Democracy and liberty – Report

Amalia Kontesi (The UCL Student Human Rights Programme): Many would expect a display of pessimism by the members of the panel discussing the crisis of democracy at the dawn of the 21st century and its impact on modern liberty. The matter was indeed approached with scepticism but the proposals on how we could act to incorporate democracy into our existing institutions while recovering our liberties painted a less gloomy picture of the future.

Pam Giddy, former director of the Power Inquiry and panel chair, pointed out that although a strong democracy is necessary for us to protect our liberties and freedoms, the decline of the democratic institutions that are designed to protect them makes this increasingly difficult to achieve.

Jean Lambert MEP, Green Party MEP for London, then gave us a greater insight into the problems that our democracy faces by highlighting the discrepancy between what is written on paper and how this is operated in practice. Lambert pointed out the lack of a modern written constitution and the very flawed voting system and urged us to question the role of Parliament. She complained about the ignorance of what the European Union really does due to its increasing involvement in every aspect of our lives and explained that sometimes we become our own enemies by not acting with integrity – this, she said, is the case with the media and its role in the devaluation of political representation.

Gerard Batten MEP, UKIP spokesman on Security and Defense, supported changing the voting system to give more power to the people by allowing their decisions to count. He then defined democracy by quoting Abraham Lincoln’s famous words, “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people”.  He added that this is the democracy that we should aim for, but which up until now has only existed in ancient Greece where the demos (the assembly of all the citizens) took decisions accepted by the majority of its members.

Batten concentrated on the role of the EU in modern politics and proposed that the UK should leave the EU suggesting its membership has hindered the liberties of the UK’s citizens. He is specifically opposed to the creation of a constitution for the EU as he does not believe that common ground can be found between the different countries and cultures that would be subject to it. There is no way, he claims, for the Portuguese people, for instance, to accept the laws voted for by the Finnish. He also drew our attention to the need for citizens to be protected from the EU arrest warrant under which the British judiciary cannot prevent the extradition of a person to another country. He offered the example of Andrew Symeou – who is due to be extradited to Greece – the evidence against whom would never be upheld in a British court. However, if extradited he faces months in prison. Batten also expressed concern for the fairness of his trial. He concluded that the borderless state that the EU is trying to create would prevent British citizens from seeking protection under their domestic legal system.

Author Oliver Dowlen returned the focus to the operation of democratic institutions within the UK. Dowlen suggested that the system by which certain people acquire positions of power should radically change. He proposed that sortition, the process whereby a random selection of citizens assume certain political offices could be beneficial for our democracy. To defend a lottery system he points out that from Ancient Greece to Mandela this system has strengthened people’s political freedoms. However, some measures should be taken in order for chaos not to ensue: the lottery should be applied appropriately, for a specific task and some pre-lottery decisions should be made in order for participation not to be affected by parties and certain groups.

Ivo Mosley of Imprint Academic concurred with Dowlen saying he believes that only a system based on random selection amongst the citizens could be called ‘democracy’. This is demonstrated by the fact that in the past electoral representation used to be regarded as an oligarchy or an elite system. According to Mosley, our attitude to democracy and politics should return to how it was before 1800. The problem today is that there are no democracies but only disguised oligarchies. Mosley considers electoral representation essentially anti-democratic as various decisions are taken that are not supported by the vast majority of the citizens while the government imposes its will on us and lives off us, invading all organs of society such as health, education and business.

Neil Jameson, Executive Director of the Citizen Organising Foundation and Lead Organiser of the London Citizens, gave us a more optimistic opinion based on his experience on what steps should be taken in order for people to get more involved in decision making. He believes that people should first build their power and then attempt to recover their lost freedoms. He mentioned a ball organised by the London Citizens in which members asked Boris Johnson about the living wage to which he publically committed. The decision to ask this question was taken amongst the members of the organisation beforehand. Jameson suggests that if this procedure took place at a larger scale, involving all citizens, a recovery of democracy would occur.

Oliver Dowlen concluded that we should first recover the meanings of democracy and freedom and then recover their practice. This idea lay in the heart of the panel and it is this idea that I think we should all keep in mind.

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