Windows on the world


Democracy in Crisis  

The true test of a relationship is a crisis.  We do not extend this to measure much beyond families, but it can also be illuminating when examining the relationship between a people and its government.  There are many forms of government, of course, but rather than compare their relative merits this article focuses on the western ideal of democracy: government of the people by the people for the people.  

In practice democracy is not quite the same as the ideal, and accepting the complexity of modern life most of us are content to elect representatives to make decisions for us.  Those representatives must put on one side their own personal agendas and balance the wishes of the people with the 'best interests' of the people.  As the wishes of the people can be readily ascertained, they should not be rejected lightly in favour of the 'best interests' of the people which can only be assessed subjectively.

Bush, Kyoto & China

When George W. Bush was elected President of the United States of America the people had declared their wishes in part by casting their votes on the various pre-election pledges made by the two candidates.  However Mr. Bush then reversed a pre-election pledge within weeks of taking office and withdrew the support of his country for the Kyoto agreement.  This is not democracy in its accepted sense.  By encouraging CO2 emissions he was responding not to the wishes of the people but to the pressure exerted by the powerful oil industry.  This is not yet a crisis, and no doubt many opinions will be expressed over the next few months and a second reversal is also possible.

But when the American spy plane was compelled to land in China, in rather embarrassing circumstances, there would be no second chance for Mr. Bush to act responsibly for the people he represented.  He had to get it right first time.  From his action we must assume that the vast majority of American citizens would not wish to express their sorrow over an accidental death in which they were involved.

Foot & Mouth

In the United Kingdom the democratically elected Prime Minister Mr. Blair faced the crisis of Foot & Mouth.  What were the wishes of the people of this animal-loving nation?  Presumably we can assume that the nation's health and economy were major concerns, so what did Mr. Blair do to safeguard these interests whilst dealing humanely with an animal disease of massive proportions?  There was a time when we were self-sufficient in farming terms, and perhaps there was even a time when our agricultural exports exceeded our imports, but by Napoleonic times we had become (according to one well-known source!) a nation of shop-keepers.  Yet despite the absence of significant economic justification the government chose to make the protection of animal exports their overriding priority.

Protecting exports meant maintaining a disease-free animal population, and to avoid the possible confusion caused by vaccines their use was ruled out except, illogically as a last resort.  Although the elimination of Foot & Mouth by slaughter alone had never before been tried on this scale the government set in motion the policy of kill and burn, cull and bury, without any notion of the logistics involved.  The resulting national disaster for animals, farmers, rural communities and the tourist industry is a sad indictment of democracy.

Democratic Challenge

All organisations function according to their dynamics.  Democratic government should be based on a two-way flow of information with the electorate, and healthy and robust public debate.  In a two or three party parliament we should be able to rely on opposition parties to provide challenge, and this dynamic exchange should be reported so that other bodies can also challenge where appropriate.  In the case of Foot & Mouth we might have expected Messrs Hague and Kennedy to challenge the policy of killing and culling, but the opposition stayed weakly in the background and suggested only that government action should be swifter.

We might also have expected The National Farmers' Union to put up a vigorous fight, but they restricted their activities to persuading their members that whatever U-turn had just been announced was the right course of action.  And where was the reasoned case from animal rights groups, environmental bodies, veterinary bodies, rural communities, tourist boards?  And what was the role of the national Press?

There were lone challengers, some of whom found voice in the media, but by and large the Press contented itself with lurid pictures and individual cases of suffering.  With the number of new cases still rising, with the piles of dead animals still growing, and with government vacillation over vaccination and funeral pyres the nation is already losing interest.  Perhaps ultimately it will lead to the dismantling of the Common Agricultural Policy, in which case some good will have come from the disaster, but as well as reviewing farming practices we should also look at the workings of government. 

Ministerial Competence

Are we confident that our elected representatives have the qualifications, expertise and ability, to:

      Manage the affairs of the nation?
      Identify our wishes?
      Put aside personal needs and prejudice?
      Challenge perceived wisdom where appropriate?
      Direct their way through a crisis?

If this is not the case then we, the people, through various pressure groups and organised bodies, should change the dynamics of government.  I have suggested elsewhere [Whither Party Politics] how power could be devolved to the people.  Here I merely put forward reasons why change might be desirable.

Truth is the first victim of war, and perhaps we should not expect it to fare any better when the nation faces disaster.  But our elected government has been most insistent that Foot & Mouth has not been a national disaster, not even a crisis.  After all, everything has always been under control.  If Foot & Mouth does not represent the crisis, the only conclusion we can arrive at is that democracy itself is in crisis.


Harvey Tordoff
April 2001