Education: Democracy: where do we go from here?: It has served us well, but a new era will put special stress on 'the least worst system', says John Torode

Click to follow
The Independent Online
As darkness fell over Athens on the evening of 27 September last year, President Constantine Karamanlis threw a switch. A laser beam burned across the sky between the Acropolis and the Hill of the Pnyx where the citizens of classical Greece convened to take decisions on the future of the city state. The light linked the Acropolis with a newly unveiled monument to Eucrates, a founding father of Greek democracy.

On the rough-hewn marble block Eucrates' Law for the Protection of Democracy is inscribed. The stone is a copy of the stele which stood on the same spot in classical times. Unearthed in 1952, the original is now in the nearby Museum of the Stoa of Attalos. The reproduction stands close to the spot from which Cleisthenes, chief archon of Athens, had spoken when he allied himself with the popular assembly against the autocratic rule of the nobles some 2,500 years ago. He replaced the old tribal structures of Attica and allowed equal rights to all free citizens of Athens, an event commonly accepted as the moment democracy was born.

The ceremony formed the climax of the first of a series of events to mark the occasion. Academics quarrel endlessly about the exact year on which Cleisthenes spoke. This explains why our student essay competition (details below) is being launched now - during a further 12 months of international


It is sobering to recall that the word democratia had not been coined when Cleisthenes raised his banner, and that the version of democracy Eucrates was protecting more than a century later is not ours. It excluded slaves, women and many of the poor. But the Greek reformers stressed the rule of law and not of men, they emphasised the importance of numbers in decision making, and the principle of isonomia or equal rights for all (all who counted as citizens, that is). They laid the foundations and left it for future generations to deconstruct and reconstruct.

That was wise. Democracy is endangered unless it is constantly redefined to meet the challenges of the time. So far, in our contemporary world, the ruling generation has failed to rise to the challenge of the Nineties.

For most of the past decade, the Eighties looked good for democracy. Communism collapsed. Dictatorial regimes and one-party states around the world were overthrown. Command economies and command political systems are now generally recognised as both brutal and inefficient. It will be a long time before totalitarianism again lays claim to the intellectual and moral high ground - as fascism and Communism did with considerable success half-a-century ago. Democrats have a lot to celebrate.

But transition to a world of democratic nation states ruled by law and tolerant of ethnic minorities is proving neither easy nor automatic. Throughout the developing world, the new regimes are desperately fragile. Poverty and national indebtedness invite unrest and repression. Thuggish, intolerant nationalisms are everywhere eager to fill the vacuum. In Europe, bloody chaos in the Balkans and instability in much of the former Soviet Union is the proof. Absorbing the former German Democratic Republic is straining a larger Germany's economic and social fabric. The democratic deficit in the European Community is threatening its very survival. And - in one of the most testing cases for democrats - apartheid is dying in South Africa, but no one yet knows how a democratic system can rise, phoenix- like, to replace it.

In this country there is widespead anxiety about the governance of Britain. A decade of Thatcherism (paradoxically, centralist, and obsessed with the need for official secrecy) and the crisis of the left has led to our unwritten constitution being questioned. The British concept of absolute and indivisible parliamentary sovereignty, for example, has been challenged: is it compatible with membership of the EC and the notion of subsidiarity? Is our first-past-the-post electoral system either democratic or efficient? Is this country now effectively a one-party state, starved of the vital challenge to arbitrary government provided by a credible and electable opposition? If so, how should we respond?

In the longer run, should the democratic agenda now be widened to address, say, racial and sexual discrimination, the elimination of poverty, the ownership of the press, even Green issues? Such are the questions our student competitors are addressing as they redefine democracy for the Nineties.