The Problem with our Democracy
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Jeremy O’Grady, writing in an editorial for The Week magazine last week, argued that, ‘to rescue political seriousness we need a more local kind of democracy.’ He believes ‘democracy of the highly centralised sort we have here’ is responsible for the dumbing down of politicians, citing David Cameron’s banal interview with Now magazine as evidence. O’Grady is partly right, but he does not go far enough in his critique of democracy. There is far more merit to local democracy than merely the salvaging of political seriousness. Modern general elections in the UK now closely resemble US-style Presidential races, with greater focus on personality than policy (hence Tony Blair’s popularity). The introduction of television debates in the 2010 election were fêted as an effective way of letting party leaders eloquently propose and explain their policies on a range of issues, allowing the electorate to make an informed, rational decision with their vote. In reality, the debates were won and lost on character, as we saw Nick Clegg’s likeability rocket him to the top of the polls, whilst Gordon Brown’s apparent grumpiness left him bottom of the pile. None of this is surprising, nor is it the primary issue at stake. The emphasis on character hides a deeper, more disconcerting fact about our democracy though: that votes are cast, and elections won and lost, on party leaders. One person and their persona can determine the outcome of a general election. This hardly seems the best way of determining who is to rule the country, and how, to me. The focus on party leaders forces these politicians to be completely and utterly uncontroversial. O’Grady brings this under the heading of ‘political seriousness’, but the reality is more worrying than that. Modern politicians are required to be as bland as possible in order to appeal to the greatest number of potential voters; any hint of a deeply held principle or belief is hidden under the umbrella terms of ‘equality’ or ‘fairness’, words politicians love because of their inherent ambiguity. The less specific a politician has to be, the better, because it offers them less risk of causing offence or upsetting the public.
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