Democracy and its Crisis

9 May
A. C. Grayling at Swindon festival of Literature

A. C. Grayling at Swindon Festival of Literature

A. C. Grayling took a packed and attentive audience right back to Plato when explaining about democracy.

The country was originally controlled by the aristocracy, where the King had absolute power given to him by divine right. Giving power to an ill informed public would result in anarchy and mob rule.

When Charles I was beheaded in 1649, a great change began in the idea of where authority lies and its source. The Levellers wanted the poorest in England to have as much right to a voice as the richest, with each individual (man) able to play a part in having a good enough government.

Over the next 200 years, thinkers such as John Locke and John Mills considered how to ensure a good enough government. i.e. vote someone competent to work on your behalf, listen to the facts and work in the best interests of the country..

However as more people got the vote, political parties emerged with their own agenda. MPs now had to obey the Whip, rebel and the party withdraws support for further re-election and the MPs career would be over. The tight control of the parties results in the institution being manipulated.

Professor Grayling then went on to discuss how our first past the post system is undemocratic, parties elected on minority votes.

If we changed to PR, people would see more point in voting, not silenced in safe seats. Could this result in a less strong government with a coalition?

Professor Grayling thought not, as all the parties would have to compromise in the interests of the country.

He then went on to consider the USA where checks and balances can work against effective government. Here where parties disagree, paralysis of bills results and the constitution becomes too rigid.

In the UK, the Cabinet may be told how to vote but the House of Lords can still stop a bill.

The Professor also explained current problems with democracy from spin, social media and the press.

Social media data can accurately target you with the information you would like together with the way you would like it.

In the EU referendum, they only needed to target half a million undecided voters to win. Using drips and nudges, social media can manipulate voters. For example by informing remainers that they would win easily, some would not bother to vote.

Professor Grayling pointed out a further problem to democracy, how do you sort real information from false? People get impressions from the first story they read, not bothering to read further, retraction letters have no real value.

This is very problematic and undermines democracy and our system.

How do you put this right? First we need representatives who are up to the job. Then moderate things could cure it, such as controlling the Whips to only enforce pledges made in the manifesto, allowing MPs to vote with their conscience.

Professor Grayling gave us much to consider in the need to protect our democracy from failure.

A. C. Grayling, author of Democracy and Its Crisis, appeared at Swindon Arts Centre, 8 May 2018, as part of Swindon Festival of Literature.

Words by Angel Blond.  Photo © Fernando Bagué.

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