June 23rd BREXIT referendum has been an earthquake. Not only the UK, but Brussels and the whole of the EU have shaken that day. With disbelief, with disappointment, with sadness that so many English people don’t believe in the benefits of a unified Europe anymore, that they don’t “like us, fellow Europeans”. However, it also seems that in the days following the vote, some of the “Brexiteers” as they are called by the media have themselves been shaken – by regret. Some have finally googled: “What is the EU?” and “What does it mean to leave the EU?”(too late, I am tempted to say).
This event, that will have many undesirable consequences no one is still able to predict, and the appalling level of public debate both before and after it, in the media in and outside the UK (including some shocking Czech TV debates), have forced me to come back to an issue I have frequently encountered in an entirely different setting – in my work in development policy and promoting good governance, democracy and coherence of policies in the least developed countries in the world… Yes, in a way, it seems to me that we all live in a political “third world”, needing to learn over and over again what these things our civilisation achieved at great cost are actually about.
Democracy is a wonderful thing, expression of the opinion of a majority, but it presupposes that people make rational choices, or at least informed choices. It presupposes the voter is politically literate. So what are the key aspects of political literacy? The list I have compiled below is just the basics… Sadly, the basics don’t seem to be that well-known to many (and not only in the UK)…
- Voting (how to?) seems to be the logical thing here. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Elections are the end of the democratic process. Not the beginning. And knowing why to vote should also be an important question when one sees the levels of people who just don’t bother. (What are the consequences of a vote – in an election/referendum… and what does the election result mean ?)
- Before voting comes understanding in broad lines the political system one lives in – how (broadly) does the State work? Who does what ? Is there a queen, a president, a prime minister, what are their respective roles? are we part of some bigger group – like the EU, NATO, UN ? how do these organisations work – why do they exist in the first place ? This should also include local politics: how does my local authority (town-hall, region) work and where can I influence/participate in its actions?
- Political life/opinions/interest/programmes what are the main political groups in my country, region, locality? what do they stand for and are they trustworthy? what is their objective/programme if they come to power? what are the values they express? what positive/realistic actions do they promise? does their programme coincide with my own interests or not? will I be better off/worse off if they win?
- How are laws/rules made? This aspect should include having an idea of where to turn if I have a concern – write to an MP, start a petition, etc.
- Understanding the rules under which that the political system can be changed/ looking at history. Often this happened violently – through war/bloodshed/revolution. I am thinking US Civil War, French Revolution, both World Wars and Soviet revolution among others. More rarely legally, but even these things sometimes happened. This aspect includes the unity of one’s state/nation and understanding that this is not necessarily a “natural” state of things, but more of a belief and a fluid concept (I should know, being a child of Czechoslovakia, a country that exists no more…).
Finally, the most important thing I believe is to understand that the system is only as good as the people in it… And people make mistakes and are far from perfect. So we should not judge too harshly or be too idealistic about the system – whatever that system is – whether it is the EU or the UK “nation/people”, but try to make the system better by our actions.
And you’re part of if whether you want it or not: politics is about us – all of us – those who act and those who don’t. You can’t choose to ignore or quit the game. Passivity in this case is action – allowing others to do unhindered. So if you don’t try to do anything about it, you have no right to complain.
Think about that a bit before the US start voting this November and we’re in for a whole new episode of – “Oops, what have I just voted for?”