Democracy is in a dismal state, both in the UK and throughout the West. At Tortoise we’re determined to do all we can to fix it
There was an awkward moment in the 11.30 news meeting this week, when I said that I’d scribbled a phrase in my notebook: “Do something or leave”. For a moment, I suddenly realised that the editors and reporters around the table seemed to think that I was talking about them. “Do something or leave”. It was meant to be galvanising, and it sounded menacing. But I stumbled on.
We – the West and, in particular, the UK – are in a state. Not just the inflation that I’ve talked about on these voicemails for months; nor, as I mentioned too, the performative politics of immigration from Brexit to Rwanda deportations that’s coming to light as well.
No, democracy is in trouble and the UK is in decline – aided, abetted and accelerated by the savvy cynicism of its leaders, by the client journalism of the so-called fourth estate and by the histrionics that our anti-social social media has made of our politics. “Do something or leave” was a note to self, really: let’s work out what we do about it or go and do something else.
I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to say that, even while witnessing Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, Number Ten’s defiance over Boris Johnson’s breaches of his own Covid rules and the Mail on Sunday‘s refusal to be accountable for misogynistic journalism on the grounds of free speech, I’ve found an unlikely reason for optimism, even faith, in the power of journalism.
Jonathan Haidt wrote a piece in the Atlantic last month called: ‘Why the past 10 years have been uniquely stupid’. A friend of mine said to me: “Stop what you’re doing right now and read this.” Of course, I said I would and then didn’t. It took me a couple of weeks to catch up with it. Very slow, very Tortoise, I know.
But when I did read it, I saw the world differently – and more clearly. Haidt’s piece explains how social media has, in the past decade, fragmented western society into a modern Babel. “It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community,” Haidt writes. There are, he says, three major forces that bind together successful democracies: “social capital (i.e. extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.”
When I left the BBC I gave a speech about the Valley and the Hill, Silicon Valley vs. Capitol Hill, technology’s assault on democracy. That was 2018. And then, in 2019 when Tortoise launched, we began a conversation about rebuilding democracy. It was called The Rules. And we started with a ThinkIn – one of our open news meetings – to try and work out what the UK needed to do to make democracy fairer and more responsive, less arcane and less aloof – whether, in short, it was time to move to a written constitution. We were joined not by one, but two former heads of the UK’s Supreme Court, as well as lawyers, policymakers and academics. And we felt as though we were at the beginning of something, a fascinating if complicated question. At the time, we also made the case for a new public standard to apply to social media platforms to defend democracy against technology. And we committed to come up with a to-do list for the UK’s shambolic democracy.
But we fell short of our original promise to stick with it; in the swirl of other things, with a startup’s high hopes and limited resources and then with the arrival of the Covid pandemic, we stopped asking the question, let alone framing an answer.
Since then, frustration at the state of our democracy has, for many people, given way to something worse: fear. Fear that the East will outrun the West; fear that post-truth has morphed into post-shame and politicians can get away with anything; fear, that, as Jonathan Haidt puts it, “a democracy cannot survive if its public squares are places where people fear speaking up and where no stable consensus can be reached. Social media’s empowerment of the far left, the far right, domestic trolls, and foreign agents is creating a system that looks less like democracy and more like rule by the most aggressive.”
Tony Blair has said that when it comes to standing up to tyranny, it’s easy to be resigned to failure. Whether it’s boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, a no-fly zone in Libya or backing the rebels in Syria, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that nothing works; there’s no intervention that’s a model of success.
When it comes to standing up for democracy, it’s easy to be fatalistic too. The scoop that would previously have triggered a resignation; the protest that might have forced a U-turn; the collapse in public support that prompts a leadership challenge. Action can feel futile, when it’s unclear what, if any, rules apply.
But Haidt’s example is a good one. Because he’s not just unflinching in his diagnosis of the problem; he offers a prescription of what needs to be done. Protect parties and political processes from hijack by polarising groups and marginal interests; end the easy anonymity of actors online and the spread of bots by introducing the equivalent of “know your customer” user verification by the platforms; raise the age of entry on social media, by restricting data collection on users to anyone over 16; actively encourage real life interaction between young people.
It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a framework for action: harden democratic institutions, reform social media, prepare the next generation.
This month, we return to The Rules. We start, as we should at Tortoise, with organised listening: we’ve already conducted a series of focus groups to inform an opinion poll on democracy in Britain, and we’re going to take the findings on the road for a series of ThinkIns to inform our discussion around the open question: does democracy work for you?
And we’re analysing the state of our politics: Matt d’Ancona and Lara Spirit launch a new podcast next week – Slow Politics – that dwells on one story that matters lost in the blur of news; Matt’s latest audio essay on the 20 days in Spring that proved the undoing of Rishi Sunak is out next week too; and on Wednesday Lara’s hosting a ThinkIn that sets out to make sense of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.
And we’re going to keep investigating. As I hope you’ve heard in Paul Caruana Galizia’s reporting on Evgeny Lebedev, the chill effect of lawfare and the compromises and corruption of Londongrad, there’s much more we should know.
And I hope that we’re going to try to follow Haidt’s example – not just articulate what we’re against, but set out what we’re for. After the run of ThinkIns on democracy in the next couple of months and a Democracy Summit in July that’ll be open to all – both in our newsroom in London and online – we’ll set out to frame some suggestions for the UK on how we rebuild trust in our democracy and replace a toxic nostalgia with a sensible belief in the future. Philip Gould, the sage political pollster and strategist, had faith in the ultimate good sense and optimism of voters; he once told me that the people who win elections are the ones with the most convincing vision of the future. Even in these Babel times, it’s possible to point to elections where that ultimate good sense and optimism has prevailed.
Do something or leave? Well, even if it felt good and forceful in the moment that I wrote it, it’s obviously bravado. We can’t all just leave. We have to do something.