What would Britain be like if the governing principle of policy-making was to ensure the maintenance of a well-functioning democracy in which everyone had an equal opportunity to belong, have a say and be successful? Clearly, it would be a radically different society to the one in which we live now. For one thing, it would be a society with a clearly defined and well-understood social contract, a wide consensus that adequate public funds should be collected to support a range of basic services essential to human flourishing, and that they should be supported at a decent level. This would mean a clear-headed and informed commitment from those with the most to give up a greater share of what they have in order to maintain good-quality schools, hospitals, libraries, infrastructure, etc. And it would imply a political culture in which it was possible to propose increased investment in public services without being told that your plans will bankrupt the country or lead to communism. This imagined Britain would probably also be a place where economic considerations did not overrule all others and where leaders who espouse views inimical to our own commitment to democracy and decency would be challenged rather than courted. Finally, and importantly, it would be a society in which a far wider value was attached to education and where adult education, widely conceived, was recognized as essential to the successful functioning of democratic society, and supported appropriately.
I was thinking about these issues in relation to Brexit and the UK’s 2016 referendum on membership of the EU. The referendum was a hugely flawed democratic exercise, notable for the well-documented interference of a foreign power bent on undermining European unity, obscure and extremely shady funding arrangements, the breaking of electoral law (by the Vote Leave campaign), the misuse of private data, the complete absence of any programme for delivering a workable Brexit, and the outright lies and distortions of senior politicians and press supporters, mostly in the cause of leaving the EU. It also managed to deliver perhaps the worst possible result, from a democratic perspective: a 52/48 per cent split in the vote. This made the genuine will of the people impossible to discern, particularly as a very substantial majority either voted against leaving the EU or did not feel sufficiently exercised by the matter to vote at all. It was not helpful either that the question presented to the British public was simplistic to the point of being purposefully stupid. In such circumstances, perhaps the worst thing a government could do would be simply and uncritically to take that verdict as the will of the people and ignore the concerns of close to half of those who bothered to vote. Yet not only has the government resolutely pursued this line, making zero attempt to find a compromise or a way of addressing the will of the 48 per cent, still less to launch a national conversation on the matter, it seems now set on a course that will deliver a ‘no deal’ Brexit, with the Prime Minister unable to command support within her party for a deal that would be acceptable to the EU and reduced to putting forward a plan she doesn’t believe in, in full knowledge that it will be rejected.
The referendum was called by David Cameron in order to bring peace among warring factions of the British Conservative Party. Instead, it gave extremists within the party the opportunity to take their fight to a larger stage, where it is the future of the country, rather than just a political party, that is at stake. Still more troublingly, that struggle has been effectively hijacked by Putin’s Russia and other interests determined to break up the EU. As he has in America, Putin has supported and forged links with racist politicians and other populist forces at national level in the UK to challenge and undermine national and international democratic institutions and structures. While the extent of Russian influence is unclear, there can be no doubt that Putin will be delighted with the outcomes both of the last US presidential election and the UK EU referendum, as well as with the chaos that has ensued from both. The remarkable spectacle of a US president, fresh from humiliating a feeble and flailing UK Prime Minister determined to forge a trade deal at any cost (including to her dignity and that of her office), publicly taking the word of a corrupt and murderous autocrat above that of his own intelligence service, was perhaps the most notable milestone to date in the decline of western liberal democracy.
Democracy is being challenged by new forms of autocratic government, abetted by a foolish, disreputable and reckless US president and a feckless and divided UK government (and opposition), which is drifting away from Europe without map or rudder at a time when democracies (if that is what they are and want to be) desperately need to stand together and defend their values. All of this is symptomatic not only of the rise of populism around the world but of the failure of western democracies to defend their values adequately at home. The UK is a case in point. Over the past decade, the language of fascism has been allowed to creep back into British political discourse, while dangerous, ill-founded and racist views have been given a platform in the mainstream media without sufficient critical challenge. This is perhaps no big surprise when it comes to much of the right-learning press, which has pumped out xenophobic and anti-EU bile for decades (and, of course, the Daily Mail has form when it comes to backing fascists). But the BBC too must take a large share of the blame for its uncritical, evidence-free presentation of opposing views and for the repeated exposure it has given to the likes of Nigel Farage, without challenging their views or credibility, or asking where their funding and support comes from. Perhaps more importantly, though, most politicians and most of the media have been prepared to quietly write off the hopes of communities around the country and the people who live in them. It is ironic that these neglected communities in voting to leave the EU have invested their faith in people who very largely see their lives and futures as wholly acceptable collateral damage in their efforts to stick it to the EU, cut workers’ rights, dismantle the NHS, keep their party together, avoid EU tax scrutiny or further their desire for power (please select as appropriate).
Watching all of this unfold can be an incredibly disempowering and isolating experience. This is particularly so if you are poorly informed or lack the capacity or opportunity to really engage critically with what is going on. For far too long, as a society, we have failed to take seriously the notion that an engaged and well-informed citizenry is the best route to a flourishing, resilient democracy and the best defence against its erosion by malign internal and external forces. This came home to me while reading about the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), a remarkable experiment in education and democracy that developed – under the inspired guidance of social entrepreneur W.E. Williams – during the Second World War. It was established in 1941 by the War Office to provide weekly current affairs talks and discussions for service people, led by regimental officers and supported by the fortnightly publication of pamphlets on issues ‘of topical and universal importance’. These sessions included discussion of alternative ways of organising society and were supplemented by a scheme to provide military personnel with three hours of compulsory education per week, one hour for military training, one for general subjects and personal interest, and one for education in citizenship. Williams felt strongly that serving men and women should not only have access to basic information about the war, but also have the opportunity to take part in the discussions that would shape the country that emerged from the conflict. This was, in the words of General Sir Ronald Adam, President of the British Institute of Adult Education, ‘a great manifestation of democratic faith’. It demonstrated both a remarkable trust in the capacity of ordinary people to contribute to the future shape of post-war Britain (through Churchill personally intervened to block a paper on the Beveridge Report being published) and a lived commitment to raising political awareness to stimulate democratic engagement.
This understanding of education as a vital support to participatory democracy has been part and parcel of the adult education movement in Britain since the 1919 Report and earlier, in the commitment of the Workers’ Educational Association to ‘true education’ which ‘directly induces thought’. This has been intermittently recognised by government across the decades but this recognition has become increasingly rhetorical, as funding has been systematically redirected to adult education for basic skills and employability, and education for wider purposes has been cut, ruthlessly, by successive governments, but particularly under the austerity-themed governments of Cameron and May. Adult participation in further and higher education has been in freefall while many of the spaces in which non-formal adult education has traditionally taken place, such as public libraries and community centres, have disappeared with the savage reductions in public support for local government. We often hear about the public’s diminishing faith in politicians and the political process, but little is said of the corresponding decline in politicians’ faith in the public: to make decisions about their country’s future, to decide what is best for them educationally, to exercise meaningful, informed choice at elections or to engage meaningfully with political decision-making within their own communities. Both these trends nourish and support each other, creating a downward spiral in mutual esteem and respect that is (as we have found) extremely harmful to democracy and the political process. I spoke recently to a Swedish academic who expressed surprise that in the run-up to the EU referendum there had been no attempt to stimulate engagement through adult education – this, he said, had been the case in Sweden in the run-up to the 2003 referendum on membership of the Euro. It was also characteristic of the lively build up to the referendum on Scottish independence, where local authorities, adult education providers and civil society groups took the initiative in creating spaces in which discussion on key issues could take place. Instead of promoting this kind of meaningful engagement, both leave and remain campaigns plumped for a mixture of lies, fear-mongering and mud-slinging, with a spot of Nazi-inspired, racist propagandising thrown in for good measure. What should have been an opportunity to stimulate a genuine national debate was squandered in the cause of jingoism and complacency.
The loss of critical and creative adult education spaces has never been more keenly felt. With much of the adult education infrastructure systematically dismantled we face a long, upward struggle to reconceptualise adult education as something more than a source of basic and workplace skills. We are some way from the Swedish example, where the links between adult education and democracy are acknowledged and the infrastructure for a campaign of mass adult education exists. But perhaps the current vacuum in British politics created by Brexit, in which the government does not govern and the opposition no longer opposes, also creates a space for other alternative ways of doing democracy. The Swedish study circle model, in which adult learners come together to share views on a particular topic and to learn from one another, is an excellent example, fostering both democratic engagement and inclusion. If we are serious about education for active citizenship, then education must go beyond simply describing what democratic citizenship is about – it must give people the opportunity to participate in democratic deliberation, recognising this as a signifier of inclusion in a democratic society, while acknowledging that democracy’s mutable nature requires continuous engagement, as well as constant vigilance. Adult education can create spaces for attentiveness and remembering, where cynicism can be challenged, hope fostered and preconceptions overturned. It encourages agency, critical thinking and respect for others and their opinions. In times when democratic values and institutions are under attack and ‘alternative facts’ vie with the truth for airtime, learning can be the basis of resistance and simple connection with others can be a revolutionary act. As the wartime pioneers of adult education realised, when darkness is closing in around us, education is the bright hope that can guide us to another place.