Democracy is in trouble. The number of states considered democracies rose after the collapse of communism in Europe and continued rising in the 2000s, but in the decade since the financial crash it has been falling again. All democracies are under strain, afflicted by the growing gap between members of the political class and the people they are supposed to represent. The crisis of representation takes several forms. The rise of populist nationalism is one manifestation. Another is the impact of digital media on democratic culture and institutions, which has helped fuel a demand for direct rather than indirect forms of democracy, popular sovereignty against parliamentary sovereignty.
It was not supposed to be like this. 2018 marked the centenary in the UK of universal suffrage for all male citizens over 21 and all female citizens over 30. Women had to wait another ten years until 1928 for that anomaly to be corrected, but the fundamental principle of universal suffrage for all citizens had been conceded. This reform marked a decisive stage in the emergence of a full representative democracy in Britain. Those who had campaigned for it hoped that it would lead not just to a liberal democracy, the extension of civil and political rights to all, but also the creation of a social democracy based on universal social rights.
The record has been mixed. Democracy was added on to a liberal constitutional and economic order in which there were huge inequalities of power, wealth, gender and race. The struggle to achieve gender equality in work and in households has made advances, but painfully slowly. There has still not been a single parliament or cabinet in which women have been in the majority and the discrimination against women in so many different aspects of life persists. The same is true for black citizens and many other minorities. The struggle to secure basic equality of treatment for all is far from complete, even though real advances have been made. Britain in 2018 is a vastly different place than it was in 1918 or even 1968.
In seeking to achieve a full social democracy in Britain there has been less progress. Inequalities of power and wealth were reduced for a time through the rise of the Labour Party and the substantial shift in the balance between capital and labour which that brought about, leading to the creation of a comprehensive welfare state and a substantial reduction in inequality. But unlike the Scandinavian countries with which it was level in the 1950s, Britain failed to move on to the next stage. Instead in the political turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s there was a successful retrenchment, and a new dispensation which led to rapidly rising inequality and weakening of universal provision in many areas, as well as withdrawal of services for many minorities. Some of this was reversed during the Blair government, which saw important reforms like the minimum wage and higher rates of spending on core services like health and education. But many of these gains have been undone since 2008.
It is easy to be complacent about democracy, to imagine that it has become permanent and irreversible. But in politics nothing is guaranteed to last for ever, and what seems solid and impregnable in one era can seem fragile and vulnerable in the next. Democracy is not a finished state. It is a living process and if there is no longer the will or belief in its value then it may not endure. If we lose the art of active citizenship, we will lose the freedoms and rights which democracy has bestowed.
The present time is a difficult one for democracies everywhere. The populist surge, from Brexit to Trump, and across Europe has raised questions about the condition and conduct of democratic politics, which is under attack on several fronts and in a range of places. The new politics of resentment is rooted in the geographical, educational and generational divides of modern society. If liberal democracies are to survive and even roll back the populist insurgencies which are currently besieging them, ways have to be found to enable citizens to regain pride in their local communities, by giving them control over the decisions that most immediately affect them. That means insulating local communities from the globalised economy and returning powers and capacities to local government.
There is increasing concern about the impact of digital media. Anxieties have arisen around fake news and hate speech, as well as the effect on election campaigns, driven by evidence that digital media encourages the manipulation of voters’ opinions. The new media platforms cannot be wished away, and they bring new opportunities for extending and deepening democracies as well as dangers. They need to be accepted as part of the democratic system, while seeking through trial and error the best ways to combat those aspects of online practice which are harmful.
We must find ways to renew and extend democratic culture. If that culture weakens, if the civilised management of disagreement is lost, then the will to sustain the institutions of democracy can decline also. For many citizens, governments appear accountable for less and less, and no longer deliver for them. Representative democracy can be renewed and enriched in ways that were not possible before, including through new digital media, but it also needs a culture of democratic citizenship, one that is pluralist and encourages civility. Without it the greatest risk is not that democracies will collapse but that they will steadily deteriorate.
Andrew Gamble and Tony Wright’s new edited collection, Rethinking Democracy (Political Quarterly Monograph Series, 2019) is available online, with a series of launch events throughout the year