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Brexit shows Britain is no longer able to imagine a “common good”

To attempt to run a democracy without shared goods is a recipe for anger and stalemate. 

For all the rhetoric we hear about this or that group ignoring or flouting “democratic process”, the fact is that we are in danger of forgetting what democracy is and why it matters. To say that democratic government is the best (or least worst) system of running a society is to say that legitimacy for a government comes from popular consent rather than inherited status, divine right or purchasing power. But this is only part of the story.

Democracy rests on a presupposition that is not often made explicit. Popular consent implies that everyone’s view and interest, without restriction, is worth taking into account in the running of a society – which is why the principle on which democracy rests is the same principle that affirms the rights of minorities and the need to continue testing the strength of popular consent. Any search for a permanent resolution of social issues that is declared to be beyond argument or challenge is a move away from the fundamental principle.

In other words, two salient aspects of a consistent democracy are that we go on arguing, and that our freedom to do so is protected. The law defends us from coercion and forcible silencing. Without these, we have naked populism, a reversion to the situation where the powerful (in numbers, wealth or status) determine what is “right”. Genuine politics gives way to suppressed or threatened violence.

In genuine politics – if there is no overwhelming consensus, and if the people who disagree with us are not going to oblige us by simply going away, and if coercion is not an option because of our legal settlement – we are committed to argument and negotiation. And this entails a readiness to suspend belief in the unqualified rightness of our own interests and to try to imagine a state of affairs emerging that could be manageable both for us and for those who do not share our ideas or priorities.

So to find ourselves – as we now regularly do – in a situation where opposing groups each regard the other’s agenda as the worst outcome imaginable is a dire situation for democracy. Not because it is not nice to be so rude to each other, but because it indicates a disturbing loss of any sense that there might be common goals that we can only discover through a process of argument and scrutiny; a loss of any willingness to think around the corners of the definitions we started with. We cannot imagine a “common good” – to use the well-worn phrase – a perspective that delivers something for the shared life and
aspiration of an entire social community, even when it does not correspond exactly to the first choices of any one group.

This is what is normally called politics. But these are not normal times, and politics is in as much danger as democracy of becoming a lost art. To attempt to run a democracy without a strong and sustained commitment to shared goods, identified by shared argument, is a recipe for anger, bitterness and stalemate. One of the root causes of our current shambles (and of other varieties of shambles across the globe, not least in the White House) is the erosion in the past few decades of notions of public and shared goods – the things we can only enjoy if it is not just us enjoying them (think of what is “good” for a band or a rugby team).

Of course people have individual projects, and there is nothing automatically destructive or ignoble about them. But a well-functioning and just society is more than the sum of individual projects, or an uneasy truce between powerful and incompatible interests. A good democracy will encourage us to explore possibilities we had not thought of. It will help us take some risks because it guarantees legal securities and the ongoing possibility of challenging and scrutinising political outcomes.

We should not be surprised if, in a situation where democracy is being trivialised, hamstrung or corrupted, inequalities increase. Failure to understand the moral and imaginative roots of the democratic process, the fundamental commitment to the idea that every voice deserves hearing, goes hand in hand with the sidelining of groups that have little public leverage.

Britain today is facing a crisis in educational funding at every level. It is floundering in its welfare provision, the operations of which are measurably increasing destitution by their irrationality and delay. It is looking at – or rather mostly not looking at – an unsustainably stretched, bureaucratised and anxious health service. Those who are at the sharp end of these challenges and a good many more are precisely those whose voices seem not to be audible. No one appears to be governing or claiming to govern for them. And the holding to ransom of all public issues in the UK by the terminally confused and melodramatically polarised Brexit debate ensures that this radically undemocratic silencing of the most needy voices in our society will not end soon.

There is a clear link between the marginalising of these urgent issues and the confusion surrounding what we mean by democracy. We shall escape from this confusion only by rediscovering the logic of democratic process – its roots in a focused vision of what is due to every human agent. Remedies are not self-evident. But they should include at least a new exploration of models of democratic participation that do not start and stop with occasional voting – hence the support from many quarters for the “citizens’ assembly” model of public consultation, involving as it does a patient, monitored process of clarifying what question parliament might vote on.

But more basically, we need to ask what our educational system should do to nurture intelligence about citizenship, which is ultimately intelligence about human behaviour and language; human collaboration in making a shared world. A system that is obsessed with skills and their marketability, that is interested mostly in problem-solving, educates, at best, half of the brain. The sense of a shared human project needs a lot more resource from the worlds of imagination, sympathy, faith in all its forms, conventional and unconventional.

The heart of our democratic deficit is that we are losing our resources for imagining human beings in three dimensions. That is the level at which we need to address our crisis. 

Rowan Williams is a former Archbishop of Canterbury and a contributing writer to the NS

Click here to read the rest of our “State of emergency” series, featuring articles from writers including David Hare, Elif Shafak, and Jonathan Coe.

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency