After 1913 the world changed dramatically. Europe’s rulers went to war, hundreds of millions were slaughtered, empires were broken up, new global powers rose, women won the vote in Britain. Bit by bit people created a new economy, news systems of social security and new forms of global governance that connect almost every country in a shared framework of rules today. Last century’s traumas of war, economic depression and oppression were the consequence of fatal political decisions, and the changing fortunes after 1945 were also the result of political decisions.
The dramatic contrast between North and South Korea, or between Gaza and Tel Aviv, or the City of London and inner city Lambeth, are the consequences of political decisions. Politics matters, and democracy means that everyone shares some responsibility for what happens.
Looking ahead from January 2013, the coming century may be much worse than the last. Climate chaos, population growth, water scarcity, food shortages and dramatic shifts in economic and political power could make our troubles look like squabbles over biscuits in the Parish Council. Ten or twenty years from now England could be a rump state, separated from Scotland, excluded from Europe and struggling alone in a world of high prices and tariff barriers; the USA fragmented under the burden of debt, its warring States and cities policed by private armies; and the assertive powers of China, India, Indonesia and Brazil run the new world order to meet their needs, not ours. Or it could be an era of global peace and sustainable prosperity, governed equitably under the rule of law and robust, democratic institutions resolving conflict and managing the earth’s resources wisely.
What happens depends on decisions people take now. Citizens, consumers and entrepreneurs can make as much difference now as the elites of nation states, corporations and international bureaucracies. The elites are still powerful, but they must also follow the markets, public opinion and popular pressure as never before. New technologies make it possible for people to take part and shape events, and democracy has disruptive power to reshape the world. What happens depends on the ability of our politics to solve multiple problems simultaneously, in our families and firms, towns and cities as much as between countries and in our relationships with nature.
Democracy is a great engine for decision-making. People highlight problems, identify needs, propose solutions and galvanise action. They challenge, organise and make a noise about what matters to them. When politics fails, people turn to violence– the gunshot it Sarajevo, civil war in Syria, riots in the streets. Democracy is a verb not a noun, and we need to renew democracy to make the decades from 2013 better than after 1913.