Democracy – use it or lose it

                             D.Melding

 By David Melding AM


Do citizens have a duty to participate? Is it not a basic human right to withdraw from the democratic process? And is it not a vital sign of a democracy’s health that citizens participate voluntarily? One can reasonably answer yes to all these questions but I doubt that democratic culture can be re-invigorated without greater citizen involvement. Democracy is not an absolute state that once achieved is forever secure.

The history of the 20th century is evidence that this is a commonplace truth. Although western democracies faced all sorts of threats and challenges after WWII it was not until the 1970s that there was clear evidence that democracy faced particularly hard times as representative institutions and political parties appeared weak in the face of global market forces. The liberation of Eastern Europe and South Africa marked a revival in confidence, but once more the vitality of democracy seems diminished as we navigate the early decades of the 21st century.

In Britain the mass membership of political parties provided for some balance and popular participation until the 1960s, although this phenomenon should not be exaggerated as it had a wider social dimension. Perhaps what is most important to grasp is that democracy is a radical idea. It was this thought that most infused Tocqueville’s masterpiece Democracy in America. Representational democracy thrived on the excitement of electing society’s leaders, but it also made the people sovereign only for a day and limited the opportunities for deeper participation.

A desire to take back control could indicate that citizens are ready to carry greater responsibility for decision-making. This does not mean that most people want to become part-time politicians. But it does mean we can explore the concept of citizen service on the basis that jury service underpins our legal system. An additional means of establishing a duty to serve may come if a universal income is adopted to tackle the threat of inequality. The level of compulsion that could be attached to such a duty would need to be moderated by a conscience clause. Conscience but not convenience would be an excuse. We should not exaggerate the time commitment involved in service either: it would range from full-time for a short time (a citizens’ jury on the development of a local amenity) to part-time for a longer time (a day a month for two years in the Citizens’ Assembly perhaps). Finally, a more rigorous duty to participate would not replace the voluntary nature of most participation like voting in elections or standing for public office. These would continue to be barometers measuring the health of our democracy.

We will only live in a participatory democracy when citizens’ engagement focuses on decision-making as much as the gathering of public opinion. In Wales we have an opportunity to lead the way. We enjoy the benefits of both a new and a small democracy. If we are able to innovate, the power of the parliamentary tradition we have inherited could be magnified by the force of active citizenship. Alongside the Welsh Government’s legislature programme we could see published a Gwerin’s programme to be discussed in the citizens’ chamber of the National Assembly.

The Democracy is not sick and feeble, but it needs rejuvenating. Today the greatest act of political leadership would be to enhance the energy of citizenship – a democratic vision that would match the excitement of Tocqueville, the Chartists and all who have sought to create open, free societies.

This is an extract from David Melding’s essay “The Citizen: Democracy in Hard Times” available at http://www.gorwel.co/wordpress/?p=3077

David Melding is a Welsh Conservative Assembly Member for the South Wales Central region.

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Categories: Politics Wales

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