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How we British aren’t particularly good at democracy…

23 May 2014 by David Fleming

Head and shoulders shot of David Fleming in suit and tie

This is the first of a five part series looking at museums and democracy. What follows is the text of a lecture I gave on 13 May 2014 at Liverpool’s Institute of Cultural Capital research symposium entitled ‘The Arts, Them and Us: creating a more equitable system for subsidised culture’.

The Democratic Museum – an oxymoron?

Part 1

I’d like to begin by quoting Chekhov, who was in turn quoted in the Preface of the book The Uses of Literacy by the late Richard Hoggart, like me, a native of Leeds:

There is peasant blood in my veins, and you cannot astonish me with peasant virtues.

Contrary to popular opinion, we British aren’t particularly good at democracy. We have actually only been a democracy for 96 years, and that’s stretching a point. In 1918 the British electorate grew from 8.4 million to 21.4 million, though while all men aged over 21 henceforth had the vote, women had to wait until they were aged 30.

Moreover, the 1918 Representation of the People Act hardly signalled a breakthrough for democracy in terms of the hostility of the governing elite. Former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith wrote in 1920 of:

these damned women voters…dim…impenetrable…for the most part hopelessly ignorant of politics, credulous to the last degree, and flickering with gusts of sentiment like a candle in the wind.

The voting age was equalised for both sexes in 1928, adding 5 million more damned women voters to the electoral roll.

Before we congratulate ourselves too heartily for these reforms it is worth reminding ourselves that in terms of female representation in Parliament Britain still does rather less well than 64 other nations, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda and Uganda.

Modern British national democracy essentially gives no more power to people than to vote for MPs every few years, and it is built upon a political party system which offers menus of policies in the form of manifestos. The ability of the citizenry at large to make their voices heard is strictly limited.

Moreover, in the 1980s central government effectively emasculated local democracy in the shape of local government. Between 1979 and 1994 no fewer than 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities, with £24 billion a year (at 1994 prices) transferred to unelected agencies such as Development Corporations.

We may agree that our democracy is preferable to authoritarianism, but let’s not pretend that, other than in our enjoyment of freedom of speech, it is much other than a rather watery brew, with a passive form of citizenship.

My contention is that the fragile nature of British democracy has profoundly affected the development of museums and has blighted the creation of a democratic museum sector in this country.

More to follow.

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