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Sat 30 May 2020
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Gareth Roberts argues that British democracy is being endangered by unwitting ignorance and deliberate lies.

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So, let’s start at the very beginning: what even is democracy? 

If you listen to the towering intellect that is Nigel Farage, then democracy is simple: if, on a given day, more people vote for option ‘A’ than option ‘B’, then that is the democratic process in action — ‘A’ won, ‘B’ lost, so boo hoo sucks to those who voted ‘B’.

My hunch is that if Nigel Farage or Jacob Rees-Mogg or Mark Francois had been around when the Greeks were first discussing the principle of democracy, then they would have been serving the drinks rather than contributing to the debate. Ever since Plato, Aristotle, and others first mused over the best way in which man can be governed, it is the accepted truism that if democracy is treated simply as an exercise in majority takes all then the nation-state is in danger of falling foul of the tyranny of that majority.  

Democracy goes far beyond the act of putting your cross in a box or your hand in the air, democracy is complex and delicate symphony, where the end product relies upon the effectiveness of all the parts, because ultimately the aim of democracy must be to promote good governance and public policy and to protect the weak from the excesses of the powerful. 


To carry out that role effectively, democracy relies upon three very important factors:

First, are the rules and structures that bind it in place;

Second, is the transparency and accuracy of the information that is disseminated to the people;

Third, is the level of participation and degree of trust that the people have in the whole process.

Brexit and our recent elections have demonstrated that, rather than being dynamic and effective our democracy is actually in grave danger: suffering from outdated rules that are barely fit for purpose, virulent misinformation that is stifling debate, and promoting dangerous levels ignorance amongst the people, and plummeting levels of trust and participation.  

We can’t ignore this. We can’t let our democracy wither and die. We can’t pretend that it is all hunky-dory when it isn’t. Countries who neglect their democracy soon become stagnant, unstable, unruly and ultimately divided and weak. You don’t have a healthy democracy if the prevailing view of the electorate is that they ‘hate all politicians,’ and ‘they’re all just on the make’.

Sadly, our political class is not showing any signs that it has learned anything or indeed cares that our democracy is becoming a shambles.  

Byline Times’ Box set on Russian Interference in UK Elections

The rules that govern our democracy are based around the Representation of the People’s Act, the Political Parties and Elections Act — which gave rise to the Electoral Commission — and, what can be loosely termed the will of Parliament. 

Although they are not particularly elderly, the two acts of Parliament are already struggling to prevent the scandalous abuse of election spending and party donations. As things stand the maximum fine for a party or organisation breaching the rules on election expenditure is £20,000 —which, as Claire Bassett, the Chief Executive of Electoral Commission, told the House of Commons Digital, Culture and Media Select Committee is seen by many as simply, “a cost of doing business”. 

If democracy is treated simply as an exercise in majority takes all then the nation-state is in danger of falling foul of the tyranny of that majority.

The legislative framework did not envisage the growing menace of malign foreign interference in UK elections. Parliament is clueless as to how it should act to curb the threat of those who seek to meddle in our electoral processes.

The fact that the report by the Intelligence And Security Select Committee into possible Russian interference in UK elections has yet to be published is outrageous. The Electoral Commission must be there to deal with these threats, and it will only succeed if it is given greater powers and resources to investigate and, where necessary, punish those responsible for breaching electoral law or meddling in our elections.

But it is not just murky foreign interference that pose a threat, just as serious is the preponderance of misinformation that now blights our electoral processes and the apathy that it generates amongst the voters. No democracy can possibly work if a disinterested electorate are being fed a diet of lies and falsehoods.


Misinformation

In South Africa a misinformation law can see criminal sanctions imposed on politicians or political parties who deliberately lie to the electorate. Whilst New Zealand has empowered the Ministry of Justice to set standards and monitor political messaging ahead of a referendum to be held this year on euthanasia and the decriminalisation of cannabis.

Is it time that we had laws in place that would make it a criminal offence to deliberately or recklessly distribute material that is false in any official campaign literature with the intention to obtain votes?

At the very least that would make anyone thinking about sticking a massive poster on the side of a bus claiming that the NHS will be better off the tune of £350m if we leave the EU, think twice. 

But, of course, tighter rules and closer scrutiny will not necessarily cause the electorate to re-engage with the democratic processes. Most people don’t know the slightest thing about their politicians, parties and government which makes it much easier to dismiss them all as ‘the same.’  

The Hansard Society’s 2019 Audit of Political Engagement is at an all-time low. We can’t just arrogantly ignore this trend. Politicians and political parties have to work to regain trust, but, in addition, isn’t it time for some rudimentary instruction about politics and our constitution to become part of the national curriculum in schools? 

If kids left school knowing a little bit about government, the voting system and the way in which laws are made, then, as a nation we would have a greater understanding about what our politicians do.

In recent years, those on the right have constantly accused ‘remainers’ and liberals of ignoring democracy and the will of the people but, in reality, they are the ones who are happy to allow public policy to be shaped by a democratic system that is creaking at the seams as it struggles to cope with mass media, mass misinformation and apathy and ignorance on a huge scale. We let this happen at our peril, because once you lose your democracy then bad things start to happen, very quickly.   


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