DEMOCRACY AT THE CROSSROADS

‘It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ I quote Sir Winston Churchill. Having placed my faith in democracy – in liberty, equality, and education to back it – it’s inevitable I find myself butting my head against yet another glass ceiling. We must face up to our limitations – we humans are the original dreamers, creators, thinkers, the maker of rules and constitutions. As Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, it makes no difference whether ‘destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?’ The same is true of religion, an idea or belief system that results in an inequitable distribution of resources. We not only have the ability to define, extend the limits of our ideas as much as our actions. We need to do so when they are found wanting. Isn’t that what civilisation is all about?

That’s what puzzles me – why is there no greater momentum for change? Most of us agree that most of our institutions – be they political, social or economic – are flawed. At the same time they are not irreversible laws of nature, but created by us. Like all institutions they need reviewing, changing – as we have been doing with a host of creaking, out-of-date laws. It seems incredible the way we used to treat whole sections of society from the disabled to those who do not adhere to our ideas of what the norm should be. Today, we live in an era of great freedom, of tremendous achievements in science and technology. It is indeed the best of times… I cannot help thinking it could be better.
Why do I dare to think so? Well, it has not escaped my attention that life is not fair, we are rarely treated equally. Nor are we blessed with equal opportunities, however much we might like the idea and endorse it. There are limitations – always of resources. But what hurts us most is when these limitations are self-imposed, especially in world where the notion that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge acquires legitimacy. I know I am treading on dangerous ground, dictators of all sorts have been telling us so since the beginning of Time. However, I am not claiming I know more than you. I certainly do not know more than the collective knowledge of all the people in the world. So here is my plea because I believe there is no choice in the matter.
The Election Manifestos of the two major parties in the UK, Conservatives and Labour, contain no vision of Brexit. Yet this snap national election on 8 June is a delayed response to Brexit. There was no mandate from the people to call for the referendum that was held on the 23 June 2016. The referendum took place without the terms of exit from the EU being defined. Voting was not legally mandatory, and a large percentage of the population did not vote. Nor is a referendum legally binding, it is advisory. Yet both major political parties have embraced Brexit, chant it like a mantra, as if it is the will of all the people in the UK. Neither party has a clue to what exactly Brexit might translate to, how long it might take to secure a deal or what the costs might be. And the costs will be paid by the people – all the people, regardless of how they voted, if they voted.
And those of us who voted to remain in the EU (48.1%) have been completely disenfranchised. As if we never existed – if this is not a kind of extinction then what is? Apart from the Liberal Democrats, the two major parties behave as if the entire population of the UK voted to leave. Even Jeremy Corbyn, the man who dreams of changing Britain beyond recognition, never thought of the possibility of offering the 48% any hope of reversing a hard Brexit. What disappointed me terribly was his lack of support before the referendum. Had he made a clear stand before the referendum last year I believe more of his supporters would have voted to remain, and we might have been spared the mess we are in today.
I am struggling with ‘democracy’ because any system that ignores the wishes of 48% of the people is not fit for purpose. I know there are large parts of the world where this happens, but the fact that injustice is rampant is not a good argument for continuing it. It is unfortunate we do not/ did not have a Macron figure to represent us, fight for change from within the EU. The EU needs to reform – there is no doubt about that. I am not sure the future of the UK will be more secure and prosperous outside the EU. The days of Empire are long gone, the UK’s sphere of influence globally is declining. On the contrary, all the old hostilities against the Empire are on the rise. Nor am I sure the EU will come out of all this smelling of roses. It is a mystery to me that while the EU was willing to spend billions of Euros to bail out Greece to keep it in the EU, the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, and other EU leaders did not in principle agree to review the small matter of EU reform (the elephant in the room) that David Cameron had presented to them. And we all know the lack of accountability that the EU represents. Do they really think they will get away with it?

Many of those in the UK who voted to leave the EU did so largely on grounds of sovereignty – to secure greater independence over decision-making. It is true that since 2000 the EU has moved towards greater integration, promoting free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. If the EU is heading towards a United State of Europe then it might turn out to be a pipedream as the rise of Marine Le Pen in France and other far-right political parties in Europe indicates. Remaining in the EU while managing immigration is an issue the various member states have to grapple with sooner or later. Pity that those of us in the UK who voted to remain will not be part of that reformed EU.

It is not just Brexit that bothers me when I think of democracy. In the USA, although Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump, he is the one in The White House. I need not list the shenanigans there now or for that matter in various other countries. It has also been said that we get the government we deserve, and that is indeed true. The UK rejected proportional representation or the alternative vote as it was referred to in yet another referendum in 2011. If the people had the wisdom to vote for proportional representation things could have been different now. Individuals should vote for what they believe in. But if no political party reflects what I believe in, what am I to do?

I believe an enlightened education is fundamental to our survival. Is it not daft to exclude more than half the talents in the country when building a government? Or in any commercial enterprise for that matter? It reminds me of the time when women did not have a vote, could not work etc. Inclusiveness is no different than bio-diversity, it is essential for survival. Ignorance and prejudice should not be the platform on which we build our cherished institutions. We need to learn to work together, use our collective ideas in solving the world’s problems – not extending the power of a small group of individuals or worse just one. Dictators are not born, they are created.

Shanta Acharya
19 May 2017

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