Everyday Democracy and Rowan Williams

Across the river A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to be able to attend the launch of DemosEveryday Democracy Index and pick up a copy of the associated 120-page pamphlet. The publication of the Index marks a helpful contribution to an important and fascinating series of conversations about the nature of democracy (in the sense of civic engagement and participatory decision making rather than a specific implementation), where it is most effective and how it can adapt to deal with societal trends and challenges.

The Index and associated pamphlet are far from complete, but are a helpful starting point. Seeking to compare democracy in various spheres across Europe highlights some interesting trends, even beyond the apparently idyllic nature of the Scandinavian countries. As Timothy Garton Ash pointed out in his address to the launch, looking at some of the data at the country-level risks missing out on the distinctiveness of the situation of large cities, and not enough time is spent exploring issues around various forms of diversity. But this publication is a first step in an ongoing process that will hopefully see it refined and expanded in coming years.

It was while reading the pamphlet that I heard about Rowan Williams’ much-discussed recent speech. A message that comes out strongly in Demos’ work is that democracy cannot be simply understood in a national, institutional way. In examining how it works in Europe their researchers looked through a series of connected spheres to see how participation worked in each one and it seems there is a connection to what Rowan Williams was looking towards in that speech.

As our society becomes more complex there is more need for governance to work not simply on a geographically local level, but to grapple with the concepts of psychogeography and other notions of connection which happen at levels other than the physically local. Policies and services need to be built that understand that for most of us we don’t have a primary relationship with the State, but instead our relationship with the State is one part of a web of connections that form the context of our lives. For those who are members of religious communities, the relationship with the norms and traditions of those religious communities are an important part of that. As Revd. Williams put it:

“it is not enough to say that citizenship as an abstract form of equal access and equal accountability is either the basis or the entirety of social identity and personal motivation.”

Reading his speech it seems that for the most part he is calling for flexibility in our legal systems to be able to place more weight on the testimony of (carefully established) religious authorities when trying to understand the significance of certain situations or actions for members of certain religious communities. There may also be analogies to systems already in place for Hassidic Jews to follow their own legal traditions in areas of marriage and divorce.

Obviously any move in this direction is likely to be incredibly complex, but it is not without precedent, and fits very well with thinking across the board on flexibility of government services and constitutional practice. Whatever the papers say, or the many critics within the church may think, Revd. Williams is most certainly aware of those complexities and the need for legal systems to strive for egality in their treatment of citizens. In a key paragraph he says:

“If any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognised, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no ‘supplementary’ jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights. This is in effect to mirror what a minority might themselves be requesting – that the situation should not arise where membership of one group restricted the freedom to live also as a member of an overlapping group, that (in this case) citizenship in a secular society should not necessitate the abandoning of religious discipline, any more than religious discipline should deprive one of access to liberties secured by the law of the land, to the common benefits of secular citizenship – or, better, to recognise that citizenship itself is a complex phenomenon not bound up with any one level of communal belonging but involving them all.”

Both the Everyday Democracy Index and Rowan Williams’ speech make clear that the next few decades are likely to be a time of significant change in the way citizens and governments interact and how society understands the role of a wide variety of civil society affiliations. It’s a shame so many in our media are scared of that debate.

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