Yes, Manchester Was "An Attack on Democracy", but What Is a Democracy?
Twenty-two people dead. Many more injured. Scores of people frightened as a suicide bomber attacked an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester’s MEN Arena.
This is the second terrorist attack in Britain in a matter of months. That our leaders respond to attacks with well-worn homilies is to be expected. What can one say to make such unnecessary loss better?
The Westminster Bridge attack was right at the heart of our democracy: its physical closeness to the symbolic heart of our democratic institutions was intended. More recently, the French presidential election saw scenes of similar violence. Equally, the timing of the latest attack - during an election campaign - was not a coincidence.
That is was Manchester, not Westminster, makes it no less horrific; that it was a concert, attended by young people and families, makes its nature even more savage. Despite the stories of volunteers taking food to hospitals, taxi drivers turning off their meters or families housing those who would otherwise have spent the evening in the cold, it is heart-achingly sad.
Although the truisms we seek at times like these are necessary fictions, they contain a simple truth that terrorist violence is “an attack on democracy”. We can never truly understand the human motivation of one who intends to kill on such a scale but surely one purposes is to sow divisions and create suspicions between cultures. As such, it is an attempt to undermine the ballasts of liberal society.
The uncomfortable truth is that it works. This places a greater responsibility upon politicians during crises to find the right language.
The immediate response has included suspending the general election campaign. As an instant reaction it was necessary: somehow political hurly-burly seems petty and small when confronted with unnecessary loss of life. Yet should not our politics’ smallness always be a cause of distress?
Terrorism forces us to talk about society, but it does not follow that we think about IT
The brutal reality is, however, that we cannot mourn indefinitely. It may be that a resumption of everyday life is - another cliché - the best way to show terrorists that they will not win. It is more than that though. This is one of the most important elections of our lifetimes and it is in two weeks. We simply cannot afford to sleepwalk, in fear, towards an ill-informed decision on polling day.
The pause is necessary. Ritual allows us to adjust to change. And if - when the campaign resumes - it resumes with more decorum then that is welcomed.
There is another reason why we should pause before we return to normalcy. Terrorism forces us to talk about society, but it does not follow that we think about it. Put simply, we use the word democracy, but don’t ask what it means.
The statement may seem odd, given the timing, but too often we reduce democracy to simplistic levels. The result of the Brexit referendum has seen the government take a majoritarian approach to politics that has continued the divisions of the campaign. Yes, one side had to win but that does not mean that side should get all its demands at the expense of the losing side.
Had Remain won the government would have had to make concessions to Leave voters. The idea of referenda as winners-take-all votes is to transplant representative democracy onto a populist platform.
Rushing into a referendum, without thinking about what response there could be in the event of a Leave decision, was a greater disservice by David Cameron than the decision to hold a plebiscite in itself.
And there is part of the answer: what we call democracy is representative democracy. Our part in the decision-making process rests at the ballot box. In between elections our role is less formal, though still important.
For all its faults, nobody has created a better working system. But as such, we create a division between the governed and the government. While necessary, a good juxtaposition of the two is an absolute in a functioning democracy.
Terrorism works by destroying that juxtaposition. The symbols of this division are already there: Margaret Thatcher erected iron gates on Downing Street to protect against IRA attacks; in response to later threats, Tony Blair had built cement barriers around Parliament and a glass protector in the public gallery of the House of Commons.
Our leaders have become isolated from us.
This has been true of the general election campaign itself. Theresa May has spoken to small crowds of party supporters in obscure locations around the country. Yes, Jeremy Corbyn has addressed large rallies but he is speaking to the converted. Bad juxtaposition.
The infrequency with which leaders meet “real voters” has been demonstrated by the publicity such occasions receive. Security may be an issue but John Major - who was in Downing Street when the IRA launched a mortar attack upon it - got on his soap box and toured town squares - enduring heckles and the occasional egg. By contrast, 2017 looks sterile.
Too often we speak of democracy in terms of its institutions rather than its values
At the opposite end of the scale are the voters. When we speak of democracy we speak of rights. How often do we speak of responsibilities? During the Labour leadership debates in 2015, the most frequently googled search was “What is austerity?” We expect our leaders to listen to us but fail in our own side of the bargain. In 2015, more people did not vote than voted for the winning party. Even 2016’s referendum saw a pathetic 73% turn out.
Voters complain that nothing changes or that politicians are not responding to their needs. Platitudes, without action, from politicians about "the left behind" are not enough. In that cynicism there begins a self-fulfilling cycle. Only engagement can break it.
Too often we speak of democracy in terms of its institutions rather than its values. Perhaps because the former are visible while the latter are inherently opaque.
Yet when we speak about the strength of our democracy, we are speaking of our own strength. Perhaps we should start to admit its frailties and, therefore, our frailties. Otherwise all we are doing is deluding ourselves, not others.
Truisms are necessary. And it may be one to say that terrorism will not win. That does not mean that democracy will win, in turn, though.
The question “What is democracy?” is one to which there is no universal answer. So think about it.
About the author
Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.
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