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Solace blog

19th July 2019

Ill words and ill deeds: putting democracy’s health at risk

This week, in her last major speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May set out “grounds for serious concern” about the state of politics. She described “a coarsening (of) our public debate”, where “if you simply assert your view loud enough and long enough you will get your way in the end”.

As well as highlighting the devaluing of facts and expertise, the Prime Minister also focused on the polarisation of opinion and debate where “the most extreme views tend to be the most noticed.”

She continued: “This descent of our debate into rancour and tribal bitterness – and in some cases even vile abuse at a criminal level – is corrosive for the democratic values which we should all be seeking to uphold. It risks closing the space for reasoned debate and subverting the principle of freedom of speech.”

But importantly the Prime Minister also recognised words impact on how individuals behave. She said: “Words have consequences – and ill words that go unchallenged are the first step on a continuum towards ill deeds – towards a much darker place where hatred and prejudice drive not only what people say but also what they do.”

The disease she describes reveals itself within the Palace of Westminster, during (the now normalised) demonstrations on the streets outside, and in the poisoned debate online and across the airwaves. But town halls and local government do not stand apart of this political discourse, immune from the ill words and deeds she describes.

Recent months have seen both Members and Officers voicing concerns about increasingly serious challenges to civility, from experiences on the doorstep, at the town hall and inside the council chamber. The LGA has acknowledged that the growth in intimidation has put off people standing as local councillors. The sector press has revealed a catalogue of shocking allegations of abuse and bullying painting a worrying picture of standards declining.

As the Prime Minister’s words reveal these trends are not merely shocking on an individual level, they also undermine our whole system of democracy, and the accountability and governance that supports it. An environment of aggressiveness and rancor is not one in which clear, evidence-based decisions are made in the public interest.

Work by the Government, NAO and the Committee for Standards in Public Life across the wide breadth of standards and accountability does suggest these issues and their potential consequences are being taken more seriously. For example, Solace has raised the weakness of our standards regime with Government on a number of occasions this year and we hope there is now an appreciation that the status quo is not sufficient.

The current turbulence is likely to continue for some time and our whole system of accountability and governance is only as strong as its weakest point. For example, the ability of a statutory officer to safeguard the proper use of public money or ensure that the resources available are sufficient to discharge the authority’s functions, are only as strong as the protections that allow that officer to speak truth to power.

As the Prime Minister so clearly articulated we should be concerned for our political system, and the strength of our, often overlooked, accountability and governance will help determine how healthy it remains long into the future.

Graeme McDonald, Managing Director of Solace and Solace In Business