Do we still care about democracy? I mean, as a nation thankfully we still do. The referendum proved that. But the reaction to the result has exposed a significant portion of the population that apparently no longer does. More worryingly still, much of the hostility seems to be coming from the younger, ostensibly more liberal, generation. My generation. It’s more than a spasm of grief following a highly emotional vote. It’s part of a consistent pattern of behaviour over recent years.
A general election is lost and some decide that the appropriate reaction is to take to the streets and vandalise war memorials. Political opponents (and journalists) are spat at, abused and threatened by gangs of protestors outside a conference. Labour MPs who dare speak their conscience are subjected to torrents of abuse and death threats. A referendum is lost and immediately there are demands for the elderly to be stripped of their democratic rights and half-baked plots to override and ignore the result. These are just some of the more high profile examples that come to mind. Whilst these are undoubtedly the words and actions of what is still just a minority, albeit an extremely loud one, it does produce a consistent pattern. It is concerning that there is a large amount of people from my generation who seem to have no regard for democracy.
The basic foundation of democracy is the unwritten agreement that we are willing to be governed by those with whom we disagree, sometimes passionately. This requires a degree of respect for your political opponents and for the electorate. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But regardless you respect the result and will of your fellow voters. Without that how can democracy possibly survive? Instead we have the exact opposite of that. Political opponents are treated not as decent people who have differing opinions but as malevolent monsters that need to be destroyed. The electorate is frequently insulted, mocked and patronised.
It has become fashionable to claim that democracy’s only value, rather than being a good thing in and of itself, is the extent to which on average it produces better policies than any other form of government. Whilst this is indeed one of the great advantages of democracy there is a problem with treating democracy merely as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. What one considers good policy is largely subjective, so perhaps when people find themselves on the losing side of the democratic process they feel justified in subverting the democratic will. After all in their eyes democracy has just failed to produce ‘good’ policy (no matter what the rest of the country thinks), therefore undemocratic means are justified in pursuing the desired end.
Perhaps having found themselves consistently on the losing side of democracy has amplified the problem for a generation of young left-wingers. Suffering from a string of successive defeats, and looking down the barrel of more, they face only two options. Re-evaluate their own beliefs and why they have failed to persuade the public or undermine the democratic will of the people.
The first option, inviting as it is does the possibility that they are wrong, is unpalatable. It cannot possibly be them who are mistaken, it is the public who are wrong. Rather than confronting hard truths, comforting myths are constructed to explain failure away. The public were lied to (conveniently forgetting the litany of mistruths espoused by their own side), tricked, brainwashed by the evil right wing press or are just plain stupid. The idea that someone, when presented with exactly the same facts could honestly come to a different conclusion to them is seemingly unthinkable.
So faced with this dilemma, unable to persuade the public but too narcissistic and self-righteous to contemplate there being any faults with their arguments or beliefs, many seem to have decided democracy is the wrong way to go. After all, if it can no longer produce the ‘good’ policies, as they see it, what is the point of it? Hence the vitriol and shameless calls to overturn a democratic result. It’s the new elitism of our age.
Democracy is a precious thing. Like most precious things it is also fragile. A welcome exception in the long history of humanity. If we are to safeguard it for our generation and for the countless generations that follow it is time to go back to first principles, to make the case for democracy. Not just a means to an end, but a precious and valuable thing in and of itself.
Liam Taylor has a Master’s degree in Economics and Experimental Economics from the University of Exeter and was a former Student Development Officer for The Freedom Association.