My little dabble on the subject of citizenship and democracy has raised questions, not surprisingly. Just trying to get one’s head round the concept of democracy is bad enough, never mind wondering about how one determines ‘standards of democracy.’ There should be some universal values but in reality there aren’t. The vote, and hence the notion of ‘self-determining citizens’ means different things in different countries.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 21 says:
1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or
through freely chosen representatives.
2. Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country.
3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will
shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and
equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting
The reference in paragraph three to ‘universal and equal suffrage’ is the key, seemingly simple statement. But in practice does democracy work like that? What does ‘equal’ mean? Does it mean that every vote carries the same weight? Not in the United States, the United Kingdom nor in many other countries, it doesn’t. A vote for a Senator in California is worth a lot less than the same vote in North Dakota. Then too, in the ‘greatest democracy in the world,’ voter suppression and gerrymandering is so rife it needs no imaginative skill to intuit how Donald Trump thinks he can ignore the results of a plebiscite. Here in the UK, how often do we hear the phrase ‘wasted votes’ - referring to those votes cast in constituencies which are deemed ‘safe?’ How often in the UK do we get governments with large parliamentary majorities with absurdly low shares of the popular vote? And, as in the US, how often do we get governments which actually lost the popular vote? Some will argue that despite all this, we still muddle through and a general reflection of what the public wants usually triumphs. This is often the view of the media, whose role it is to adopt the mantle of vox populi. A mantle, that is, upheld by unaccountable media barons.
If we are asked to avoid judging one country’s democracy against a higher standard than we would ‘any other democratic nation,’ we will inevitably get into a mess. All nations should be judged against a common and universal standard, rather than the ill-defined and slippery notion of merely ‘any other democratic nation’ (as used in the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism).
But as I suggested in my previous blog, it’s not just a question of voting, however free or fair that is or isn’t. It’s also a question of who is entitled to vote, which surely comes down to who is a citizen, and of what entity exactly they are a citizen of. The UDHR talks of ‘nationality’ but doesn’t define it. Here there is room for a mountain of complexity. Only a year or so ago I was a citizen of the European Union—it was on my passport. Now I’m not (because a mere 37% of my fellow Brits said so). If the residents of Scotland were to choose independence, I would no longer be a British citizen but an English citizen. I would have no say in that unless I happened to move to Scotland and get on the electoral register there, no other qualification required. I could then post-independence call myself a Scottish citizen.
The idea that nations are static is as I suggested last time palpably false. In living memory Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia come to mind as examples of shifting boundaries—in Europe for heaven’s sake! And maybe Donald Trump knows more history than we thought possible. Perhaps when he suggested buying Greenland, he had Napoleon’s sale of Louisiana two hundred years ago in mind. That thought brings to mind the legacy of colonialism—a living legacy, it has to be said—how come so many African countries have perfectly straight frontiers, when those of their colonialist European master nations always, but always wiggle all over the place? How much strife has resulted from that hand me down arrangement (not to mention the Middle East)?
So in the context of how nations can claim to be nations, there is no enduring answer. There is also in many examples no clear cut case for the longevity of particular nations as they are now. The United Kingdom, Spain, and Belgium are European nations facing difficulties in maintaining their current integrity. Others face issues—Greece fighting Macedonia over a name, for example. The Ukraine versus Russia and further afield, Azerbaijan versus Armenia . .
The fight for territory goes on it seems, and this is no more evident than in the Israeli government’s push to colonise Palestinian land. I am mindful that as a Labour Party member I am now injuncted to say very little on the matter. Perhaps that gives me the impetus to compose a forthcoming blog on the subject, with the protection of Article 19 of the UDHR: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. As things stand it's not entirely clear whether the jurisdiction of the Labour Party's (acting) General Secretary over-rides the authority of the United Nations.