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Ben Ryan argues that representative democracy is failing and the time is right for a more ethical approach to decision making. 14.03.2019
“We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re–elected after we’ve done it.”
This is an oft–quoted Jean–Claude Juncker (now the President of the European Commission) line from 2007. It is often quoted because it speaks so appositely of the struggles of reforming the European Union and more broadly to the difficulties of getting short–termist politicians to commit to major, difficult long–term decisions.
Our own parliamentarians are in a different place. Unlike European leaders they don’t know what to do (many, though not all, at least know what they want, but not how to square that with reality) and they don’t know how to get re–elected regardless of which choice they make. No deal is irresponsible (the damage to too many people is too great). Revoking Article 50 is simply anti–democratic. The deal secured by the government satisfies no one, but there is little to no prospect of a better one. There are no good options left on the table. You’d feel sorry for them except that so many are directly culpable in their own mess.
If you came looking for some Biblical or theological wisdom that will see you through this particular and specific mess and provide a solution to our current malaise you’re out of luck. I have none to offer; it’s a mess. Despair radiates out from parliament in great smashing waves that crash against public self–esteem. All the time the clock is still ticking.
However, while Brexit may be irredeemable at this point perhaps today’s misery does at least give us a chance to reflect on Juncker’s quote and wonder if, in the future, this may provide a more fundamental moment when we realise the limits of our parliamentary system for dealing with the really big questions. As a decision making body parliament is fine on policy and bad on philosophy. It is a perfectly adequate managerial system for overseeing the day to day implementation of policy tweaks, but has proven entirely inadequate at being the forum for fundamental shifts in the direction of the country. As Downing Street is coming to realise, all the clever little games, trade–offs and tactics that define the normal political process don’t work on an issue of this magnitude.
The solution doesn’t lie in having more public votes. The case for a second referendum (a “People’s Vote” if you prefer the shiny branding) is intellectually dishonest. Its proponents do not truly want to hear from the people, they just want an easy mandate for remain that gives a democratic fig–leaf to the failure of politics to enact the first decision. Asking people to vote is not the same as hearing them. Reducing the electorate to voters on a reality TV show who participate but do not contribute to the content of the production is not helpful. It would make lots of politicians’ lives a lot easier if we all voted again and Remain won. That is not nearly a good enough reason for parliament abrogating its responsibilities.
The electorate is demoralised, parliament has failed, what we needed in the Brexit process was a new way of doing democratic debate on the underlying ethics of where the UK was heading.
Here, there is something to learn from Christian social tradition.
Voting in a representative democracy is in many ways the most cowardly and vacuous form of decision making. It’s done in private, without social consequence. No one insists that you understand what you’re doing; you have the right to be ignorant or selfish. Once you have voted the responsibility to enact your will (no matter how impossible) is left to someone else. They will bear the consequences of enacting your decision, not the voter. No one blames the electorate for making stupid choices (though they do so all the time), they blame the politicians and civil servants who enact the choices.
A more Christian model of democracy, I would suggest, would force a much greater level of personal responsibility. It would involve having to engage face to face with those who will feel the consequences of policy decisions. “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” writes Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est. It is in encounter with others that new horizons emerge. It moves us beyond “vague compassion” to a “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” as John Paul II declared.
If we had created a democratic system in which people spoke heart to heart and face to face with one another about their hopes and fears, and had to engage across differences, and actually come up with the details of policies they wanted, I wonder how different our democratic processes might look. It’s not a pie in the sky theoretical, there are plenty of people experimenting with exactly such ideas, if we had the courage to take them. G1000 involves random sorting to get 1000 citizens together to discuss hopes, fears and the future and then to gather ideas and come up with 10, actionable, deliberated policies. It has had major successes in Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. The Leap Manifesto in Canada came out of gathering disparate community groups and activists to have hard face to face discussions over how policies affect them and then wrote a clear manifesto for the future. Deliberative democracy models are gaining ground. Other models are available but the point is simply this; we need to get out of parliament, and out of vacuous voting systems, and reengage in more inter–personal, more ethical approaches to decision making that make people take responsibility for their choices in the face of those they will impact. Do that and hope and trust might come back into democracy.
It’s too late for this crisis, we are far too far down the road. Maybe next time?
Ben Ryan is Head of Research at Theos. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism. He holds degrees in European politics from the LSE and in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge. Outside of Theos he is a trustee of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network).
Posted 14 March 2019
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.