Democracy is strengthened by protest and challenge

xJohn-Tizard-700-x-473-landscape.jpg.pagespeed.ic.idMOERMr1SI was recently lectured to by a self-described ‘serious political activist and commentator’, who said that it was futile and wrong for communities to protest against policies that they don’t like, or which damage their communities, unless they have an alternative plan.

This is both wrong and arrogant. Indeed, such attitudes exemplify some of the worst behaviours which politicians and those in authority from the public, civil and businesses sectors commonly deploy – this ‘putting down’ of those with whom they disagree.

Community groups and citizens who protest against an unwanted planning application or a cut to a public service are quite legitimately exercising their democratic rights. Indeed, by their actions and their collective voice, they are strengthening democracy itself.

A group campaigning against a proposal for shale fracking in their neighbourhood are not obliged to have an alternative set of policies to address future energy needs, any more than those opposing the closure of a library have to be able to articulate an alternative set of local authority budget proposals or even a different national macro-economic policy.

To suggest that they need alternatives misses a vital element of the democratic system: people have a right to say ‘no’, and a right to ask those in authority to do something different. They also have a right to want to retain the status quo.

‘Our history is full of brave and courageous communities which have

resisted the wrong changes and advocated progressive developments’

Given recent industrial news and the impact of public service cuts as well as policies such as welfare reform, it is not surprising that there is much public disquiet and campaigning. And, while some of this is organised by formal groups and political activists, often it is a result of spontaneous voluntary action. Actually, it is a fine example of community social action – and it deserves to be lauded as such.

These kinds of actions are not unique to this country but it is curious to note that often, international examples gain more favourable media and establishment support than local, home grown initiatives.

Of course, through such voluntary and spontaneous acts, people often develop either their political activism or wider community social activity. They may begin to join the dots and recognise the structural and systematic causes of problems that are causing grief. Indeed, many political movements and voluntary and community groups have been born in this way – as have some great civic leaders.

The reactions of those in authority should be to respect the rights of communities to protest and to organise. And this respect should include a willingness to enter into dialogue with the communities, those speaking for them and their leaders.

I strongly believe that the current emphasis on economic growth should be accompanied by an equal commitment to social growth and building strong empowered communities. Protest as well as advocacy of alternative policies and approaches are to be commended as core to such community growth, provided that they are not divisive. The law on such matters has to apply – and be applied with vigour when necessary.

However, freedom of speech and action has to be protected by the law with equal vigour. And it has to be respected by the media, public officials, business leaders and politicians at local and national levels. Indeed, I would argue that it should be supported and encouraged by them. This is the basis of a new politics and is an approach that fits well with and is underpinned by the growth in both ‘virtual’ and practical social action, be it through community action or social media.

Our history is full of brave and courageous communities which have resisted the wrong changes and advocated progressive developments. Without such expressions of opinion, we would not today enjoy universal suffrage, the right to collective action in the workplace, the protection of rights of way and so much more. We salute those who won these rights and benefits in the past, and we should salute their contemporaries.

So, less of the arrogant and dismissive approaches of the kind mentioned at the start of this article, please. Maybe those making these silly and misguided remarks simply do not like their privileges or views being challenged? Well, just remember – a vibrant democracy requires and thrives on challenge.


Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Fernando Centeno, CED
Fernando Centeno, CED
8 years ago

I can relate to this situation & the way I deal with it is by reminding the critic that gov’t & the nonprofit sector exist to fulfill an official “public purpose” & mission, which legitimizes their existence, & when this purpose or mission is diluted or ignored, corrective action is necessary. We take for granted that a social contract exists between our governors & the governed, but the governors are supposed to be working for the governed, not the other way around. But the private sector also has a public purpose, which is easily forgotten.

In the U.S., we are a govt “of the people, by the people, and for the people” (Abraham Lincoln), to the extent this ideal is possible.

A hyper-competitive world requires an acceleration of more natural resources & energy, to generate resources (economic growth) from the business sector to the govt sector (revenues); the public sector & social ties which bind us is viewed as a secondary tier, the cost side of the equation. It would take a political revolution of values to strike a balance between economic forces & humanistic forces, otherwise, we are stuck muddling through it. We do not have the moral forces or the political will for this course correction, so keep your powder dry.

Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top