope of persuading some of you to engage with the subjects under discussion, by reading some of the many books being produced, looking carefully through newspapers and internet blogs, tweets etc, as well as discussing it with family and friends. As ever, I am not interested in you agreeing with me but merely engaging with the subject matter. It has always been claimed that one of Adult Education's goals is the strengthening of democracy. This has seldom been observed in practice, so I am pleased to be able, in a very small way. to rectify that.

My generation was brought up to believe that twice in the first half of the 20th century this country fought to preserve its democracy and democracy across Western Europe. Today many commentators feel that Western Democracy is being assailed from within. The common parlance often refers to 'The Alt Right', 'The New Right', or even to 'Neo-Fascism'. Labels can too often obscure rather than clarify. So it is with these labels. I prefer to see a continuum from Populist to Neo-Fascism. Whatever labels are used we should be aware that Liberal Democracy, as we have known it since the 19th century, is in danger. If anyone reading this is in any doubt about this a look in any bookshop or library will enlighten them.

In 2016, Joe Zemmit-Lucia and David Boyle published 'The Death of Liberal Democracy?' Note the academic question mark in the title. Anne Applebaum published 'Twilight of Democracy' in 2020. Oxford's Very Short Introduction Series of monographs published 'Populism' by Mudde and Kaltwasser in 2017, followed by a book of the same title by Michael Burleigh earlier this year. Of interest to those of us living in Britain, Peter Oborne (a Right Wing Journalist) published also this year 'The Assault on Truth', sub-titled 'Boris Johnson. Donald Trump and the Emergence of a new Modern Barbarism'.

Of course much of this literature is polemical in style (even that written by academics), but that should not detract from the analyses. It is up to us to accept or reject their arguments based on the facts as we individually understand them. My only point is that the literature does not only emanate from the Left, which would be the natural order of things, but from across the political , academic, and international scene.

Democracy has always been a fragile plant, as Appelbaum has written, 'Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy'.

An external enemy to democracy as from the 2nd and 3rd Reich is easy to see and easy to unite against. For most of my generation the world presented a split between the democratic West and the authoritarian Marxist East. Easy to understand and to unite against.

But the enemy within is more difficult to see and thus to defend against. A clear example is that of Weimar Germany. When reality dawned it was far too late. This is made all the harder when the anti-democratic forces use the machinery of democracy in order to obtain power, again as in 1930s Germany.

An alternative, and maybe more productive way, of approaching this, in a British context, is to say that our 'Representative Democracy' (ie electing Members to represent us in Parliament) has been subtly changing over, not years but, decades.

Democracy in its purest form means the rule of the demos or people; but that is entirely theoretical. Even in Ancient Athens neither women nor slaves enjoyed the vote. We use the term 'Liberal Democracy' to describe our own 'Representative' form of democracy. In Britain this is very much the construct of the Victorians. When studying Constitutional Law at Oxford in the 1960s our main texts remained 19th century. But that construct is now palpably falling apart, or, in the contemporary jargon, is no longer fit for service. Peter Oborne provides its obituary when writing, 'By midsummer 2020, it was obvious that Boris Johnson and his clique were determined to dismantle the system of administrative integrity famously instigated by Stafford Northcote...and CE the mid-nineteenth century. More than any other single event, these two Victorian grandees created the modern British state. They eradicated ancient ties of connection, nepotism and family, while establishing dividing lines between public and private, and party and state'.

So, in broad terms, what has changed since the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms? Many have pointed to the expanding role of the Executive (the Cabinet) and the consequent declining role of Parliament (the Legislature). Many have also commentated on the increasing power of the Office of Prime Minister, and looking towards America we use the phrase 'Presidential Style' to describe this phenomenon.

This is nothing new. Tony Benn described Tony Blair's Premiership in these terms, and Labour Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, is credited with coining the phrase 'Executive Democracy'. Others have used the phrase 'Elective Dictatorship'. Whatever language you use there can be little denial that our governmental practices have been subject to change. For example we have begun to dabble in 'Plebiscitary Democracy', in the form of Referendums, Petitions to Parliament, and the right of voters to recall MPs. All this without much consultation with the people, and with little thought given to how these changes marry in to our 'Representative Democracy'. Michael Burleigh has written, 'All moves to transform representative into perpetual plebiscitary democracy should be sharply rejected, along with attempts to to degrade representatives into delegates.'

There is much heat around the effects that the internet has on our democracy. There are those who use it to challenge the Government, there are others who use it to push their own political views (some of which are entirely abhorrent to the rest of us). The internet is no panacea for Western Democracy. It is as much a threat as it is a positive.

There are no easy answers, but the first task is to recognise that there is a question in the first place, and then to decide how to approach the finding of answers. What I do know, however, is that a failure to reform will pose serious social and political problems at some future point.

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