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.

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