Wednesday, 14 August 2013

A point of view: is democracy overrated?

The title to this post isn't mine - it is taken from the BBC Radio 4 Point of View broadcast to which this post refers. In commenting on it, I do not intend to attack the idea of democracy as an essential component of effective political arrangement. The programme was the second of a series of four by the philosopher/broadcaster Roger Scruton. A text of the programme can be found at the BBC news website: here. Today's events in Egypt reminded me of this programme, part of which I heard on Sunday morning last.

Whilst one might or might not align oneself with Roger Scruton's political perspectives, I do think that his article/broadcast raised some interesting questions.

In the context of the fall of Communism in eastern Europe, Roger Scruton says:
.... if we study the words of Western politicians, we will constantly find that the three ideas - democracy, freedom and human rights - are spoken of in one breath, and assumed in all circumstances to coincide.
One of the things I find intriguing about activists in the gay rights movement, and the politicians who accede to their aims, is precisely that they do not speak a language of human rights. It seems to me that the language of human rights, which was very much the discourse of the 1980's and early 1990's has now been substituted by a language of "equality" or "equal rights". 

Introducing a discussion of the situation in Russia and in Egypt today, the writer suggests that

...... democracy is only made possible by other and more deeply hidden institutions. And while we are willing to accept that democracy goes hand in hand with individual freedom and the protection of human rights, we often fail to realise that these three things are three things, not one, and that it is only under certain conditions that they coincide.
Roger Scruton's examples perhaps also illustrate how legislation for same-sex marriage and equality of treatment for gay people, though attracting a democratic majority in Parliament, at the same time represent a threat to the freedom of others to manifest and express their beliefs. The question raised here is one about the limits that the participants in a democratic process need to maintain in favour of the freedoms of others, and it is a question with a pertinent relevance to our own country.

Commenting on what he has learnt from experience of the former-Communist regimes, Roger Scruton writes:

The totalitarian system, I learned, endures not simply by getting rid of democratic elections and imposing a one-party state. It endures by abolishing the distinction between civil society and the state....
I wonder, too, whether current political developments in our own country are, at least, confusing if not doing away with the distinction between civil society and the state. My own professional field of education seems to exmplify this. On the one hand, I do have difficulty in understanding what the teacher trade unions mean by the term "state education" when they characterise their opposition to Coalition policy in favour of free schools and academies as a "defence of state education". Are they really absolutely identifying ownership of the enterprise of education with its funding? And what are we to make of a Secretary of State who seeks to dictate when and how public examinations are taken?  But, on the other hand, what are we to make of organisations that run chains of academies - are they really mechanisms of civil society or are they more accurately instruments being used by the state to implement their policy? This is also coloured by an influential hostility on the part of some towards any part being allowed to religious faiths being a part of a state funded education system, with all the implications of that for how civil society is understood.

Pope Benedict was quite clear in expressing the view that religious freedom is a fundamental right that makes possible all other rights that are proper to the human person. He also spoke of a "rightful secularity", by which he meant that it was not the place for religious belief to directly exercise a political power in society. At the same time, however, Pope Benedict argued against attempts to remove all religious expression from public life. The Holy Father's address in Westminster Hall in Septemebr 2010 explores precisely this question. The question that Roger Scruton raises about the relationship between civil society and the state has increasingly, in our own country and in countries where Islamist politics are current, a crux around how the question of religion is understood as a legitimate participant in civil society and therefore owed a certain care in legislation enacted by the state.

No comments: