“Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
So said Winston Churchill in 1947. His generation was well qualified to comment. It had faced off against the depravity of Nazi totalitarianism which threatened to overwhelm Europe and snuff out its democratic institutions.
And even though Churchill’s comments were made within the lifetimes of many thousands living today, it feels sometimes like the case for democracy needs to be made afresh – both here in the UK and across the western world.
I’m not suggesting millennials are about to head to the barricades. But I’m also suggesting we take never take democracy for granted. The annual Lowy survey in Australia gives pause for thought. Around a quarter of young Australians think that in some circumstances a non-democratic government could be better.
Perhaps even more soberingly, when people are asked to choose between a strong economy or a good democracy, democracy only just wins. Some 53 per cent want a good democracy; 42 per cent will apparently chuck out the right to vote and the associated freedoms in favour of a higher growth rate.
It’s just one of the reasons why I am hosting my fourth student internship this week in Cheltenham. It is the opportunity for students across town, from Pittville School to Balcarras, to learn more about our democracy. They have had the chance to give a mock maiden speech as the new MP for Cheltenham. They have drafted and presented a manifesto for next year’s Cheltenham borough elections. And they will be debating the issue of Trident in the muni offices, developing their skills and building their confidence.
It’s all part of an attempt to inform and engage our young people with our democracy – and provide those all-important CV points as well of course.
This week’s news just confirms why young people’s voices need to be heard. Figures recently released showed that the cost of paying the interest on the UK’s national credit card is soaring. Interest payments have jumped by 18% to hit £4.9bn in July. That’s more than we spend on prisons in an entire year. Put another way, taxpayers now spend more on national debt interest annually than the entire NHS wage bill.
That means if we’re not careful the next generation will not have the money to enjoy the strong public services like health and education that their predecessors have benefited from.
These are difficult issues for a country to grapple with. But it takes a democracy to resolve them.