A Letter From an Old Democracy to One Struggling to be Born

Dear students,

I’m writing to you from 5,929 miles away in London, while you risk both your safety and your liberty in the struggle for democracy in Thailand. I worry about your wellbeing, of course, but mainly I’m proud of you for standing up for what you believe in.

I want to say a few words to those of you I’ve had the honour to teach, and to any others who are interested in the perspective of someone with many years’ experience of British politics. I want to say something about why I think democracy matters. It may not be for the reasons you think.

Democracy is a wonderful thing but it’s slippery and complex. By itself, democracy does not solve any social or economic problems. Democracy can bring great improvements to our lives. But it has also brought incompetent, even evil, rulers to power, and has led to terrible mistakes being made.

If, like me, you are committed to progressive politics, then sometimes under democracy you will have to accept election results that horrify you. Trump, a racist, narcissist bully who has failed to protect his people from Covid, was voted to power. The catastrophe that is Brexit was voted for by the British electorate, leading directly to our current economic decline and the subsequent election of a corrupt and incompetent government. In Turkey, people voted for a president who tramples over free speech and encourages antisemitism. A homophobic government won power democratically in Poland. Democratically elected governments around the world have failed to respond to the huge challenges of climate change, placing the people they should protect directly in harm’s way. There are few things more frustrating than knowing what the right thing is, but having to accept that a majority don’t want it.

But democracy is still essential. It might allow in the bad but is also creates space for the good. Democracy allows us to argue for what we believe in. It gives us a voice. It allows us the chance to control our destinies and bring about real change. It opens doors into power.

It’s also hard work. If you have democracy you can never rest. You are in constant competition with other voices. Every election has to be fought, and in this era of fake news and data manipulation the fight is harder than ever. It’s exhausting.

But it’s right.

It’s about compromise too. You need to work with people you disagree with. You sometimes have to adjust your policies so a wider range of people can support them. You have to make sure your opponents get a fair chance to criticise you, as well as the other way round. You must accept that you can’t always do what you want: that sometimes aiming for perfection is the route to failure and you must instead let go of some of your hopes in order to do the best you can. Sometimes it means staying quiet because a less privileged voice needs space to speak. Or simply because it’s someone else’s turn.

But democracy is still right.

It’s fragile too. The Brexit referendum, for example, was won partly through illegal means and we’re still trying to put that right. Earlier this year our prime minister suspended Parliament in order to force through Brexit policies he knew would be unpopular, and we had to take to the streets. On the other side of the pond, Trump is trying to undermine democracy by, for example, questioning the validity of postal votes. There have been shocking revelations of personal data being used for targeted misinformation on a huge scale on social media. Democracy requires constant vigilance, and our current systems, such as the moderation of digital campaigning, are inadequate. This is exhausting too.

But democracy is still right.

It takes many forms, and some of them aren’t really fair. Trump gained a minority of the popular vote in 2016, but because of the US electoral system he still became president. In the UK we have a system called ‘first past the post’ which frequently produces governments that do not reflect the majority views of the electorate. For example, the current government is pushing forwards with an extreme version of Brexit even though, in the last election, the majority of people voted for parties that opposed Brexit.

Fairer systems, such as proportional representation (often known as PR), exist. The EU Parliament uses a version of PR which allows extra representatives to be brought in so that party numbers truly reflect votes. But there are no signs of any moves towards such a system in general elections here or in the US because ‘first past the post’ favours a two-party system. So the two main parties are happy to keep it that way.

But democracy is still right.

Achieving real democracy in Thailand would of course be a victory, but democracy itself is not about winning. Nor does it ensure progressive politics, even though democracy is itself a progressive idea. What democracy does mean, however, is that you can safely argue for what you believe in. It means you sometimes lose, and have to accept that you’ve lost, but it also means you sometimes win. It’s about gaining a voice for not only yourself but also for your opponents. Often it means setting aside some of your dreams so others can achieve theirs, and so people with different dreams can live alongside each other. And that, in the end, is why democracy is so important, so honourable, and so necessary.

Stay safe my friends, and may democracy be the key that opens many doors for you.

Lots of love,

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