• Democracy At Work – Or At Risk

    The world seems to be in uproar. From Hong Kong to Chile, from Spain to Syria, disaffected groups are taking to the streets, if not actually taking up arms, to express their dissatisfaction with the regimes under which they live.

    If we add to that picture of revolt and revolution the rise of populist, not to say extreme right-wing, factions in countries, like Germany, that are normally orderly and law-abiding, we can be excused for thinking that something unusual is in the air.

    And, if we then take note of the policies advocated and implemented by Donald Trump, many of which seem to run counter to the values traditionally embraced by American democracy, we can again see evidence of a loss of faith by ordinary people in the forms of government that rule their lives.

    These insurrections of varying kinds may be understandable enough in cases like Hong Kong and Syria, but they are less easily explained away in those countries with well-established democratic governments.

    It is in those cases that we are most justified in expressing concern about what is happening. Representative democracy has long been accepted as the best, fairest and most effective and efficient form of government. We would have to think long and hard about the remedies that would be required if it were indeed the case that people have lost faith in the democratic ideal.

    If a significant number of countries were to opt out of democratic and representative government in favour of government by despots, dictators and demagogues, the whole balance on which world peace and stability depend would be disturbed.

    Fortunately for us here in New Zealand, such fears and concerns seem remote. We might or might not like and support our current government, but we have no reason to fear for our democracy. We can be sure that, if we so decide, we could change the government in a properly democratic election and that the newly elected parliament would be properly responsive to our wishes.

    But any complacency about the unchallengeably democratic basis of our system of government should not, perhaps, survive the contemplation of what is currently happening in another and similar country – one with an unequalled history of democratic experience.

    In the UK, a democratically elected parliament has quite deliberately and repeatedly refused to endorse and give effect to a decision taken by the British people in a referendum authorised by that same parliament.

    The procedural machinations to which the various factions on the Brexit issue have had resort have given rise to accusations from some quarters of undemocratic sharp practice.

    It is no doubt true that, in any struggle between parliament and government, most democrats would instinctively side with the elected representatives. But, in respect of the difficulty encountered by the British government in giving effect to the Brexit decision, that does not seem to be so obvious.

    While it is true that the British government has itself tried at times to by-pass constitutional principles in trying to implement the Brexit decision, it is those who are using parliament to reverse that decision who are responsible for the greatest breach of democratic principle.

    The basic fact is a simple one. More than three years after the referendum decision, a parliament stacked full of MPs elected on a promise to “respect the result” of the referendum has contrived to frustrate any attempt to give effect to the people’s decision.

    These MPs have taken it upon themselves to “correct”, as they see it, a mistake made by the people. They have set themselves up as a counterweight to that democratic decision on the self-proclaimed ground that “they know best” – the classic claim by anti-democrats through the ages.

    They seem not to understand the risk they are taking. If the British people once conclude that their elected representatives no longer recognise any duty actually to represent them, there is then the real danger that they will lose faith in the whole concept of representative democracy.

    They might then conclude, like those elsewhere, that they have no other option than to take to the streets. History tells us that democracy is a fragile flower; if is not constantly nurtured, it will die.

    Bryan Gould
    22 July 2019