Saturday 14th April at Salisbury Playhouse

Two topics were discussed during the eighth Salisbury Democracy Café.

  1. Democracy and why we need it

Democracy is often assumed to be a good political system but there needs to be a clear rationale for democracy. What is it setting out to achieve? Some suggestions were that the objectives of democracy might be:

  • To resolve differences of opinion – to act as a means of making decisions so that voices are heard and agreement is reached which is acceptable to all, e.g. the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. However, democracy can be divisive when the decision to be made is binary, e.g. with the European referendum vote, which has left deep divisions in the UK.
  • To act as an antidote to populism, tribalism and war. It was pointed out that democracy has led to the rise of populism (Trump) and that in order to prevent this democratic decision making needs to be informed. Deliberative democracy through methods such as sortition and education that promotes critical thinking may be ways forward in this respect. A populist press in the UK may be seen as acting against this democratic objective. Also, there is a suggestion that in recent years MPs have been more likely to vote with their constituents, following a more populist line, rather than making informed decisions.
  • To ensure each person’s opinion is given equal weight and valued. For this to happen an independent media is required so that a wide range of opinions are heard. In our system of representative democracy, MPs represent a wide range of interests and keep the executive in check.
  • To encourage engagement and a view that things can be changed by people. It was suggested that greater engagement could be encouraged through compulsory voting, as in Australia, but with the option on the ballot paper of “none of the above”. Also, lowering the voting age to 16 was suggested as a way of engaging more young people in political debate. It was pointed out that the UK’s first past the post electoral system deters engagement because so many constituencies are safe seats. In addition, consumerism may distract people from engagement.
  • To limit extremism – democracy needs to give equal weight to each person’s opinion. In doing so it can alienate minority views. Whilst this may be seen as a positive aspect of democracy when those views are extreme, it can be a problem when they are not.

General comments included the need to form a language that describes democracy and its purpose and to constantly revisit the objectives of democracy to make sure that the form of democracy that we have is fulfilling its purpose.

Finally, we were reminded of Churchill’s phrase, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”.

  1. Can Theresa May be forgiven for launching air strikes on Syria without consulting Parliament?

This carefully worded question was discussed after the break.

Firstly, it was mentioned that she did consult with the Privy Council and it was suggested that there must be certain situations in which the PM can take decisions on military action without consulting Parliament. However, was this situation sufficiently clear cut and urgent to justify not consulting? It was suggested that MPs could have been consulted using technology or that they could have been called back from recess to debate the issue. Also, a debate could have been held in Parliament prior to the air strikes based on a motion concerning how Britain should respond if chemical weapons are used by the Assad regime.

On the broader issue of whether air strikes were justified several participants pointed out that other forms of military attack can be just as indiscriminate and devastating to civilians, e.g. barrel bombs and cluster bombs, and yet there has been no response to the use of these. The atrocities seen in the Yemen have not drawn a similar response. The comment was made that the West seems to be more concerned about how Syrians are killed, rather than the fact that they are being killed. The use of chemical weapons is illegal under UN convention and therefore any response should be via the UN. Evidence of their use should be ascertained by the UN prior to action being taken. However, does the UN have sufficient power? It is interesting that the air strikes were only agreed by the US, UK and France. What about the rest of NATO?  T May, Trump and Macron talk about a message being sent to the users of chemical weapons. The problem may be that the message sent is interpreted in a different way by the recipients and the attacks may simply cement further the close relationship between Syria and Russia. The question was raised as to whether we should be involved in the Middle East at all. Is our involvement a form of neo colonialism that is damaging to those countries? The power vacuum that resulted from engagement in Libya was cited as an example of how our involvement can lead to a poor outcome for a country. Perhaps the ultimate question is, will our involvement in the Syrian conflict save lives? On that question, the jury is definitely out.

Our next discussion is on Saturday 12th May at 10am at Salisbury Playhouse

Mark Potts