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It was Cleisthenes who divided Athens into voting districts, and Alexander Hamilton who wrote 51 of the Federalist Papers. It was Jean-Paul Marat who died in the bath, and Charles I who lost his head. The history of democracy is a history of ideologues, pragmatists, fighters, and chancers. Democracy is both a clear-minded ideal and a slippery aim for execution. It has led to change and stability, to revolution and peace. Millions of human beings have lived democratic lives; millions have fought and died for political freedom. Today, we see the desperation of totalitarian nations where choice still means little, or pain, or death. We see new voters in transitioning places queuing under fire to speak through the ballot box for the first time. And, in established democracies, we see marches and campaigns to revoke the results of electoral decisions.
This paper does not seek to sell democracy abroad. The arguments presented here are dependent on their relevance to all human beings, but the aim is to remind those people whose political rights are already recognised of how fortunate they are. This paper provides neither a historical exposition of democratic forms of government, nor a focus on practical solutions to improve the UK’s democratic mechanisms, although genuine localism is proposed as one way forward. Rather, democracy’s importance and vast value are explicated, on the grounds that it — or at least the rights it entails — is a necessary and precious part of a good society: that democracy, as a form of government, is a necessary condition of a legitimate political society, and that it helps to make that society a good one. This paper argues for the value of democracy in general, but also specifically from a point of view that is committed to the good that is individual freedom.
The UK has long been heralded a home of political freedom — even if this has not always been the case in practice. And, over the past decades, Western nations have claimed to have been so committed to democracy’s value that they have attempted, at great risk to many, to export it around the world. Yet this Brexit moment has brought out not only strong champions of democracy, but also strong critics. We see increasing frustrations at home; polls suggest a growing lack of commitment to democracy, as suddenly, certain people aren’t so keen on its results. Even some of those claiming a core interest in individual freedom seem increasingly happy to trade away fundamental political rights for promises of ongoing economic growth. Over the centuries, prominent liberals, including John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot, have formed a key strand within a tradition of anxiety about democracy, but the recent revitalisation and spread of antipathy seems clear. This paper argues for the ongoing value and necessity of democracy to modern Britain.
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