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The body of democracy

Gisela Stuart
15 November 2005

Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton say that democracy is under attack from without and from within – and that the best way to respond is to open up the debate and find new forms of direct participation. As they ask: “If the basis for democracy is deliberation, then we have to ask who hosts the conversation?”

The experience of different nation-states offers a variety of possible hosts. The constitution of the United Sates of America declares government to be by the people for the people; in the Federal Republic of Germany it is “the people and the component states, the Länder”; in Switzerland, there are local plebiscites on everything from whether women should have the vote to whether someone should be given Swiss nationality; the European Union can issue invitations to apply for membership, but only insofar as its own member-states have given it powers to do so; the United Nations is open to all those nations which have signed up to a set of universal principles.

Gisela Stuart is a member of parliament for the constituency of Birmingham Edgbaston, England, representing the Labour Party. Her website is here

Gisela Stuart’s article forms part of a debate on “Opening democracy”, consisting so far of these articles:

Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton, “Democracy and openDemocracy"

Roger Scruton, “Democracy or theocracy? A response to Barnett & Hilton”

John Dunn, “Getting democracy into focus”

Anatol Lieven, “Democratic failure: festering lilies smell worse than weeds”

Mishal Al Sulami, “Democracy in the Arab world: the Islamic foundation”

Fred Dallmayr, “Mobilising global democracy”

Thomas Cushman, “Democracy and its enemies: a response to Barnett & Hilton”

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A question of belonging

The assumption that the more participation the better for democracy can be questioned, for it is incomplete: we need to know who takes responsibility for decisions. Democratic representatives must be seen as accountable, and this goes wider than accepting an election result. The process of fighting general elections makes it clear that democracy is a battle of ideas and of competing priorities. There will be winners and losers. It is no coincidence that we talk of “fighting” elections.

This is not the case in our transnational institutions, which are based on the hope that it is possible to divine, by a process of talks and negotiations, benevolent universal world governance that establishes peace and tranquillity across the world. Democracy is the privilege of those living in a few areas of the world and it is not an accident that all are based in nation-states. Viable democracy requires a strong sense of community or demos. Britain has this as does the US and France – but it is not so for the European Union, still less the world and its institutions such as the United Nations.

Roger Scruton looks for “a community that experiences itself as such” and he concludes that it is “still most commonly the nation-state”. I think he is right, even today, in a world of instant communication and easy travel. There is a layer of society, composed of the cosmopolitan travellers of the world, who regard themselves as having moved beyond the nation-state; but they are few in numbers. There is nothing new in such attitudes – in a sense the cold war years were a brief interruption in what had been common for centuries for most of Europe’s intellectual elites. They are not representative, but like a layer of oil on water.

For the vast majority of people the nation-state is and remains the unit of identification. If we try to move beyond it, people do not widen their horizon, but draw back into a narrower base of loyalty that makes extremist views offering simple certainties more attractive.

People identify with their own country’s institutions. MPs swear loyalty to the crown in parliament. The public has faith in parliament not because the present incumbents are so wonderful, but because they trust the institution itself. Over the centuries they argue it has done more good than harm. And part of the trust is the fact that they know us and we know them. In a democracy trust is more valuable than armies and resources.

Roger Scruton puts it well when he says: “our political culture is a culture of the home and the homeland, rather than the faith and faithful.”

I am a member of parliament for Birmingham in England’s west Midlands. I was born in Germany and came to this country over thirty years ago. I represent some 70,000 voters, who are proud of the fact that they don’t have to be born a Brummie, but can choose to be a Brummie. They understand it when I describe myself as German by birth, but British by choice. At election time, when I am attacked for being German, my vote goes up.

Yet it has only been in the last five years or so that I have heard people in my constituency telling me, “I am not British – I am English”. That worries me. British identity is based on and anchored in its political and legal institutions and this enables it to take in new entrants more easily than it would be if being a member of a nation were to be defined by blood. But a democratic polity will only work if citizens’ identification is with the community as a whole, or at least with the shared process, which overrides their loyalty to a segment.

Even in our transnational institutions the unit of identification remains the nation-state. When I served as the British representative on the Convention on the Future of Europe I could thoroughly confuse my colleagues by speaking in my native southern Bavarian drawl making what I’d describe as a European point. This was never accepted – my interlocutors would insist on asking was this a German or a British point.

What makes democracy tick

John Dunn wonders why “democracy as a principle is so potent” and argues that the model of modern representative democracy tells us little about the moral content of that democracy, but owes its strength to giving the people the means of refusing to be ruled without accountability. At first sight this is quite a lame argument: the system is good only because you can kick those in charge out. But in practice it is immensely powerful. The electorate gives one lot a chance. If they are content they re-elect it. If it loses their trust – and the opposition gains their trust – then a change of government occurs. A peaceful revolution and one based on the only concept which ultimately matters – those who govern are trusted by those who put them there.

This is the real problem with our transnational institutions. The European Union appears to have perfect democratic legitimacy: a directly elected parliament representing the people; a council of ministers representing the member-states; and a commission representing the executive. Low voter turnout and the rejection of the proposed constitution in two founding member-states (France and the Netherlands) gives rise to talk of a “democratic deficit”. This misses the more fundamental point: the reason why people don’t turn out or say no when asked is because they have lost faith in the political elite.

Elections to the European parliament are not a political fight between competing ideas where there is an identifiable outcome. There is no European demos and there are no pan-European political parties. An election never brings about a change of government which voters would recognise as such.

In national elections the basic deal is that “I as a government intend to take x% of your money in taxes in order to do the following things …” There is no equivalent deal in European elections. What it creates is a body open to single-issue pressure groups, lobbying and ever more legislation.

This helps to highlight the real threats to democracy:

  • institutions which pretend to be democratic, but lack the most fundamental requirement of democracy, i.e. the voters can get rid of them
  • institutions where it has become impossible to locate who takes responsibility for decisions
  • a system which pretends that actions have no consequences, that politics is not a battle of ideas and that political choices are like shopping in a supermarket – pick this or the other off the shelf, and never bother about coherence and consequences of the individual choices

Political parties are the institutions which provide the ideological framework of internal compromise, offer the voters packages of balanced choices. That is why “simply inviting everyone to the conversation” is not enough.

I do not see the threat of democracy in the same way as Barnett & Hilton. Their reference to “neo-liberal economics” portrays an underlying dislike of liberal capitalism. This is instinctive rather than thought out. All the evidence suggests that increased participation in the international economy raises the living standards of poorer countries, so the notion that “the democratic claim of universal equality of worth is mocked by intensification of global inequalities…” does not stand up. It is those outside the international economy (often because of vested interests preventing free trade and competition) who are the poorest.

The key elements for a functioning democracy are: a liberal market economy, the ability to remove by peaceful means those who govern us, and knowing who we mean when we say “we”. I suspect that the most difficult question to answer is the one which asks: who are “we”?

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