Bristol University Press talks to Henry Tam, a leading expert on the threats against democracy and what should be done to counter them. In addition to his academic work as a political theorist, he was in charge of the Labour government’s policies for civil renewal and community empowerment in the 2000s.
Henry’s new book Whose Government Is It? is out today.
BUP: More and more we hear that leaving people to vote with little understanding of the key issues is a recipe for disasters. Brexit, Trump, the resurgence of the far right – how worried should we be?
HT: There is something rotten indeed with the state of our democracy. Instead of ensuring people’s informed views and concerns are taken into account by those who govern on their behalf, democracy has been subverted by the use of private wealth and large-scale deception to skew political decisions. If we allow it to continue, we will keep sliding ever closer towards arbitrary rule.
BUP: But isn’t it true that most people are not interested in politics and they don’t want to be involved with the business of government?
HT: People are not interested in petty party-political squabbles, but very few can be indifferent about how their lives are affected by what those with ruling power may or may not do.
For the last 50 years, around a third or more of adults in the UK and the US have not bothered to vote in elections, because they believed it would not make any difference. Among those who vote, an increasing number are unsure if they can trust politicians, while there is an alarming trend over the last decade with people supporting demagogues who want to impose solutions and do away with public accountability. We have seen those siding with the radical right winning support in elections and referendums across Europe and America. And they will use and abuse the power they get to advance their own agenda regardless of the harm it brings to others.
BUP: So what can be done? Are we to stop people voting for certain groups or policies, and wouldn’t that be anti-democratic itself?
HT: Democracy is not the same as letting people do whatever they want. It is a system for enabling people to cooperate in reaching informed decisions about what should be done collectively for their common good. As long as we allow democracy to be stripped of its true meaning, we leave the door wide open for it to be subverted.
There are a number of actions that need to be taken urgently. As I set out in my book, Time to Save Democracy, we must have a comprehensive set of reforms that will ensure the minimum conditions for the functioning of democracy are adequately met. These cover the nine strategic areas of:
♦ Shared Mission: To develop common objectives and cultivate solidarity;
♦ Mutual Respect: To tackle the spread of discriminatory behaviour;
♦Coherent Membership: To clarify terms of citizenship and strengthen people’s sense of belonging;
♦ Collaborative Learning: To raise understanding of what objective enquiry entails;
♦ Critical Re-examination: To counter dogmatism and support open scrutiny of claims;
♦Responsible Communication: To stem the flow of misinformation and promote fact-based discussions;
♦ Participatory Decision-Making: To enable people to shape the decisions that affect them in an informed manner;
♦ Civic Parity: To curb widening inequalities and redistribute power and resources to create a level playing field for fair cooperation;
♦ Public Accountability: To debunk the deregulation mantra and ensure people with power over others are held to account for their actions.
BUP: In the meantime, what can people do in the absence of your proposed reforms?
HT: As we press for these reforms, we should in parallel adopt arrangements and practices, which are known to facilitate cooperative working between state institutions and citizens, improve people’s quality of life, and raise satisfaction with public actions.
In my latest book, Whose Government is it?, I brought together a group of experts who have extensively examined, developed, and implemented participatory and empowerment processes to explain how to establish them in practice. Their contributions to the book provide the reasons and guidance for developing the capacity for effective democratic engagement, and setting up the appropriate arrangements to sustain informed cooperation.
BUP: What do you say to people who insist that we cannot afford to spend precious time and resources on consulting the public when it is not only costly, but could land us with damaging decisions?
HT: The truth is that we can’t afford to let the gap between citizens and their government widen any further. Token consultation and corrupted participatory practices are of course worse than useless, but that’s precisely why we must focus on getting the necessary framework and suitable approaches in place. Democracy has the greatest potential, if we work on it, to advance the common good, safeguard personal well-being, and improve efficiencies. But neglected, its subversion will plunge countless citizens into insecurity and exploitation.
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