A short assembly on democracy

Democracy means ‘rule by the people’. In its purest form this means that all of the people would have the right to speak and vote on every issue that comes before the political community. The closest any society has come to living up to this ideal of democracy was Ancient Athens in the 6th century BC. This brief experiment with democracy involved all male adult citizens meeting and voting on every issue that came before the polis, with the government being selected by randomly drawing lots.  

But even this classical ideal of democracy is tainted by closer inspection. Of the 300,000 people living in Athens at the time only 30,000 were full citizens. Women were totally excluded from the political sphere and male citizens were free to participate in public life because their lifestyle was supported by a large population of slaves. Both Plato and Aristotle were deeply sceptical of the dangers of this pure form of democracy, warning that pure democracies are particularly prone to decay into tyrannies as the masses are too easily swayed by populist demagogues. A related danger is illuminated by the trial of Socrates, who was put on trial by the Athenian polis for corrupting the youth of Athens and was sentenced to kill himself by drinking hemlock. A death that echoes through the ages, reminding us of the danger of pure democracy. Majorities can and do make mistakes and the rule of the many can lead to its own form of tyranny. 

Aristotle wouldn’t have described the political system we have today as a democracy, because it represents a compromise between popular consent and the rule of an elite. In the UK, we elect a parliament to speak and vote on our behalf, with whichever party can command a majority in the House of Commons forming a government in order to implement its policies. This ensures that there is always a filter between the will of the people and the laws that are made. When seen in this light, referendums always pose the risk of creating a conflict between a purer ideal of democracy – embodied in the will of the people – and the rule of competing elites in parliament. It is this conflict between competing conceptions of democracy that is at the heart of our current misgivings about democracy and it is also the reason why the language of ‘betrayal’ has gained currency, with many people feeling that their voices have not been listened to by those elected to represent us in parliament. 

Democracy has always been a radical idea. The idea that consent is the only legitimate justification for political authority challenged the absolute rule of monarchs in the 17th and 18th centuries and led to the emergence of popular movements for the extension of the franchise in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Britain, this struggle was initially led by the Chartists, who gathered 200 years ago in St Peter’s Field in Manchester at an event that is now described as the Peterloo Massacre, because, what began as a peaceful gathering of people demanding the right to vote ended with a cavalry charge that killed 15 people and injured hundreds more. In a climate in which the ideal of democracy is being challenged we must remember that our right to vote was not given freely, it emerged out of a popular struggle that goes at least as far back as the levellers in the middle of the 17th century. 

It is for this reason that we must defend the ideal of democracy, whilst recognising that it is imperfect. The chief virtue of representative democracy is that it allows us to exercise our right to hold governments to account. At least every five years we have the opportunity to remove and replace a government from office, secure in the knowledge that the outcome of the election will be respected and will lead to the rapid and peaceful transfer of power. As Tony Benn said of democracy, when democracy works well it results in a situation where “there are no permanent winners and no permanent losers.” Even when we don’t get the outcome we wanted we can continue to argue, debate and protest. And we can replace the government in five years’ time.  

We should remind ourselves this morning that voting is a duty that comes with being a citizen in a democracy, but, democracy doesn’t begin or end with placing an X in a box on election day. Although the classical ideal of democracy is flawed, the Ancient Greeks understood that politics ought to be something we involve ourselves in on a daily basis. Being a good citizen requires us to take an interest in the world around us, to speak truth to power, to protest, to get involved – in short – to actively engage in politics. There has rarely been a more important time to take this advice on board, so I hope that you do so.