First outing for the Democracy Café a great success

The first Democracy Café was held on Saturday 16 September 2017 and was attended by around 25 people who took part in diverse and interesting debate on … democracy.  The idea for such a format came from Socrates Cafes and it is a forum for people to discuss issues that concern them.  What is discussed is decided at the beginning of the meeting, there is no agenda or set piece presentations: people assemble and agree by voting on what it is they want to discuss.  On this occasion, democracy itself won the most votes (just) with Brexit a close second.  Around 25 people attended the event which was held in the Salisbury Arts Centre.

Mark opened the proceedings by explaining the ideals behind the event.  Essentially it was about sharing ideas and ideals.  It was unlikely to lead to a conclusion he said.  The rules were that all attending respected other’s opinions, we listen to them and question assumptions.  Participation was important and we try and question the rationale behind arguments put forward.

The debate

The debate covered a wide area within the agreed area of democracy.  The following were some of the main points raised.  For ease of understanding, I have grouped them into the main topic areas so they are not necessarily in the order they were made.

– Decision making

There was quite a lot on this topic and about making better decisions at the political level.  One point was about the quality of  politicians themselves and more particularly, the skills and experience they bring to the role.  Too many it was said follow a career path which leads directly from University to becoming an MP without ever having done a ‘real job’ in their lives.  David Cameron’s job in PR was mentioned for instance.  Is it any wonder that they make such bad decisions?  Another suggestion was that politicians should only get the minimum wage.  Politicians should also be banned from holding outside jobs, indeed, one does wonder how being an MP can be combined with writing books; journalism or practising at the bar.  Politicians were often thought to be too self-interested and focused on their careers not their constituents.  The role of party politics was also criticised.

The point was also made that some aspects of democracy are an illusion.  The fuss made over elections etc. when considerable influence was exerted behind the scenes by unelected and unaccountable corporations.  The role of the media and their distortion of information was also raised.

Forms of democracy

Several people raised issues concerning different forms of democracy.  The Swiss system in some Cantons of having teams of experts to discuss a topic sounded attractive.  Sortition was raised  where groups of people are selected – rather like a jury – to consider a policy.  An interesting point was made about how people in the newly enfranchised eastern bloc countries and Russia view democracy now.  After initially welcoming their new freedom, many in these countries hanker after the old system partly because it gave them a kind of certainty.  Many Russians are said to want a return of the Tsar it was claimed, which partly accounts for the popularity of President Putin.  Whether this is to do with corruption in those countries rather than a failure of the process itself is a moot point.

In China the tradition of collective leadership was ingrained and there was little sign of a push for greater democracy.  Also in China, the development of leadership cadres was also practised.

Referendums were briefly discussed and it was felt they were a ‘blunt tool’.


Crucial to better democracy was an informed populace and this has to start in the schools.  What was important was for pupils to be able to think critically about what was going on in the world and the country.  It was part of the process of being involved in the system.  However, the desire of some members of the government to seek to control what was taught was a risk some thought.  Educating young people ‘how to think not how to vote’ was a comment made.

On the question of involvement, the compulsory voting process in Australia came up with at least one person in the room with personal experience of it.  It led to more information being offered to the voter because everyone was involved not just the party faithful.  Australians felt more empowered it was thought.

Finally, on the theme of young people, reducing the voting age to 16 was put forward by several as an important step forward: it got young people into the habit of voting.

– General points

Some other points were raised that cannot be conveniently grouped.  The mood of the people was important and this was evident with the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy.  A major disaster can highlight a policy failure such as this (if that is what it turns out to have been) which can heighten public feelings towards an issue.

The London focus of politics was mentioned with too little regard for the regions.

Concluding remarks

No conclusions were agreed at the end of the session.  But it was probably true to say that politicians and the political process did not fare too well in the discussion we had.  They were felt to be individuals with too little experience of the real world, focused on their own careers and led by their party machine, making poor decisions based on too little consideration of the facts and others’ opinions.  Other, better forms of democracy could perhaps be considered with profit.  If we are to improve matters in the future then educating young people to be both more involved and able to question and think about issues of the day would be important.  Finally, it was observed at the end of the meeting, that the system we have does enable us to vote them out of office which ultimately, is a kind of reassurance.

Next meeting

Saturday 14 October same place – 10:00 am.  But please keep an eye on this blog or on Twitter for any updates.

Peter Curbishley