The last year made me fear for our democracy itself — 2018 must be a turning point

Dark antidemocratic forces, we thought we'd banished to history, seemed to reappear in 2017. It's up to all of us to stop their rise.

Although for many politically active people 2016 was a dark year, for me 2017 was the year that made me fear for the stability of our political system.

I moved from distress about Brexit and concern for the inadequacies of our electoral system to a conviction that we are actually in a battle for the very soul of democracy, both nationally and globally.

Brexit has unleashed tyrannical behaviour that we thought was committed to history.

Leading the charge for intimidation has been the Daily Mail, first undermining the independence of the judiciary with its attacks on the Supreme Court judges who determined that Parliament had to vote for the triggering of Article 50; later vilifying Conservative MPs who dared to vote against an ideological hard Brexit and deliberately inciting violence against them.

The parallels with activities of the same paper in the 1930s and the echoes of fascist propaganda have unsettled many in political life and more widely.

The techniques used by tabloid newspapers and by ersatz fascists on Twitter are not intended to make positive proposals for change. They merely destabilise confidence in democracy as a system that meets people’s needs, as well as their shared sense of reality.

We live in times of great change and democratic politicians are struggling to find solutions to the problems this generates. The fascist response is to point to these weaknesses and create fake news to undermine democratic politicians.

This is why Hannah Arendt, German Jewish philosophy and anatomist of Nazism wrote that:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

These developments are disturbing but we need to respond with courage, not fear, and we need to begin by recognising that democracy is not inevitable and needs our active support.

In the UK democracy has a history of about 200 years, and only 100 years for women. In many parts of the world its history is rockier and shorter, but everywhere we should recall how much we have to lose and not take our democratic rights and human rights for granted.

We can recall the strength and courage of those who fought for the empowerment of working people, like Tom Paine with his timeless slogan ‘eternal vigilance is the price of freedom’.

We need to make 2018 the year that we revitalise our democracy.

There are already signs of hope. When my colleague Jean Lambert stressed the importance of having a written constitution during a rally in London, she was greeted with enthusiastic cheers!

Meanwhile Green peer Jenny Jones is making progress with her proposal for a fully democratic House of Lords.

And most importantly, the campaign for a fair voting system, where every vote counts and votes are translated fairly into seats, is gaining momentum, thanks particularly to the extraordinary energy of the Make Votes Matter campaign and the excellent work of the Electoral Reform Society.

I send all these campaigns a fair wind for greater success in 2018.

So what can you do? Well, supporting any or all of those campaigns is a good start, but permit me to suggest a few other new year’s resolutions.

Join, support and nurture a society or organisation. I’m not suggesting joining a political party – although you might consider that – but that civil society organisations are the glue that holds a democratic society together, as well as the places where we practice the skills of democratic action.

This was the reason why the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe always persecuted or co-opted such organisations.

Be yourself and don’t be afraid to stand out from the crowd. I was recently in Berlin and saw the famous photo of the huge crowd of workers enthusiastically giving the Nazi salute while the lone resistor, August Landmesser, resolutely folded his arms.

This was a risky gesture that led to reprisals from a tyrannical regime and our acts of resistance are likely to be smaller and less dramatic.

But holding your opinions, or even your style, in the workplace or social setting calmly but confidently gives other people permission to be different and it is this difference that enables democracy to flourish.

Democracy assumes that, as citizens, we are often in disagreement and seeks a deliberative and mutually acceptable route out of that conflict.

So the territory of reasoned and respectful dispute is vital to the survival of democracy. This is why the spread of echo chambers created by social media is so unhelpful.

As we risk falling into warring ideological camps, perhaps the best piece of advice for the new year comes from the short booklet of Quaker wisdom Advices and Queries: ‘Think it possible that you may be mistaken’.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West and Green Party speaker on Brexit. She tweets here.

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8 Responses to “The last year made me fear for our democracy itself — 2018 must be a turning point”

  1. Dr Paul Stott

    It seems strange to be lectured on democracy, by an MEP who cannot accept the largest mass vote in our people’s history. Every vote counts for Molly, except when those votes reject membership of the European Union.

    Brexit was a revolt of the little man against the European project. It was also a firm rejection of the EU’s pseudo-democratic model – consider technocrats had already taken charge in Italy and Greece when those countries dared to step outside the rules of the troika.

    Brexit knocked David Cameron and George Osborne off their perch, and may yet lead to the abolition of the House of Lords if Lord Adonis and his chums use their ermine to thwart the will of the people.

    Leaving the European Union offers us the chance to revitalise our democracy from the local level upwards, moving away from the top down process beloved in Brussels. It ends at a stroke the excuses of our own politicians, who can no longer blame their own failings to deliver x or y, on the EU.

    How the Green party, who once believed in localism, came to be the most rabidly pro-Brussels of our political parties, desperate to stay in the single market, is perhaps an issue for those writing histories of political ‘capture’.

    But let 2019 be the year we remind ourselves that democracy, if it means anything, means delivering for the people. And that means a full, clean Brexit where the soverignty of the British people is restored.

  2. Tim Thomson

    While I fully understand Dr Scott’s position regarding Molly’s enthusiasm for Europe, I don’t believe we should be blind to the implications of what she has said about democracy. The vote to leave the EU was not specific as to how. The myth that ‘sovereignty will be restored’ is just that, unless we choose an isolationist path. Any agreements we make with other countries will impose rules upon us. Furthermore, our current Government has been trying hard to dissipate the sovereignty of Parliament which is where sovereignty should lie. The damage being done by the two dimensional bipolar debates in the social media is stifling reasoned debate and constructive solutions. As an ageing cynic, I question the motives of many who voted ‘leave’, while accepting the decision taken in the referendum. But to opt for a departure format which loses jobs, damages our services and makes our country significantly poorer would be foolish. The referendum reflected the collective view of those who voted. Parliament should not be compelled to ignore the views of those who voted remain. We were forced to take a binary view on a multifacetted matter, and we must therefore make the best of that, which can surely only be done by supporting an effective democratic system.

  3. Veronica-Mae Soar

    I am with you Tim, Without dwelling on the vote (yes, big turnout but small majority) my personal view is that many people were fooled into thinking that it was something which it was not. I would question how many people actually had an in depth knowledge of how the EU worked, believing it to dictate to us. Yes there is a lot wrong with EU but if the boat is leaking you can either stay and help to plug the leaks, or you can abandon ship. But if you do you leave, you had better be very sure you have a serviceable life raft.
    What Molly has said resonates with me. I am tired of voting for the person I want and NEVER getting them. I feel I have never been truly represented.
    As for the Lords, let’s just call it the second chamber, then recognise that what creates those who get on the gravy train and do nothing is the system , It is the system which need tightening.
    What I would dearly like to see (but will never get) is the ancient Roman senate idea of voting for the best person, not for the party – and after x years they must retire.
    And we are long overdue for a written constitution. That will keep the lawyers busy for very long time.

  4. Rod Nelson

    Paul Stott’s comments bother me very much. He decries the technocratic oppression of the EU, yet a modern society requires standards and protocols in order to function, and we are a technological society. We can’t just go back to the 1930’s and expect the world to be impressed with our strength of character. That world is gone. Much of what he wants swept away with such nationalistic puff is actually the very stuff that protects us. It bothers me greatly that, for instance, the EU’s principled stance against the covert introduction of GM technology will likely be overturned in the interests of obtaining a trade deal with the US. This is but one of dozens of examples. It is the sad likelihood that the very people who were hoodwinked by lies and the cant of the red top press into supporting Brexit will suffer the worst from it. This is already happening.

  5. Will

    Over the past few years I’ve found it increasingly difficult to debate with people holding different views ( not just on Brexit) as they often seem to have a set of “facts” to back up thier arguments, citing figures and sources I’ve never heard of and which often have uncertain provenance and are consequently difficult to disprove even when they are contrary to my “facts”.

    Rational debate is becoming impossible. Strange, illogical and dangerous policies are being followed, opposition or contrary views are dismissed, not because they are wrong but because they have been decided irrevocably by referendum!

  6. Martin Mather

    The danger emanates from powerful media and corporate moguls who seek to undermine anything the people decide if it suits their needs. The same controlling factors ensure that democracy in the United States is dead, candidates determined by how much funding the elected can secure & how much they dance to the tune of their sponsors, not representing the so-called will of the people who merely rubber stamp the successful, best funded and ergo, best presented candidate. These few controllers of world power operate offshore from the countries in which they interfere and are oblivious to the consequences of their actions, save for the fact that they operate solely to profit from the chaos they propagate. It’s not the like of Molly or her beliefs that are on trial here, it’s the fundamental loss of democracy globally through the controlling power and vested interest of a few billionaire moguls who seek to determine the future for us all with impunity. The only way to stop this is perhaps to terminate those in control, yet they will be quickly replaced by others, as we’ve seen by revolutions across the globe, where the people rise up, the people lose everything. So are we educated enough to value the benefits of democracy, or should we accept that our democracies are in effect run for us by those in high places ?

  7. gerald hartley

    It’s reasonable to point to the apparent contradiction in GP policy, i.e. support for the EU & localism. However hard people like Molly work to make the connection between voters and the EU, it still seems remote to most of them. But you might say that of most levels of government.
    It’s privatisation that is making democracy irrelevant and the Brexit negotiations confirm that. The discussions are all about trading rules. Other issues are a side show. Business ‘deals’ and competition require confidences that are the enemy of openness and democratic processes.
    Free movement was always about capital and for labour was irrelevant to most people, until those in poorer countries saw the opportunity to better themselves economically and businesses saw the opportunity to exploit them to the detriment of social stability in the better off nations.
    The “success” of capital is human acceptance of the “must have” life to the detriment of the “can’t haves” and with the dire consequences for the planet and everything else that exists on it. We can’t change that without challenging the power of big business. EU laws on competition made that difficult if not impossible All our state industries and now most of our NHS has already been privatised via outsourcing.
    The benefit of the EU seems to have been that member nations at least had some rules for how they competed with one another. That avoided the open warfare and consequences of victor’s revenge prevalent in preceding centuries. Perhaps an increase in government cyber warfare will replace it.
    The people of the better off nations have no stomach for revolution and will continue to support the status quo for the foreseeable future. So doing your best within the system still seems the only way to maintain hope for change. So I agree with Molly that civil society groups are important for that reason.

  8. greg

    Well said, Dr Paul Stott – If Molly is so concerned regarding the state of the UK’s democracy, why does she never consider it unhealthy that a three-party stitch-up can impose EU treaties upon the UK’s with no input from ‘The People’.

    The referendum has indicated that there is huge opposition to the EU and the direction in which it is travelling – and have, up until now, no say on the issue.
    If there is a second referendum, I would expect the Greens to indicate, up front, whether they agree with this direction of travel: to do otherwise would be to deceive by omission.

    The UK can tackle its own environmental challenges with good democracy – and sorting out our democracy is something that I can agree with Molly on (but please – keep so-described civil NGOs well away; they are proving to be democratically corrosive)

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