On this day 750 years ago the Great Parliament summoned by Simon de Montfort in the name of the king met in the Chapter House at Westminster. It is remembered today chiefly for its length (it lasted until March, much longer than parliaments usually did) and because, for the first time, alongside the barons, senior churchmen and knights were elected burgesses. The irony of this innovation being the creation of Simon is not lost on historians, but democracy is like that: the ideal is beautiful, but its working out is often messy and even a little grubby.
Nowadays even the ideal is often under attack — either openly, as in the case of those who abstract themselves from the democratic process, believing that another form of government, based on other principles than one person one vote, would be better, or covertly, as in the case of those who cynically observe the shortcomings of politicians and opt not to exercise their right to vote. There are also those who are deeply troubled by some of the decisions arrived at as a result of the democratic process — the current law on abortion, for example — and are reluctant to endorse what their conscience forbids. What we have to remember is that, flawed though our democracy may be, there is no fairer system available to us; and, as Andrew Graystone pertinently remarked this morning, democracy cannot defend itself: if it is not used, it ceases to exist. Our very ability to challenge the decisions of Parliament is part of our democratic heritage, a hard-won freedom, one that could easily be lost through indifference or laziness.
This morning, when we are still reflecting on the consequences of Charlie Hebdo and debating what we mean by free speech and whether or not it has limits, we might pause for a few moments to think about our understanding of democracy and the way in which we exercise not only our rights but also our duties. It is often forgotten that if we have the right to choose our government, we also have the duty to ensure that the government we choose is as good as possible, serving not just the narrow interests of a particular group or class but benefiting the whole people. That means trying to let go of our prejudices and taking the trouble to find out what each party actually proposes. In one hundred days we shall be going to the polls in a General Election. We cannot separate politics from morality, from the way we live. As in Simon de Montfort’s day, so in ours, what we decide and what we do may have long-lasting consequences. May I suggest we start asking the guidance of the Holy Spirit now?