Set up our democratic institutions side by side, knock one over and see what happens…in the UK we began with the media, a crucial element of democracy, yet one of which large swathes are now regarded by the public with caution, if not outright distrust. And so we set up an inquiry.
Some of the fall-out of the Leveson inquiry has been to turn our attention to the government, parts of which are fatally enveloped in the mire of media’s undue influence. We can’t be simplistic about apportioning blame, since both media and politicians appear to be locked in a continuous cycle of dependence, the balance of power shifting from side to side as they wrestle over the question of who drives policy. However we have seen enough to lose more than a modicum of faith in parliament’s ability to put the needs of the public on at least the same par as their own influence and income.
And now we are faced with a crisis in the banking sector, which while not itself an institution of democracy, is required to be transparent and accountable in order for democracy to function as it should. As we’ve seen over the last few days, these characteristics are laughably absent from some key aspects of British banking. And so the trust is broken again. Depressingly there are already indications that the current scandal over LIBOR could also implicate the government on some level, though perhaps such a conclusion ought to have been inevitable.
Our government is going to have a long uphill struggle to build up public confidence in the functioning of British democracy, if indeed it is in their power to do so. Perhaps democracy, being now stripped and all its flaws revealed, can find new directions for growth. The internet is a valuable resource for many things, but I begin to see that in the upholding of democratic principles it is more than valuable – it is essential. Through social media people across the world, in countries far more restricted than our own, voices are being heard and stories are being told. Accountability is more possible because news of injustice can be more widely shared. Who knows what the internet could become in the pursuit of stronger democracy if it continues to be the place for free expression that it currently is? It is quite significant that there are movements within those great bastions of democracy, the US and the EU, to enforce greater control over internet traffic and reduce individuals’ privacy when they are online. Just knock our confidence in democracy even more, why don’t you?
I don’t hold British democracy in complete contempt. We have the core structures for it to work well if it is overhauled, and (so far) the judicial system is intact (though who watches the watchman?). It has weathered several centuries, and grown and developed over time. It has the potential to shake off the dust that’s settled and disguised the worst flaws, and be reinvigorated if we who condemn it will invest energy into it. Perhaps if new growth is permitted, British democracy will emerge stronger than it has ever been before.