Setting out the stall for democracy, Bishop Williams said it was not quite as straightforward as may be imagined. We need to question why it should work and understand what it is as well as what it is not. He suggested democracy is often defined by what it is not – it is not autocracy, oligarchy or dictatorship. Democracy raises the question of what is lawful in human society and what kind of system has a proper claim on our loyalty and obedience. It also asks what it is that we can recognise that represents our voice and our interests. “Democracy may be a mess but it’s our mess. It may have strange ideas but it reflects our ideas,” he stated.
The Bishop pointed out that democracy does not happen automatically when other systems disappear, citing Iraq and Libya as examples. He said that the advance of democracy went hand in hand with certain advances in secularism but did not agree that democracy is secular. “The fundamental of democracy is that it represents who we are, what we want and what we care about. But there is a risk of populism. Is something made right by the majority vote?’ he asked.
The paradox of democracy, he contended, is that it believes that every human agent is worth listening to. But if every human agent is worth listening to, then that includes minorities as well as the majority. “Democracy is a system in which every voice has a claim to be heard. But that can be a challenge. The voices that have not prevailed are still worth listening to… We go on arguing and that is a sign that democracy is working because the minority voice is still being taken seriously,” he said. “The majority decision may be lawful but it is still up for debate… It is crucial for a democracy to be liberated from the idea that majority votes end arguments.” He added that freedom of speech must be safeguarded (with certain limits) if democracy is to be a means of change in society.
However, he said public debate does not mean that we allow our neighbour to shout for a while before taking our own turn to shout. We must recognise that the person who opposes us in an argument has goals which we can recognise as intelligible.