It’s a matter for celebration that democracy has gradually found favour with more and more people all over the world: genuine democracy, not the sham that has passed for democracy in some countries for so long. It has been moving to see the sacrifices that the people of Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East have been prepared to make in their struggle for democracy and freedom. I’m afraid to say that we tend, in the United Kingdom, to take these precious things for granted.
The people of Egypt have been and remain greatly in my thoughts and prayers as they enter an exciting new free phase of their history. It will, no doubt, take some considerable time for it to be finally decided what sort of democracy is best for the country. In the United Kingdom, the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy, we are still arguing about it. Earlier this year we had a referendum about whether we should stick with the ‘first past the post’ system we have always used or move to ‘alternative voting’. Interestingly, about 69% of those who voted cast their vote in favour of retaining the present system – one which is often criticized for being undemocratic in that, during my lifetime, it has almost never produced a Government which has had the support of the majority of those who voted in an election. That’s because if there are three or more candidates standing, the first past the post system dictates that the person who received the most votes is elected, even if he or she has received a minority of the votes cast. So, for example, if 100 votes are cast and Candidate 1 receives 35 votes, Candidate 2 receives 33 votes and Candidate 3 receives 32 votes, Candidate 1 is elected even though 65 votes were cast against him or her and only 35 for. A strange kind of democracy, you might be forgiven for thinking, but apparently what people here like.
More interesting than the result of the referendum, or what it was about, though, is the factAs Churchill famously remarked, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” that we have referenda so rarely: this was the first in a generation. That’s because, rather than being a ‘direct democracy’ like Switzerland, which favours such referenda, ours is a ‘representative democracy’ in which we elect representatives every five years and then expect them to make decisions on our behalf. As The Economist pointed out, the debate about the merits of representative and direct democracy goes back to ancient times: ‘To simplify a little, the Athenians favoured pure democracy (“people rule”, though in fact oligarchs often had the last word); the Romans chose a republic, as a “public thing” where representatives could make trade-offs for the common good and were accountable for the sum of their achievements.’
Whatever their arguments with the United Kingdom, the cradle of Parliamentary Democracy, America’s Founding Fathers went with its model of representative democracy. What sort should Egypt choose? Impatience with politicians of all sorts throughout the world, and technology making it easier to hold referendums, might be thought to argue in favour of moving more power to the people. However, the experience of California might suggest caution: the State is bankrupt because, in its direct democracy modelled on Switzerland, every referendum proposing difficult economic measure fails and chaos results. It is effectively ungovernable.
Our system, on the other hand, places a great deal of power with the elected government and can lead to what is sometimes criticised as an ‘elected dictatorship’ which has generally been elected by a minority of the people. Proportional representation solves that latter problem but can produce coalition governments which are bland and unstable.
The trouble is that democracy, however it is practiced, is a very inadequate form of The crucial thing about democracy, though, as Egyptians know from bitter experience, is not how governments are elected or how decisions are made but the fact that you can get rid of a government.
government. As Churchill famously remarked, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The crucial thing about democracy, though, as Egyptians know from bitter experience, is not how governments are elected or how decisions are made but the fact that you can get rid of a government.
That and one other thing are crucial to the functioning of a truly civilized democratic society: mature institutions of civil society which provide checks and balances, allow for reflection and deliberation in the public sphere and facilitate the emergence of a culture founded on virtue not greed, service not selfishness. My advice to the people of Egypt, for what it is worth, is to spend time and energy on developing such institutions rather than worrying too much about exactly what sort of democracy to embrace.
Dr. John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester, England, in the Diocese of Worcester, and author of A Christian Theology of Place (2003)