Cafe Philo - How good is Democracy?


Café Philo


How good is democracy?



Everyone knows that democracy began its varied life in a small polis or city-state called Athens, and that Winston Churchill, in 1947, wittily said that it was “worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

            If we are to believe Timothy Garton-Ash, the wave of nationalist populism that is now threatening to engulf Western liberal democracies seems beyond the reach of such urbane humour. In the Philippines, a democratically elected President is using a shoot-to-kill policy that has already taken nearly four thousand lives; Vladimir Putin’s Russia becomes more fascist by the day, while Hungary and Turkey have already crossed the line into an illiberal democracy. In Britain the Brexit vote unleashed a torrent of hate crime (nearly four thousand attacks in the first two weeks of August) and xenophobia, while President-elect Trump has made all minorities in America dread what the tycoon will do. In France and the Netherlands, nationalist politicians threaten to unseat traditional parties.

            Not long ago, democracy was almost shorthand for free and fair government, a synecdoche for the rule of law, the inalienable rights of the individual, and his equality before the law. It was a form of government recommended as a matter of course to all emerging countries. Now the self-evident rightness of democracy seems in question. How good is democracy in the face of the multiple threats to its integrity? During the Arab spring, there was initial enthusiasm for the role the social media had played in energising the uprisings, but the role of the social media in the recent referendum and in the American election now demands a re-assessment. Can democracy cope with the impact of a permanent electronic mob, with Facebook choosing simplistically between liking and not liking, or Twitter where communication is restricted to 140 characters? Never has Wittgenstein’s statement that “the limits of my language define the limits of my world” seemed more appropriate. 

            The ability of massive wealth, a good marketing company and media manipulation to bring a totally unsuitable candidate to the White House, or the same marketing company to manage the social media in the United Kingdom referendum so that informed warnings about the consequences by experts were brushed aside, has exposed the vulnerability of democracy before determined populists.

            A year after Churchill uttered his oft-quoted aphorism, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948. This argued that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, and provides in its very first Article that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Is it democracy that is under threat or have we allowed its key institution, Parliament, to slip from centre stage to the margins of executive power?


Professor Gerard Kilroy chaired the discussion, which took place at


BRLSI, Queen Square, Bath,

7. 30 p.m., 3 January 2017.