Democracy is hard to find

Posted By: April 06, 2019


Patrick Murphy.Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, April 6, 2019

I blame the Greeks. I mean, there we were in Ireland 2,500 years ago, getting the hang of farming, beginning to speak what became modern Irish and generally minding our own business.

And what were the ancient Greeks doing? Inventing democracy, that’s what.

Ah but, you say, surely democracy is a good thing? Well yes, in theory, with the likes of Socrates and Aristotle prancing about Athens, discussing and debating it.

Oh dear, you ask, how have we descended to describing the emergence of philosophy as mere “prancing about”?

Why has this hallowed column—yes, a bit of exaggeration there—been reduced to offering a jaundiced view of democracy, a system of government which is the very essence of modern civilization?

I’ll tell you why: Westminster, that’s why. Oh, and Donald Trump and, while we are at it, Stormont.

Three years ago, the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU, but their MPs in Westminster are still trying to impose their individual interpretations on what the people actually meant.

So, it might reasonably be asked that if democracy is such a good thing, why are there two versions of it: one supporting Brexit in a referendum and one denying it in parliament?

And if democracy works so well, why is the UK still in the EU?

The answer is that what is happening in London is not just a conflict about the meaning of Brexit, it is a conflict about the meaning of democracy.

British democracy, it appears, has been undermined by politics.

So, can we conclude that the self-proclaimed mother of parliaments is undemocratic, in that it has failed to carry out the will of the people?

In fairness, you might argue that the Brexit referendum is an exceptional case because it did not specify exactly what Brexit meant.

But a democratic parliament might reasonably have been expected to reach agreement on it by now, especially since the referendum was followed by a general election.

In any case, we have the same culture in this country where those who most loudly criticize Britain for failing to define Brexit are very often the same people who call for a referendum on a united Ireland, without the slightest hint of what that might mean.

More significantly, the Westminster farce reflects the huge gap between the electorate and those who allegedly represent them.

Over one-third of Theresa May’s cabinet were privately educated, almost six times the national average.

Nearly half of her ministers attended Oxford or Cambridge, about 50 times the national average.

So, her cabinet would appear to represent nobody but a tiny social elite, unused to referendums.

The Brexit poll was only the second UK-wide referendum since 1975.

In that same period, there were 26 referendums to amend the Irish constitution.

But Britain does not have a [written]constitution, just an odd assemblage of myth, legend, and precedent, shaped by people with silly titles paying homage to a medieval monarchy.

It was that system which turned the Brexit debate from pageant to pantomime. The ancient Greeks used theatre to unite the people of Athens as a foundation for democracy. British political theatre, however, merely created division.

Of course, the EU is not a democracy either.

Only the unelected EU Commission can propose new laws in what is laughingly called the European Parliament.

So, the Brexit argument between Westminster and the EU is between two undemocratic institutions.

True to form, the DUP and Sinn Féin support opposite sides.

This is quite fitting because both parties jointly invented petitions of concern at Stormont, which allowed decisions taken by a democratic majority to be overruled by a minority, as in the case of same-sex marriage.

And, of course in the US, where only millionaires can be president, we need just two words to explain the illusion of democracy: Donald Trump.

So that just leaves the 26 Counties, which in fairness is democratic in that it usually implements referendum results pretty quickly.

The two exceptions in modern times have been in relation to – what else? – referendums about Irish integration into the EU.

The Irish government held the Nice and Lisbon Treaties a second time to get the ‘right’ result when the electorate rejected both the first time.

While we all pay homage to democracy, few societies actually practice it.

So, maybe we should not blame the Greeks for inventing democracy.

Maybe we should blame the politics of greed and self-interest for undermining it.

As Aristotle said, democracy is when the poor and not the men of property are the rulers.

That might explain why it is so hard to find.