In a cynical, deeply divided nation, how should we teach children about the value of democracy?
As you may have noticed, there’s an election on. It’s likely to be hard fought, bitter, and not entirely conclusive. Even if one side wins a majority, the process of Brexit, and the negotiations on a new trade deal with the EU, are likely to divide opinion for years to come.
It often feels like we are a nation torn asunder, with remainers and leavers snarling at each other across a deep divide. Research suggests we are. A poll by BritainThinks of 2,000 adults across the UK found that 69% of us feel pessimistic about national unity and 72% believe that, within a year, Britain will become more divided than it already is.
And most say politics can’t help. The same poll found that the majority of Britons have lost faith in the entire political system:
- Three-quarters of the public believe that Britain’s political system is not fit for purpose.
- The same number thought that the country is an international laughing stock.
- Only a fifth believe the next prime minister will be fit to lead.
BritainThinks states: “There is a strong sense of division within the country – culturally, politically and economically – which most people expect to worsen in the coming months.”
And that’s a problem. As a father of two children, I don’t want them to grow up feeling pessimistic and cynical. I want them to believe that politics can change things for the better, that progress is possible and that democracy is a principle worth defending. Most of all, I want them to have strong opinions but not blinkered ones, and be prepared to meet people half way.
But in our deeply divided country, is any of that remotely realistic?
I want my children to believe that politics can change things for the better
Using the election to talk about democracy
I think it is. That’s why I’m using the run up to the 12 December election to talk to my children about concepts like voting, public service and parliamentary democracy. Here’s a flavour of what I mean…
1. About the vote
As well as the basic concept that voting gives people a say in the way the country is run, I’ve talked to my children about how people got the right to vote in the first place. It’s a discussion that naturally leads onto the concept of democracy; what it is and what came before it.
I try to explain it in terms they understand and by asking a few simple questions:
- Do they think we should be ruled by a few rich families who pass their power to their children?
- Or do they think we should be able to choose who rules us?
- If the latter, do they think we should all have the right to make that choice, or just a few people at the top of society?
They know the answers, of course, and are quite incredulous when I tell them that the other way – wealthy families passing power down the generations – was how things used to work.
In passing, I’ve mentioned that not all countries are democracies even today, and that in many countries people still don’t have the right to vote, or at least not freely.
2. About my vote
I’ve also spent time telling them why I’m voting, and why I always do. I’m not making party political points (largely because it would bore them silly), but simply explaining how easy it is to do something so important. I’ve explained the process, and why I feel it’s my duty not only to vote, but to learn something about what the various candidates are offering so that my vote is an informed choice.
3. About politicians
I can be as judgemental as the next man about politicians, especially ones who don’t share my views. But it worries me when polls that show that politicians are the least trusted professionals in the world. Being cynical about politicians can easily spread to being cynical about democracy.
But I’m no saint. I’m cynical about some politicians. But I also recognise that the majority go into politics to make things better. I might disagree entirely about their methods, and what their interpretation of ‘better’ looks like, but I accept that most start out with good intentions. I don’t actually believe that about Donald Trump though.
To counter the overriding sense of cynicism that infects everyone today, I talk to my children about local politicians, and the ordinary men and women – their neighbours, in fact – who give up their time to man council committees and vote on local issues. This is the bedrock of democracy, I tell them, usually while they try to stifle yawns. But when they’re older, I’ll talk to them about Jo Cox, threats to democracy, and the origins of the phrase: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”.
4. About threats to democracy
But threats to democracy don’t just come from evil extremists. I’ve talked to my children about the pernicious influence of social media, and how lies spread easily online, masquerading as the truth. I teach them to question everything, and not believing anything until they’ve heard it from a reputable source. We’ve talked about what a reputable source might be. They love talk of conspiracy theories so this bit is easy.
5. About election night
On election night I’ll let them stay up a bit later than normal, at least till the exit poll that pretty much nails the result. We might watch a film beforehand and have some ice cream. We’ll treat the night as a celebration of democracy, of people voting for what they believe in and having a say in who runs the country.
It won’t be all happy clappy. I suspect my ‘team’ might not do too well in this election. But that’s a lesson in itself. Keep informed, keep voting, and at least you’re holding your leaders to account. The alternative is leaders who can do whatever they want, in the knowledge that you don’t care and won’t notice (until it’s too late). And that never turns out well.