‘A dreadful spirit of division rends the society’

Winston Churchill, exasperated by opposition politicians constantly questioning his policies and his own credentials and frustrated by having to consult and compromise on measures which in his judgement were straightforward and ripe for introduction without hesitation, once exploded: “Democracy is the worst kind of government!” Then he paused, thought a little bit, considered the alternatives and ruefully concluded – “Except all the others.”

Democracy ensures, or should ensure, that the differing views, varied cultural persuasions and diverging concepts of how the people’s affairs should be managed are allowed expression and none ever squeezed into resentful, and eventually festering, silence. But encouraging plural views to contend often makes day-to-day government a frustrating business. To those in power, to command and control without question will often seem a more appealing option than to govern through consultation, tactical concession, and necessary compromise. Take Leon Trotsky for instance – he makes a good point but you can also hear him reaching for his sabre when he says:

“There is a limit to the application of democratic methods. You can enquire of all the passengers as to what type of car they like to ride in, but it is impossible to question them as to whether to apply the brakes when the vehicle is at full speed and accidents threaten.”

The essence of democracy is that contending views find organized outlet in contending parties. And the danger always is that contention will become so fierce and unforgiving that democratic give-and-take deteriorates into a sort of modified (and in some cases not at all modified) civil war. The great 18th century English essayist, Joseph Addison, saw a danger in his day which other nations in other eras (including our own) can easily recognize:

“There cannot be a greater judgement befall a country than such a dreadful spirit of division as rends a society into two distinct peoples and makes them greater strangers and more averse to one another than if they were actually two different nations.”


In a democracy what is needed to avoid a state of political impasse and national drift and consequential displacement of any interest in meeting the needs of the community at large is magnanimity on all sides. Is this possible?

Is it possible for the opposition to show a magnanimity which recognises that those who have been constitutionally elected to govern, and who were long bereft of political power, cannot be expected easily to agree to getting things done through discussion, mutual give and take and compromise?

Above all, is it possible for the government to show magnanimity by reminding themselves continually, and for real, that winners do not take all and absolutely have to play the role of even-handed arbiter and as the senior partner in the national enterprise give quite considerably more than the more partisan players on their side think justified?

The trouble with this way of putting things is that it will be universally denounced. It will be denounced by those who can see absolutely no good in anything the government is doing nor in anything it might propose to do in the future. It will be equally reviled by those in government who are not prepared to make the slightest concession to what is viewed as plots and strategies designed to obstruct flawless policies and programmes and prevent “us” taking “our” turn at enjoying the fruits of power.

And when racial suspicion is added to the equation what hope is there of a national reconciliation in order to progress for the good of all? “The warring tribes have trod the ground so hard and bare no crops will any longer grow.”

Vaclav Havel, surveying the political scene in what was then Czechoslovakia, made some observations once which might strike a chord not too far from our own beloved home:

“…electoral politics are dominating political life…partisan bickering, bragging and intrigue,  predictions about who will join with whom and against whom, who will help (or harm) whose chances, who might eventually shift support to whom, who is beholden to whom or falling out with whom. Politicians seem to be devoting more time to party politics than to their jobs …All this displaces a responsible interest in the prosperity and success of the broader community.”


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