Just What Does Democracy Mean?

10 Dec

It’s been a tough week for democracy.  Last week there was furore over Julian Assange and whether he was defending or attacking it.  Today Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, but he couldn’t receive it.  China exercised some powerful autocratic flesh and he was prevented from going to the ceremony in Oslo.  The allocation of the prize was supposed to signal a win for democracy, a ‘middle-finger-up’ at China’s political decisions; but China has tossed the insult straight back and even managed to stop almost a third of the other invited countries from attending.  A democratic right to choose, or blackmail?

Closer to home though, there have been the good old democratic, peaceful protests that took place across England on Wednesday and Thursday.  Thursday, of course, saw the protests get out of control.  People weren’t so much protesting the hike in tuition fees as attacking the state.  “Off with their heads!” was blared at Charles and Camilla as the couple ducked in their limousine.  Class division has hardly seemed starker: the ‘mob’ on the street, battling the cold weather, demanding that the government listen; and the royals, in their Rolls Royce limo (couldn’t they have called a cab?), surrounded (apparently) by royal protection, off to the London Palladium for this year’s Royal Variety Performance.  The crowd were “baying  for blood”, according to a local shopkeeper, and banging at the car.  The man who thrust a stick through the window to poke Camilla in the ribs was photographed looking aggressive and gleeful, the sort of “thug” Sir Paul Stephenson has insisted on branding him as.  By contrast, Charles and Camilla were captured first cowering terrified, then, as they arrived the Palladium, in stances of dignified composure.  How shrewdly, and how horribly, the class divide showed then.

A “thug” is somebody who behaves badly; inhumanly.  The man with the stick and indeed the baying crowd, did behave in a thuggish manner.  To attack the royals – who were on their way to a philanthropic event, who had taken the deliberate decision not to hide away from protesters, and who are neither the coalition government nor have the legislative power to force them to change their minds – was despicable.  Yet to call the people kicking the car “thugs” dehumanises them; and it does so in an absurdly typical Toryish way.  It reinforces the idea that there is a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ and therefore distances them from access to a democratic voice.  It suggests, while being very careful not to be explicit, that such people cannot have anything worthy to contribute and that their views therefore ought to be discounted.  It is very, very clever on the part of the government, especially because most of the public will feel disgusted by such pointless and groundless aggression.  Calling those select demonstrators “thugs” undermines their credence, and unfortunately that has implications for the (peaceful) protesters with whom the government, media and public now associate them.  The branding of “thugs”, along with the acts they committed, have tarnished a day of protests that might otherwise have been constructively received.

Instead, media focus has overwhelmingly been on the damage yesterday’s events wrought.  The royals; the Cenotaph climbed by Charlie Gilmour; the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree; the statue of Churchill; even poor old Topshop at Oxford Street.  (This, incidentally, was simply dumb: with one protest overlapping another, the protesters began to look as though they had an insatiable thirst for destruction and couldn’t care less where they gorged themselves.)  Worse, in terms of getting the public onside, the  inevitable cost of all this to the taxpayer has been highlighted (thousands of pounds apparently, with £15,000 worth of damage at Topshop alone).  All this rather negated the protests themselves.  Which is ironic really, given that the protests were not particularly violent.  43 arrests out of 25,000 marchers is not cause for concern.

But all of this is cause for questioning the democracy in which we assume we live.  Naturally, democratic right does not give someone the right to intimidate another, social superiors or not – though to witness the way the wealthy are often vilified as privileged or Oxbridge attendees as public school snobs you might think otherwise.  Democratic right does, though, allow the right to protest.  Correction: it is a state in which freedom to protest is a given.  And that is why (fanfare here) Boris Johnson‘s comments on the Today programme this morning were undemocratic.  “We could have water cannon.  We could have baton charges.  We could have many more broken heads of young people in London today.  I don’t think that is what people want to see in this country.”  Boris is suggesting that democracy is a kindness from whoever is in power.  He describes democracy as “allowing people the right to demonstrate”; that is not democracy.  A democratic system is one in which demonstration naturally exists and is a mode of expression.  Peaceful protest ought to be listened to and addressed.  It is not a generous bonus offered by only the most benevolent democratic leaders; it is a pre-condition of democracy.  It is not optional.

Sir Paul described the police force as showing “great restraint” in not using their firearms on protesters.  Is that democratic? A state where police are condoned for not shooting protesters is in a hazardous situation indeed.  Last week, a professor of law in Saudi Arabia was arrested for publishing an article that was critical of the Saudi royal family.  Is such an arrest undemocratic? Yes.  Almost as undemocratic as if the Saudi officials had claimed great restraint or generosity in allowing him his freedom.

Listen to Boris here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/today#playepisode2

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