What’s gone wrong with liberal democracy?

Thursday June 9th

A free PUBLIC talk and discussion
by the Rt Hon Anne Milton
former Guildford MP and Minister of State

Please see further below for meeting report.

Elected as MP for Guildford in 2005, Anne served on the Health Select Committee, was Shadow Minister for Tourism, Gambling and Licensing, and then Shadow Minister for Health.

She was appointed Minister for Public Health in 2010 in the new Coalition Government. She also served 5 years in the Government Whips Office from 2012, was the first female Deputy Chief Whip, and was appointed Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships in 2017. She resigned from her post in 2019.

Anne was one of the 21 Conservatives who lost the Whip and stood as an Independent candidate in the 2019 General Election.

Anne now works with several organisations in the Further Education sector including Pearson, KPMG, City&Guilds and maintains an interest in Public Health.

Anne is also a Trustee of Surrey University Students Union, Founder of The Company for Nurses and sits on the Yvonne Arnaud Development Board

Anne was a borough councillor in Surrey for five years, and trained as a nurse working in the NHS for 25 years.

Adam Mynott provides a report on the meeting below:

What’s gone wrong with liberal democracy?

Looking around the world it is impossible to arrive at any other conclusion than liberal democracy is under threat: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Congressional Capitol riots report, ‘Partygate’, the rise of extremist political parties…the list goes on.  

In a public talk at Farnham Maltings on Thursday (9th June) led by the former Guildford MP, the Rt Hon Anne MIlton, people invited by Farnham Humanists got together to discuss ‘What’s gone wrong with liberal democracy?’.  

Anne Milton, who resigned from her ministerial post in 2019 over opposition to Brexit opened the evening by talking for 15 minutes about where she thinks liberal democracy has foundered.  She reminded her audience that far from advancing, levels of liberal democracy globally are in retreat: down to where they stood in the 1980’s. 70% of the world’s population, she said, live under autocratic governments. She ran off a list of reasons, including the rise of populist leaders, the use of disinformation to drive public opinion, the weakening of civil institutions, the pernicious power of data-controllers, the retreat of the US as a world leader and, at a more fundamental democratic level, problems with the UK’s Parliamentary’ electoral system.  

The scene was set for the audience to join in, and they did with gusto.  For the next 90 minutes liberal democracy’s successes and failings were probed, dissected and challenged.  Anne Milton works, in her post Parliamentary career, in education and discussion turned to how poor, out-dated methods of teaching contribute to a weakening of democratic principles.  We are all guilty, it was suggested, of being poor consumers of information. We don’t devote enough time and effort finding out where information comes from: who funds reports, who writes them, what agenda are they working to?  All of this erodes democracy.

One contributor suggested that democracy is evolving and adjusting to the 21st century; this prompted a strong exchange on how recent democratic failings have driven extremist politics to the forefront. Political discourse is now all about shouting angry, extreme views at each other rather than engaging in reasoned debate. 

Anne Milton said when she arrived in the House of Commons in 2005 the era of impressive Parliamentary speechmaking was on the decline – ‘you no longer hear powerful hour-long speeches delivered, without any reference to notes, from the likes of Douglas Hogg or Ian Paisley, and Parliament is the poorer for it’. She was asked about what many clearly perceive as the deterioration of Parliamentary politics – ‘it’s all become so tribal’.  Anne Milton agreed, but said that the portrayal of Parliament by parts of the media is something of a distortion.  She drew attention, for example, to the work of Select Committees where ‘in fact, a lot more is communal and constructive than what appears in Prime Minister’s Questions’.. 

The audience was asked how many had engaged in the political process themselves by ‘emailing their MP’ – many put up their hands and Anne Milton said that she was influenced as an MP by email traffic,’if enough emails come in on one subject, you have to take notice. Some advice though – make it short and make it clear exactly what you want your MP to do.’

There were very strong views expressed about how our representatives in the UK get chosen someone said ‘one of big problems is the first past the post system’.  This definitely struck a chord.  He went on to say that more than 70% of votes cast in the 2019 election effectively counted for nothing.  Advocates for Proportional Representation chipped in saying that in the current era of radical politics PR would allow extremists to be assessed for their true following, instead of the current position where they join wings of mainstream parties in order to be represented, thereby distorting the political arena.  Some suggested that compulsory voting might help, others that the weight of someone’s vote should be varied according to educational or other achievements.  

There were voices too suggesting that to condemn liberal democracy, which cannot be perfect, might be a dangerous road to go down, and Winston Chuchill was quoted: ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried’.

During the course of the evening, the role of social media came under scrutiny, if not attack, for giving extremists a platform which hitherto had not been available to them. Inevitably the media got a kicking, so too did party funding and the role of big corporations. 

The world was not entirely put to rights, but informed and well-argued points were strongly made.  The chair of Farnham Humanists, Belinda Schwehr thanked Anne MIlton for an excellent evening of debate and she was enthusiastically applauded.

There was a collection at the end for the UN refugee charity.