Democracy Solved

What started out as being declared “a good thing” that “people are again engaging in politics”, has turned pretty sour; Trump, Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum have upset a lot of people on social media, and even in real life.  These are just three recent examples, there are far more. Democracy is in crisis, but I think this year might have found a real solution.

There are so many flavours of democracy for it to mean anything, yet people fight and die to give whatever-it-is to foreign countries. It seems that if it is labelled “democracy” then it is better than a dictatorship or anything else. I’m not entirely sure that this is true.

When people argue with me, especially when I say I do not vote, they usually make the mistake of fighting for the grand democratic concept instead of the system that is actually set up and running my country. The one I am against.

Basically, I argue, we are trying to use a 17th century system in the 21st century, but if we could invent such a system in the first place, surely we could come up with a new and better one if we put our minds to it.

The response I get to that simple idea amazes me – people seem so attached to the status quo, to party politics, to labels like “Labour” or “Tory” – even while being upset that Brexit or Trump can happen against their wishes.

While more people may now agree with me that it is a bit of a mess, ideas on solving the problem are thin on the ground, so I have decided to stop pointing out the corruption, the inefficiency, and the undemocraticness (to coin a new word), and instead try to be a bit more positive.

Dr Benjamin Barber has a cool way of getting democracy to work again by thinking in terms of cities instead of countries.

Listen to his TED talk from 2013.
If you don’t have time for the full talk, there is a really good short interview on TED Radio hour from NPR on youtube. Go to 9.06 for the start of his segment.

Alternatively, you can scan the written transcript here.

They have to get things done, they have to put ideology and religion and ethnicity aside and draw their cities together. We saw this a couple of decades ago when Teddy Kollek, the great mayor of Jerusalem in the ’80s and the ’90s, was besieged one day in his office by religious leaders from all of the backgrounds, Christian prelates, rabbis, imams. They were arguing with one another about access to the holy sites. And the squabble went on and on, and Kollek listened and listened, and he finally said, “Gentlemen, spare me your sermons, and I will fix your sewers.”

I like this very much; I do think people belong to cities – even when they live in the suburbs or countryside, they pick the nearest city to say that is where they are from.

Cities have identities and universities. Football teams, festivals, trams or subways, restaurants and parks. They are a manageable size for belonging – far better than a whole country. I feel more Glaswegian than Scottish, and I am sure that this is typical.

We already have Mayors and councils in place. So the future could be built from something we already have – we would only then need to adjust and refine, perhaps using technology, perhaps revising the party system, and also by transfer of powers and by getting local authority finance sorted better.

It seems to be the case that every city everywhere has similar working structures – and they all learn from each other because the problems are the same – sewers, potholes, public transport etc. This is not a weird pipe-dream set up. It’s not too radical for people to get behind. And that’s a plus point I think.

This year, 2016, was the first Global Parliament of Mayors., meaning that change has started already. Mayors and council heads from all around the planet met up in the Netherlands to get this going. This, to me, is a really positive step, and seems to me to be the solution for democracy.


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