says that 'community councils are not democratically elected'. That's factually incorrect. Unfortunately, it's rare that there are as many candidates as places, so it's unusual to require the electorate to make a choice. That's sad but unsurprising, given that community councillors put in a lot of time and effort for the communities, for no financial reward and often little appreciation.
I have recently retired as chairman of the Kirknewton Community Council. It has been democratically elected at the last two Community Council elections, there being more candidates than Community Council places. The election was conducted properly – ballot boxes, legitimised voting slips, a returning officer and a count – all conducted by our local authority, as they would have done for any other election. The turnout was of much the same order as is typical for a local authority election. Not wonderful, of course, but not untypical.
The Community Council has, as a result, greater authority when dealing with the local authority, and to a more limited extent, with MPs and MSPs.
It would undoubtedly make a significant difference if properly elected Community Councils were then granted significantly greater powers and financial resources. £250 doesn't get one very far.
Hugh Hunter Gordon
says that democracy is a moral value, which some mistakenly treat as absolute. I disagree. No doubt, democracy involves the application of moral values. It may even provide a mechanism by which we can decide in a non-authoritarian way what our moral values are going to be and how we are going to enact them in society.
But democracy is just that: a mechanism; a useful way of arranging our collective affairs. Its usefulness may make it valuable as a means to an end, but it is not in itself a value, which is surely an end in itself, something we desire for its own sake. To assert that democracy is a moral value is to commit a category mistake. To treat it as absolute is therefore doubly mistaken. Even if it were a value, following the celebrated 'death of God', there are no longer any absolute values, only last ditches we would sooner lie dead in than surrender to our enemies.
Democracy is not the only useful way of arranging our collective affairs. Nor is it necessarily better than any of its alternatives. There are other forms of government, and these may in fact be more efficient and cost-effective, fairer in the distribution of rewards and punishments, and/or more rational and scientific. But as Churchill quipped, if in the scale of such things you happen to value liberty and equality over economy, justice as entitlement, and having trains that run on time, democracy is the least worst form of government we can have.
One of the tools that democracy has at its disposal is the referendum. Essentially, referendums decide how we are going to arrange some collective affair by giving all eligible members of the collectivity concerned a direct vote on the matter. We have used this tool twice in our recent history: in 2014, the imagined community that is 'Scotland' voted to remain part of the UK; in 2017, the wider imagined community that is 'Great Britain and Northern Ireland' voted to leave the EU.
Now, it is vital to democracy that the outcomes of such referendums are respected, not because democracy is an absolute value, but because refusing to respect them risks the effective functioning of the form of government that causes the least damage to the liberty and equality of its members. This may not matter if you don't value liberty and equality above all else, but to those of us who do, it matters very much.
By taking part in any vote, we at least tacitly agree to the rules under which that vote is conducted, including the rules governing the legitimacy of its outcome. This agreement then becomes part of the social contract we are continually renewing with one another through just such agreements and which makes possible our living together peaceably, despite our value-differences. Rejecting the result of any vote damages that social contract and, at least metaphorically, sets us instead at one another's throats, which is in no-one's enlightened self-interest.
So, if we agree to decide a matter with a vote, we need to abide by its outcome to preserve our social contract and avoid the kind of 'heroic strife' that, with short sword and lang, weak arm and strang, has beset Scottish politics since 2014 and UK politics since 2017 – most violently in our public cyberspaces.
And, in any case, the idea that the result of a referendum can be 'wrong' is itself, sous rature
, just plain wrong.
In a community that is bereft of God or any of its earthly analogues, there is only the will of the people as expressed through the anonymity of the ballot box. This anonymous will can never be 'right' or 'wrong', for there is nothing above or beyond the community itself by which such judgements can be validated. It just is what it is: a collective decision, more or less poorly informed by 'the facts', such as they are, as these are filtered in their appropriation through the partial considerations and values of the diverse and pluralistic body of groups and individuals that make up that community. Each and every democratic decision we make is thus bound to be fraught with contingencies, imperfections, divergencies, and doubts. None can be certain, none can be 'right'.
But in the absence of absolutes... needs must. To paraphrase Churchill again, the democratic decisions we make may well turn out to be lousy ones, but if we value liberty and equality above all else in our hierarchy of idols, they are the best lousy decisions we can have. And in the absence of absolutes – ditches we would sooner lie dead in than surrender – we can always learn from our mistakes and revisit our decisions accordingly should they fail us.
The great virtue of democracy is that it enables us 'To dodge the curst conceit o' bein' richt/That damns the vast majority o' men'. And it is that virtue, rather than democracy itself, which merely facilitates our pragmatic ducking and diving among the perplexities of how best to arrange our collective affairs as free and equal individuals, that is valuable as a good thing.
Democracy also protects us from the conceit of self-appointed 'elects', who in their various guises as nationalists, socialists, environmentalists, liberals, etc, would use the power of government to impose on our communities their relative standards of right conduct, their partial historical narratives, and their normative commands, permissions and prohibitions. Democracy enables us to look and laugh at a' sic curst conceits, as children might laugh at kings who strut through the streets in no clothes.
Above all, democracy 'leaves a man undone to his fate', in the sense that none is bound from going his or her own way peaceably into a social diversification that affiliates each not to what is willed by the elect as transcendently 'right' and 'good', but only to such billies, or kindred spirits, as chance and our historical circumstances may offer.
I'll raise an extra cheer to that. Or a glass, at least.
If you would like to contribute to the Cafe, please email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org