Chapter 33 - The Nature of Democracy

Posted in The Forgotten People

We human beings are easily enslaved by language. A few words suitably grouped into a slogan or catch-cry may acquire such a flashy attractiveness that they are easily mistaken for an entire philosophy. To be a maker of good phrases is to travel half the journey towards popular power.

The curious thing is that, as time goes on and unthinking acceptance of some cant phrase settles into a fixed habit of mind, some words acquire a sacrosanct character, whilst others lose their original meaning and fall into abuse and decay.

Perhaps the best example of a word which has become almost sacrosanct is the word "democracy". We see in it the symbol of our liberties. We see it as the enemy of Nazi and Fascist tyrannies. We attach to it a sort of universal quality of truth. In a country like our own, you may no more pronounce yourself not a democrat than you may avow yourself a house-breaker. We disagree among ourselves on almost every conceivable subject, but we are all democrats.

This general and tacit acceptance of democracy is paradoxically not only a source of strength but also one of our greatest dangers. For a faith which rests not upon experience or understanding but upon a mere ritual, is so much the husk of a belief that it can be winnowed away by the first high wind. We must understand and experience democracy if democracy is to be a living faith and is to survive.

With your permission, and I hope encouragement, I propose to occupy a few of my sessions in an examination of democracy - its true nature, its past faults, its vital significance and function in the rebuilding of the world after the war. It will be my theme that we have misunderstood, ignored and occasionally despised democracy, and that if in the new political generation we practise democracy as badly as we did in the past, either democracy will disappear or the rebuilt world will be foundationless and will fall.

First, then, what is democracy? No well-worn epigram will answer this question. In its strict etymological sense it means government by the people, that is popular self-government as opposed to autocracy or aristocracy, or any other system which separates the rulers from the ruled. In another sense it connotes an attitude of mind - a civic sense of men's equality in the eye of the State. In its narrowest and most colloquial sense it comes down to an election cry or two - "One man one vote", "One vote one value". Some people see in it an almost divine character: to them the voice of the people is the voice of God. At least one Greek thinker dismissed it with the contemptuous observation that under it the votes of the many would be used to steal the property of the few.

In my own opinion, our most grievous error has been that we have thought too much of democracy in mechanical terms - as a system of government - and too little of it as a spirit, a moving force; not a mere vehicle for the expression of the human mind alone, but a challenge to the human spirit.

In our country, democracy expresses itself, mechanically speaking, in a parliamentary system which gives to every adult citizen of both sexes, every three years or so, a vote in the election of a member of Parliament who will help to make laws, and through him a voice in the selection of a cabinet of ministers who will administer those laws.

That system was the outcome of centuries of struggle and evolution. It was finally achieved quite recently - in my own lifetime - when women got the vote. The instrument of popular self-government was then complete. But - and I emphasize the "but" - democracy's task did not then end; it began.

It is a good thing to win a historic struggle for freedom. It is a better thing still to know how to use your freedom when you have won it. I may have the most expensive and perfect piano in the world, but it will give out only crashing discords unless I learn to play it. And when I have learnt the mere mechanics of playing it, my knowledge will be no more than a curse to my neighbours and my friends unless I catch something of the spirit of music, and learn that subtle magic which converts ordered noise into celestial harmony.

No, democracy is more than a piece of equipment. The fact that, for a score of years we have - the privilege of self-government attained - delegated its exercise to a relatively few patriotic and earnest, or ambitious and noisy, people, asking for ourselves only that we shall be left alone to our money-making or our pleasures, is the best proof that we have attached no value to a system the essence of which we have not tried to understand.

I repeat, the problem of democracy began when democracy was achieved. If government were by a despot, amiable or vicious, we, as the governed, might well shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves to fate. But when government of ourselves is by ourselves, we must bestir ourselves. If, then, there is tyranny, it is our own. If there is injustice, we have ordered or permitted it. If there is hunger or unemployment, we must look to ourselves for the remedy. For when we are the masters as well as the servants, we cannot either wisely or usefully blame others for bad direction or faulty planning or fumbling execution. To stand erect and say, "I am one of the rulers of my country" - there is a position of dignity and of responsibility. Yet, they are a dignity and a responsibility which democracy, properly understood, gives to every grown man and woman in this nation.

But a true conception of democracy goes even beyond this, for democracy is more than a machine; it is a spirit. It is based upon the Christian conception that there is in every human soul a spark of the divine; that, with all their inequalities of mind and body, the souls of men stand equal in the sight of God. So it is that, while Fascists and Nazis concentrate their efforts upon the power of the State, regarding the citizen as the mere minister to that power, democrats must concern themselves with what they see to be the true end and final justification of the State - a full and good life for every individual citizen. The chief end of man ceases to be the upholding of the power of the State; the chief end of the State becomes man - man the individual, man the immortal spirit.

Once we see this, we begin to see all. Democracy is viewed, not just as one more system of government, appearing and disappearing in the march of history, but as a spirit which adjusts man to man, which lends dignity to labour, which moves constantly towards the light.

Now, if this spirit is of the essence of democracy, can we rightly say that we have understood or practised it. For, if man is to be adjusted to man, if we are to live together in mutual amity and justice, if we are to be dignified without being proud or overbearing, we must be givers rather than receivers; we must be quick to discharge our duties and modest about our rights. For the harmony and brotherly love of a family is not maintained on a basis of claims. In the wise language of the Bible, the family are "in honour preferring one another".

When we go to the polling booths, do we really go hoping, by our vote, to prefer the interests of others to our own? This is not an unreal question. I am not asking for or expecting a community of archangels or of martyrs. I am not asking for an orgy of self-destruction. There is no necessary antithesis between our own interests and desires and the good of our neighbour. But if, as a voter, I am concerned only with my own advantage and am indifferent to the cost to others, I am simply corrupt. I am selling my vote for an individual mess of pottage. Government of the people by my party, for me, is not democracy. It is just a system of crooked bargaining. It cannot support any decent new order, and it is not worth fighting for.

So, our first task as professing democrats is to examine both our faith and ourselves. We must no longer fob ourselves off with loose thinking and windy words. To some of us, democracy has meant a sort of false back-slapping good-fellowship, with Jack and his master rollicking together; to some of us, democracy has meant an open-handedness with other people's money; to others, a cynical sort of system under which it is better to be foolish and win than to be wise and suffer defeat. But it is only that democracy which sees the superb spiritual value of the individual man which can really win a crusade against tyranny and force, and lead the way into a better world.

23 October, 1942