Friday, August 5, 2011

What democracy is not

The Tory MP Sir George Young commented on Channel 4 News last night that, while he was opposed to the restoration of the death penalty, it was important that the subject at least came back to parliament if it mattered to the public. At first that seemed a very compelling point, but now I've thought about it some more I'm not quite so convinced. Liberal democracy is about the will of the people - but only within certain parameters. There was nothing 'democratic' about the Nazi regime persecuting the Jews, for instance, even though the German public approved of it (up to a point) and had elected the regime partly for that reason.

The building blocks of true democracy are certain inalienable rights for minorities and individuals, most notably the right to life. In my view, Sir George might as well have said that it would be a healthy thing for parliament to debate a motion on reintroducing torture, or "repatriating" ethnic minorities - just to give "issues important to a section of the public" an airing. In many ways, I actually think Britain is a stronger democracy for the fact that a measure as retrograde as the reintroduction of the death penalty hasn't come back to the floor of the Commons for so long. It's a sign that the idea has been gradually taken less and less seriously as time has gone by. And let's face it, it would have become completely unthinkable by now if it hadn't been for the grotesque fact that one western "democracy" - just one - still routinely takes the lives of its own citizens, and that by an unfortunate chance that country happens to be the most powerful in the world.

In any case, Paul Flynn was spot on when he challenged Paul Staines on the same programme - if people really attach the overwhelming importance to this issue that Staines claims, there's a very simple and (relatively) respectable remedy. They can vote UKIP, and yet for the most part they choose not to. They presumably make that choice in the full knowledge that the Conservative party and all the other mainstream parties are hardly likely to break the habit of the last few decades and suddenly get the capital punishment bug back. So, however people respond to single-issue opinion polls, when push comes to shove they do in fact give their quiet, perhaps sullen, democratic assent to the more civilised criminal justice system we have today.

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