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The swing of the democratic pendulum is slow and long

December 18, 2012

(A version of this post appeared earlier on International Alert’s website).

There’s been a lot of fairly superficial reporting of late about “anti-democratic” governments in Italy, Greece and elsewhere. By this, they often mean that Germany, Brussels and the IMF are calling the shots; and that “technocratic” governments have been imposed, etc.

First, there’s nothing necessarily undemocratic about having to go through some difficult times as a result of decisions to which electorates contributed by their voting and other behaviour.  One of the main features of democracy is that it corrects in slow time. Corrections in Italy and Greece have included a certain degree of imposition from outside the country – from those to whom the citizens of Italy and Greece are in hock, i.e. to whom they have voluntarily mortgaged their assets.

In the UK, voters went along with a central planning, statist approach from 1940 until Thatcher came along. We then underwent a quarter century of Thatcherite correction, an era which probably came to an end finally in 2007. The pendulum often swings slow and far in democracies. So perhaps the Greek and Italian democratic cultures are being formed by the experience of the corrections they are undergoing now, by the slow and frustrating swing of the pendulum far out of reach. Perhaps in the future, Greek voters will opt for a less hollow state, and for a stronger sense of citizenship and a greater awareness of the Tragedy of the Commons. Perhaps it will become unfashionable to avoid paying taxes, so as to avoid the sense of disempowerment they are going through now.

But there is a democratic deficit within the EU: one that’s more deeply inlaid, and widespread. It’s commonly said, and I agree, that Europeans have become alienated from politics, especially young people. It’s partly because of venal and cynical politicians, sure. But political parties are likely to have less appeal in an era when which social class and which branch of the Church you belong to are far less divisive issues than they once were; when more and more people are educated to a healthy level of scepticism; and when the easy and rapid availability of data allowing us to judge the implications of policies means “think-tank driven” policy often trumps ideology. But we haven’t yet figured out how to replace political parties with some other vehicle for democratic participation. Crowd-sourcing doesn’t do it. Nor do social media quite fit the bill.

Alienated citizens are not what you need in a time of difficult choices. And this has been made worse by the structural dynamics of power within the EU.

National governments have handed over a portion of their power to Brussels. They in their turn have sucked up power from local councils, to compensate. This leaves local councils bereft –  where can they suck up power from? Result: local politics have become unattractive and dull, and so young people in particular have no interest in engaging. And if politics don’t work, then where are conflicts anticipated, managed and resolved? Has the EU, famously said to be a glorious peacebuilding project, actually undermined the democratic mechanisms which are so essential to peace?

I don’t say that political power is a zero sum commodity, but it’s not infinitely elastic, either. More of it needs to be accessible to young people, which I think means more local decision-making about things that really matter – not just about how to implement directives from the capital, from Brussels and from other international rule setters.

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