What Do We Mean by Democracy?

A single, short question for Monday morning. What do we mean by ‘democracy’? No one denies that the origins of the word are to be found in the Greek ‘demos’ = people and ‘kratia’ = power or rule, but what do we mean by them?

When Alexis Tsipras talked about the ‘democratic mandate’ he had received from the Greek people as a result of last week’s referendum, he overlooked one rather obvious point. Every other elected E.U. leader also has a ‘democratic mandate’, and is answerable to his/her own country for the decisions made with regard to Greece and the Eurozone. Similarly, we are seeing a wave of tweets and posts about ‘Tory cuts’ which suggest that the writers do not accept that the government of the day has any democratic legitimacy. So what does confer democratic legitimacy in Britain, or indeed Europe, today? It is, hopefully, something more objective and quantifiable than my mere personal opinion.

Before anyone leaps in to say, for example, that Greece is being unjustly treated, or that the Tories are this that or the other, may I make two further obvious points? There isn’t a simple right or wrong answer to the Greek crisis — not in my view, at least. What the Eurozone leaders decide has implications for every other member state, so whatever is going on behind those closed doors in Brussels, we can be quite sure that a lot of self-interest and trading of positions is involved. The argument, in other words, won’t just be about Greece. Similarly, whatever one thinks about government policy on any particular issue, does any individual or group have the right to do more than challenge the government via the democratic processes we already have? What are the limits of dissent?

Our understanding of democracy is important because I think Europe now lacks any other single cohesive force (see my 11 July post). If democracy is the only value on which we can agree, that has huge implications for our moral and ethical principles. Many people take their ideas of right and wrong from the law; so, if the ultimate arbiter of what is right or wrong is to be found in democracy and the institutions of the democratic state, we had better start thinking what we truly mean by democracy itself. If all the big questions are, in the end, political (i.e. related to citizenship), they are also religious and related to our lives under God.


2 thoughts on “What Do We Mean by Democracy?”

  1. I would have thought the importance of Christianity in the development of modern British democracy was obvious, even to those without a belief. Apparently not. It seems no one values being protected from the State and the mob these days; law has certainly degenerated.

    On an entirely different, though perhaps not entirely unrelated subject, I know trolling is something that upsets many of the Twitter members. I am suggesting that no one should be allowed to have or operate a Twitter account except under their own name, with a photograph and relevant details. It could allow Twitter to ensure standards, by removing for five years those who seriously or serially offend. Any threat of violence or the encouragement of others to violence should be met with immediate expulsion. Just an idea, as bullies too often like to be anonymous.

  2. I have never been sure of power to the people, because in the UK at least, power still seems to be held by a powerful ruling elite, who even when he have a socialist government, still pull the strings behind the scenes. This is birthright, social standing and influence stuff, whether by Royalty, Landed Gentry or the New Rich, who join the ranks of society due to their proximity to great wads of cash and are assimilated into the power structure. Just using Tony Blair as an example, his rise and rise to riches seems to point to the ‘pot of gold’ that is available to politicians who’ve held inflence while in power.

    I wonder if our idealist vision of democracy is based on human thoughts or is more on the lines of the Gospel? Jesus points out that ‘human authority’ is to be respected, but to remember to ‘render to God, what is God’s’. Who do I owe my first allegiance to? Jesus or to my Country, and how can I hold both in tension, so that both receive what is due to them? I think, looking back over my life, the worldly won out in the early and middle parts, but latterly, the Gospel has won consistently since 2008 (when I returned to faith) and now, even more consistently, since I’ve striven to live out discipleship in my everyday life. I now vote on the ethical considerations, rather than the selfish ones – which seems to condemn me forever to a ‘self-imposed’ purgatory of Tory/Labour/Libdem governments. But hope exists that minds and hearts will be changed and we will eventually have governance that we need, not that we deserve.
    I pray for that.

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