Wednesday, 11 June 2008

We still haven't got the hang of democracy Let me see if I have this right. The elected leaders of 27 European nations, supported by an army of advisers and officials, developed a binding constitutional text called the Lisbon Treaty. To emphasise its undoubted importance, and/or because they were so confident that it would be accepted, they included a condition to the effect that if any of the nations rejected it, it was no longer valid. So one nation rejects it, and they're thrown into confusion. How bright is that? Of course, to some extent that precisely represents the problem. Highly-assertive leadership struggles to entertain the possibility of other views - in this case almost to the extent of denial. The Irish 'no' vote also illustrates some of the things that are problematic about referenda, such as over-simplification of complex issues and decision-making-without-responsibility. So is the referendum thought to constitute a valid reaction against responsibility-without-accountability? You takes your choice. One comment here calls for a parallel survey: 'the most important question is whether they would consider themselves competent to decide on the treaty's future.' Modern democracy feels very tender and undeveloped. Many of us still experience democracy as something occasional that intrudes into our lives from time to time, rather than something which permeates everyday life. Did you have a democratic childhood? Did you experience democratic processes at home and at school? Is your workplace democratic, do the agencies in your neighbourhood engage with you to help you influence their practice? Forget about democratic 'traditions', we've only just started. In my experience, when you engage with people on the issues that affect their lives, they quickly see and respect a role for elected representatives and the expertise of their officers. The more people understand this relationship by coming into contact with it, the less difficulty it causes. But we still shove young people through an educational upbringing which tells them almost nothing about local government or the principles of governance. How bright is that? The over-reaction to the perceived crisis of democracy is to over-emphasise countable processes, like voting, when perhaps we need to be putting far more effort into engagement and the understanding of conversational democracy, creating a society which constantly feels democratic and in which people expect to be engaged.

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