Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Henry Tam & Question the Powerful

Dr. Henry Benedict Tam has written about politics and society in a wide range of publications ('HT: Bibliography'), and presented his ideas at events hosted by state and non-governmental institutions both in Europe and the US.

The Question the Powerful project disseminates ideas and findings based on the work he has carried out in a variety of educational and policy roles: Director, Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy (University of Cambridge); Head of Civil Renewal (Home Office, UK Government); Visiting Professor, Lifelong Learning (Birkbeck, University of London); Director, Community Safety & Regeneration (Government Office, East of England); Chair, Communitarian Forum (St Edmunds College, University of Cambridge).

You can catch up with his political reflections on the Question the Powerful blog; and follow his tweets on current events via @HenryBTam. More information about the available learning resources are set out below:


[1] Political Ideas
Works that examine the key ideas relating to governance, responsibility, community, democracy, and citizenship; and explain how a civic-communitarian approach can help to resolve conflicting claims about how we should live:

What Should Citizens Believe? exploring the issues of truth, reason & society
This is ideal for anyone looking for a general introduction to the challenge of resolving conflicting beliefs in society, and for all those involved in lifelong learning who would like to have a range of materials to facilitate discussions about truth and reason in a democracy. Available as an e-book or in paperback.

Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics
This book presents a diagnosis of what prevents democracy from functioning, and goes beyond the familiar ‘get the vote out’ ideas, to set out 9 key areas where reforms are necessary to ensure we can govern ourselves more effectively. It puts forward forty recommendations to help us avoid the twin threats of oppressive rule and debilitating chaos.

Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics & citizenship
This standard text on progressive communitarian ideas has been praised on both sides of the Atlantic, and nominated by New York University Press for the 2000 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.
(For more information on Communitarianism and its companion volume, Progressive Politics in the Global Age, go to Info on Communitarianism)

Against Power Inequalities
A short global history on the progressive struggle against exploitation and oppression. “An intellectual tour de force” (Professor Charles Derber, US); “history retold as a panorama of struggle, hope and co-operation [by] a master storyteller” (Ed Mayo, Secretary General, Co-operatives UK).
(For more information, go to Against Power Inequalities)

Responsibility & Personal Interactions
An in-depth study on when people should be held responsible for their behaviour, with the proposed criteria tested against legal judgment in seminal cases. It provides a basis for exposing flawed attempts to deny responsibility.
(For more information on this book and its companion volume, Punishment, Excuses & Moral Development, go to Info on Responsibility)

[2] Leadership Guidance
The materials outlined below draw on reviews of effective practices in a wide range of institutions and personal experiences in shaping public policies, to provide guidance on how to develop cooperative communities and advance the public interest:

Together We Can: the practice of community empowerment
‘Together We Can’ was a national cross-government programme for civil renewal and community empowerment (2003-2010) – it was showcased as an exemplar at the 2008 international meeting of the Global Network of Government Innovators (USA). Practical ideas and policy recommendations can be found amongst the resources listed here.

Political Literacy and Civic Thoughtfulness
A guide to the problem of political illiteracy, and how it can be tackled through the cultivation of civic thoughtfulness, using the 'Synetopia' framework. This provides a basis for assessing the level of political aptitude and identifying key actions to be taken to attain improvements.

Cooperative Gestalt: the practice of cooperative problem-solving
The discussions with academics and practitioners via the Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy (University of Cambridge) facilitated the codification of how best to engender cooperative problem-solving. For articles and other materials on how organisations can secure more effective collaborative working to achieve their goals, see: here.

Serving the Public: the practice of democratic engagement
Guidance based on research and policy work that helped one local authority gain recognition as the best in England (Braintree, 1993), another one winning the award for youth participation from the Prime Minister (St Edmundsbury, 1999), and which led to the establishment of a national network of Civic Pioneer authorities: here.

[3] Dystopian Writings
These novels depict disturbing social and political trends, highlight the power of rhetoric and misdirection, and explore what kinds of resistance and reform are urgently needed (see The Anti-Con Novels for an overview):

Kuan’s Wonderland
An allegorical novel about the mysterious realm of Shiyan, where a young boy is brought before the institution known as Plutopia. “Original and very engaging” (Fantasy Book Review); “an unmissable page-turner” (President, the Independent Publishers Guild). Recommended by the Equality Trust.
(For more information, go to Kuan’s Wonderland: a quick guide)

Whitehall through the Looking Glass
A satirical tale about how a group of powerful corporations known as the Consortium came to take over the government of Britain and America. “[A] timely reminder of the dangers of the rapidly-accelerating corporatisation of our political and economic life.” (F. O'Grady, General Secretary, TUC); “We need Tam's absurdist vision of Whitehall to help wake us all up” (S. Duffy, Director, Centre for Welfare Reform).
(For more information, go to Whitehall through the Looking Glass: a quick guide)

The Hunting of the Gods
A saga set on a much transformed Earth where immortal rulers dictate terms to subjects who are brought up to fight against their foreign enemies until a resurrected stranger reveals to them the origins of the self-proclaimed gods. Questions are raised about microbotic technology, personal identity, and the widening gap between those who have a rich and prolonged life and those have nothing but insecurity.


Henry Tam has been invited to share his ideas on politics and society at events convened by many diverse organisations such as WEA (Workers’ Educational Association); Church Action on Poverty; South Place Ethical Society; the BBC; National School of Government; Metropolitan Police Authority; Urban Forum; Civil Service College, and Community Service Volunteers.

He has also been a guest speaker at the World Forum for Democracy (the Council of Europe); the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation (Harvard, USA); the Institute of Sociology (Warsaw, Poland); the Society for Applied Philosophy; the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics; the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies (Washington, USA); the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation (Ireland); the London Business School; the Oxford Centre for Advanced Study of the Social Sciences; and other research institutions.
(For a list of the talks given, go to ‘The QTP Talks Series’)


• Associate Fellow, the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield (2017-).
• Affiliated Lecturer, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge (2011-2015).
• Visiting Professor, School of Lifelong Learning, Birkbeck, University of London (2008-2011).
• Fellow, Globus Institute for Globalization and Sustainable Development, University of Tilburg, the Netherlands (2000-2008).
• Fellow, Chartered Institute of Marketing (1993-2011)
• Research Fellow, Centre for Citizenship Development, Anglia Polytechnic University (1992-1995).
• Diploma in Public Relations & Marketing, CAM (Communication, Advertising & Marketing) Foundation (1988).
• Ph.D in Philosophy, (Swire Scholar) the University of Hong Kong (1981-1984).
• BA/MA in Philosophy, Politics & Economics, (Neale Scholar) the Queen’s College, University of Oxford (1978-1981).

Monday, May 14, 2018

Citizens' Right to Learn

2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which set out the support and protection citizens across the world are entitled to expect from those they have entrusted with the power and resources to run their country.

One of the key challenges arising from disputes over alleged violations of human rights and what actions should be taken, is how people can resolve such disputes when ignorance, deception, and misinterpretation so often get in the way. If people fail to see wrongdoing for what it is, or are duped into regarding vital interventions as unwarranted interference, the defence of human rights will face an uphill struggle.

It should be remembered that Article 26 of the Declaration states not only that “everyone has the right to education”, but that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

In practice, it is rare for education at any level to pay much attention to raising people’s awareness and understanding of the problem of belief evaluation. Naïve embrace of ‘freedom of expression’ as a licence to lie, incite or misdirect has enabled the enemies of human rights to subvert democracy and con millions into blaming scapegoats. What is urgently needed is a sustained campaign to boost critical learning about how to differentiate reliable claims from dubious assertions.

The ‘Question the Powerful’ project, in association with the global Citizen Network, has brought out a new book, What Should Citizens Believe? It provides accessible resources for anyone interested in teaching, promoting, or facilitating discussions about ideas and practices that support reasoned assessment of what citizens ought to believe.

What Should Citizens Believe? exploring the issues of truth, reason & society is available in the following formats:
E-book (£2.99): https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07CSYRF8H
Paperback (£5.99): https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1548183105

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all royalties I receive from the sale of the book in 2018 will be donated to Amnesty International.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Question the Powerful: Essays

Full Listing (with theme category)
Set out below is a complete list of the essays posted on the Question the Powerful blog. Click on the title to find out more. For a list of Henry Tam’s key writings (books and articles) published elsewhere, see ‘Henry Tam: Bibliography'.

No. 242: Society’s Identity Crisis (Solidarity & Diversity)
No. 241: The Real Political Divide (Progressive Ethos)
No. 240: The Brexit Con (Brexit)
No. 239: The ‘Public Money Protection’ Act (Economics)
No. 238: Democracy on Life Support (Democracy)
No. 237: The Cooperators’ Dilemma (Cooperative Development)
No. 236: Four Deities & a Humanist (Ethics)
No. 235: What Voters Want (Democracy)
No. 234: Paradigm Lost (Progressive Ethos)
No. 233: Snakes on Power Ladders (Ethics)
No. 232: Unhappy Ending: the politics of secession (Global Politics)
No. 231: Exposing the Affinity Myth (Solidarity & Diversity)
No. 230: What do we mean by ‘Civic Engagement’? (Community Empowerment)
No. 229: Cooperation: A New Order of Life? (Book review: ‘Victorian Agitator – George Holyoake: co-operation as this new order of life’, by Stephen Yeo)
No. 228: Tech’gemony: the crisis of human redundancy (Economics)
No. 227: Performance Enhancement & Fair Competition (Ethics)
No. 226: The Will of the People? (Democracy)
No. 225: Impartiality or Bias in Politics (Education)
No. 224: The Importance of Being English (Solidarity & Diversity)
No. 223: Isn’t Profit a Tax on Workers? (Economics)
No. 222: From Russia with Brexit & Trump (Global Politics)
No. 221: National Alliance for Brexit (Brexit)
No. 220: Gambling with the UK’s Future (Brexit)
No. 219: The Rules-Freedom Symbiosis (Democracy)
No. 218: Left, Right, or Optimal? (Electoral Politics)
No. 217: To Share or Not To Share (Economics)
No. 216: 5 Simple Security Tests (Global Politics)
No. 215: The Art of Not Playing God (Ethics)
No. 214: Nationalism of the Puppet Kind (Con Politics)
No. 213: The Business of Advancing Values (Cooperative Development)
No. 212: Attlee & Bread (Progressive Ethos)
No. 211: The Cult of Thoughtlessness (Political Education)
No. 210: The Livelihood Challenge: 10 actions to consider (Economics)
No. 209: 2017: a precarious jobs odyssey (Electoral Politics)
No. 208: Three Wise Memos (Progressive Ethos)
No. 207: How Anger Trumps Anxiety (Electoral Politics)
No. 206: The Brexit-Trump Regression (Con Politics)
No. 205: Dr. Frankenstein, I presume (Con Politics)
No. 204: The Pathology of Marginalisation (Power Inequality)
No. 203: ‘Gains’, ‘Losses’, & Real Value (Economics)
No. 202: The Vote is Not Enough (Democracy)
No. 201: Automation, Immigration, & Civic Remuneration (Economics)

No.200: Give Collaborative Leadership a Try (Cooperative development)
No.199: The Politics of Deranged Generalisation (Con politics)
No.198: Keeping the Con in ‘e-CON-omics’ (Economics)
No.197: Dis-United Kingdom: 10 issues to watch (Democracy)
No.196: The Lawbreaker’s Mask (Con politics)
No.195: Education, Society & the Cooperative Gestalt (Education)
No.194: The Thoughtful Guide to Political Types (Electoral politics)
No.193: Terminate the Machines? (Economics)
No.192: 10 Ways to Subvert Legality (Power inequality)
No.191: Only Fools & Porsches (Con politics)
No.190: Moral Relativism & the Empathy Scale (Ethics)
No.189: A Strategy for Cooperators (Cooperative development)
No.188: There’s Something About Capitalism (Economics)
No.187: The Politics of Anti-Rationality (Con politics)
No.186: Flag, Freedom, & Family ... (Electoral politics)
No.185: Goodbye Utopia, Hello Synetopia (Progressive ethos)
No.184: Political Education with a Twist (Education)
No.183: Snide & Prejudiced: a tale of constitutional shenanigans (Con politics)
No.182: The ‘All-or-Nothing Fallacy’ of Polarised Politics (Democracy)
No.181: Synetopia: progress through cooperation (Progressive ethos)
No.180: Let’s Come Clean about Nuclear Waste (Environment & Energy)
No.179: Nietzsche, all too Nietzsche (Ethics)
No.178: Journey to the Real Centre of Politics (Progressive ethos)
No.177: Convert or Con Victim? (Con politics)
No.176: Plutocracy: a lesson for citizen education (Power inequality)
No.175: O Humanities, Where Art Thou? (Education)
No.174: The Public-Private Divide (Con politics)
No.173: Lifelong Learning & Everyday Governance (Education)
No.172: Left at the Identity Checkpoint (Progressive ethos)
No.171: Democracy at the Workplace (Cooperative development)
No.170: The Meaning of ‘Pro-Business’ (Con politics)
No.169: Money Can Buy You Votes (Electoral politics)
No.168: Remember: Together We Can (Solidarity & Diversity)
No.167: What’s in a Vote (Electoral Politics)
No.166: Thatcher, Europe & Referendum (Democracy)
No.165: Invasion of the Power Snatchers (Power Inequality)
No.164: Cooperation Unbound: a new model for democratic education (Education)
No.163: Politics & the Cooperative Gestalt (Cooperative development)
No.162: We are Spartacus – We are Syriza (Economics)
No.161: Davos’ Inferno (Power inequality [Satire])
No.160: Debunking Culture War (Progressive ethos)
No.159: Politics: what is it good for? (Education)
No.158: The Voter Vanishes (Democracy)
No.157: Between the Buddha & Camus (Progressive ethos)
No.156: The Con Identity (Con politics)
No.155: The Meekest Link (Cooperative development)
No.154: Revolution for Beginners (Democracy)
No.153: Six Degrees of Cooperation (Cooperative development)
No.152 The National Safety Fund explained (Welfare & Healthcare)
No.151: Experimentally Seeking Progress (Progressive ethos)

No.150: Keeping Democracy on its Toes
[interview with Jessica Crowe, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny] (Democracy)
No.149: Question the Powerful: the political education project (Education)
No.148: QTP Resources for Political Education (Education)
No.147: We Are What We Eat [book review of Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution: the story of Incredible Edible Todmorden, by Pam Warhurst and Joanna Dobson] (Community empowerment)
No.146: Politically ‘Incorrect’ or Morally Repugnant (Progressive ethos)
No.145: Cooperation Denial (Cooperative development)
No.144: Scapegoats United (Welfare & Healthcare)
No.143: In Solidarity or In Solitary (Global politics)
No.142: The Crook, the Bees, their Hive & its Haters [a fable] (Power inequality [Satire])
No.141: All Quiet on the Voting Front? (Electoral politics)
No.140: Rethinking Education [interview with Diane Reay, Professor of Education, University of Cambridge] (Education)
No.139: A History of the World in 500 words (Power inequality)
No.138: The Art of Exposing Emperors (Education)
No.137: Time for a Cooperative Government (Cooperative development)
No.136: Anarchy: Daydreams & Nightmares (Democracy)
No.135: Politics for Outsiders: an educational mission (Education)
No.134: Chinese Pride or Western Prejudice [book review of Chinese Whispers: why everything you heard about China is wrong by Ben Chu] (Global politics)
No.133: ‘Question the Powerful’: quincentenary of the 1514 watershed (Progressive ethos)
No.132: The Author Formerly Hated for ‘The Prince’ (Progressive ethos)
No.131: The Art of Nurturing Communities [book review of Community Research for Community Development, ed. by M. Mayo, Z. Mediwelso-Bendek, & C. Packham] (Community empowerment)
No.130: Who Needs Capability Assessment? (Welfare & Healthcare)
No.129: The Cooperative Gestalt (Cooperative development)
No.128: The Economics of Disability (Economics)
No.127: Who’s Afraid of Political Education? (Education)
No.126: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Syria? (Global politics)
No.125: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Teacher (Education)
No.124: The Reciprocity Test: Pros & Cons (Progressive ethos)
No.123: Bouncers for Cyber Clubs? (Freedom of speech and belief)
No.122: Downturn Abbey (Power inequality [Satire])
No.121: Anti-Social Enterprise (Con politics)
No.120: Oppose the War on Welfare (Welfare & Healthcare)
No.119: Chartist No. 6: the call for annual elections (Democracy)
No.118: Whose Money Is It Anyway? (Economics)
No.117: The Greed Tyranny (Con politics)
No.116: The ATOS Inquisition (Welfare & Healthcare)
No.115: Don’t Know Much About Politics? (Democracy)
No.114: Community Development at the Crossroads (Community empowerment)
No.113: The Power Hypothesis (Power inequality)
No.112: Communitarianism Revisited [co-written with Jonathan Boswell] (Progressive ethos)
No.111: No, Minister (Democracy)
No.110: Leave No One Behind (Progressive ethos)
No.109: Like to Teach the World to Vote? (Education)
No.108: Who’s Afraid of Father Christmas (Power inequality [Satire])
No.107: Tune into UN 194: the Sound of a Beautiful Resistance (Global politics)
No.106: Dreaming of a Dark Christmas (Education)
No.105: The Biggest Co-op of All (Cooperative development)
No.104: A Bomb for an Eye (Global politics)
No.103: The Crude, the Mad & the Ugly (Con politics)
No.102: A Message to America [from FDR] (Electoral politics)
No.101: The Powerful Can’t Hide [guest post by Ann Walker] (Power inequality)

No.100: Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society (Cooperative development)
No. 99: Who are the Wealth Creators? (Economics)
No. 98: Help Us Question the Powerful (Democracy)
No. 97: Unsure about the Start Our Children Get? (Family policy)
No. 96: Political OCD: is there a cure? (Con politics)
No. 95: The Targeting of ‘Troubled Families’ (Family policy)
No. 94: Your Power, Your Government (Democracy)
No. 93: Can the NHS Stay in the Race? (Welfare & Healthcare)
No. 92: Pyramid Hockey (Power inequality)
No. 91: Democracy’s Debt to Young People (Democracy)
No. 90: What kind of people are we? (Progressive ethos)
No. 89: Kuan’s Wonderland: a political fable (Education)
No. 88: Friends, Romans, Lend Me Your Euros (Economics)
No. 87: The Case for Cooperative Problem-Solving (Cooperative development)
No. 86: Where Next for Criminal Justice? [book review of Where Next for Criminal Justice, by David Faulkner and Ros Burnett] (Criminal justice)
No. 85: The Free Speech Conundrum (Freedom of speech and belief)
No. 84: I’m Super-Rich, Get Me into the White House (Electoral politics [Satire])
No. 83: Much Ado About Cooperating (Cooperative development)
No. 82: The Department for Wealth (Con politics [Satire])
No. 81: Welcome to the Premier League of Education (Education)
No. 80: Re-enter the Dragon (Global politics)
No. 79: Educating Fodder (Education)
No. 78: Santa & the City (Xmas Special) (Power inequality [Satire])
No. 77: Can Democracy Be Saved? (Democracy)
No. 76: What Next for the WEA? (Education)
No. 75: Corporate Flu (Con politics [Satire])
No. 74: Debt or No Debt (Economics)
No. 73: The Politics of Cultural Inclinations (Progressive ethos)
No. 72: Poor Circulation and Economic Disorder (Economics)
No. 71: The Lopsided Playing Field Power inequality)
No. 70: The Eton Redemption (Con politics [Satire])
No. 69: The Know-Nothing Executives (Democracy)
No. 68: The Nasty Media (Media)
No. 67: The Big Con (Con politics)
No. 66: A Tale of Two Strategies (Electoral politics)
No. 65: Left Disorientated? (Progressive ethos)
No. 64: The Joker to the Right (Con politics)
No. 63: Royal Family Values: a historical fact sheet (Power inequality)
No. 62: Memento Tory (Con politics)
No. 61: 68 places to change the Government’s mind (Electoral politics)
No. 60: From Wisconsin, With Love (Con politics [Satire])
No. 59: The Murdoch Empire Strikes Back (Media)
No. 58: SOS: Save Our NHS (Welfare & Healthcare)
No. 57: Beyond the Matrix (Con politics)
No. 56: Our Bacon Needs Saving (Progressive ethos)
No. 55: Deep Freeze Alert (Solidarity & Diversity)
No. 54: An Interview with ‘Father Christmas’ (Power inequality [Satire])
No. 53: On Strikers & Own Goals (Unions)
No. 52: Paint it Red (Con politics [Satire])
No. 51: Anger Mismanagement (Con politics)

No. 50: Another Coup on Animal Farm (Con politics [Satire])
No. 49: Against Power Inequalities (Power inequality)
No. 48: A Mad Tea Party’s Brewing (Con politics)
No. 47: The Ultimate Horror Show (Con politics)
No. 46: In Praise of Mo Tze (墨子) (Progressive ethos)
No. 45: Ever Tried Homeopathic Democracy? (Democracy)
No. 44: Begging the Charity Question (Solidarity & Diversity)
No. 43: The Denial Industry (Con politics)
No. 42: Mill, Dewey & Me (Progressive ethos)
No. 41: A Simple Equation (Power inequality)
No. 40: Interdependence Day (Global politics)
No. 39: The Fox & the BBC (Media)
No. 38: An Alliance to Promote Democracy (Democracy)
No. 37: Some Like it Thick (Solidarity & Diversity)
No. 36: Pride & Tiananmen (Global politics)
No. 35: Know Thy Goal (Progressive ethos)
No. 34: King John’s Lesson for the G20 (Global politics)
No. 33: Powerlessness can damage your health (Power inequality)
No. 32: Year of the Invisible Ox (Solidarity & Diversity)
No. 31: Unite or Perish (Global politics)
No. 30: The Pension Pirates (Con politics)
No. 29: The Anatomy of Change (Con politics)
No. 28: Axis of Stupidity (Con politics)
No. 27: The Freedom to Crash (Economics)
No. 26: Talk about Slavery (Power inequality)
No. 25: Thou Shall Make Money (Con politics)
No. 24: The Gene Code Lottery (Power inequality)
No. 23: The S Word (Democracy)
No. 22: The Good, the Bad and the Foreign (Progressive ethos)
No. 21: Between Nader and the Plastic Sea (Electoral politics)
No. 20: The Minorities Myth (Solidarity & Diversity)
No. 19: Wheat from the Chav (Con politics)
No. 18: Where’s our American vote? (Global politics)
No. 17: Let them eat bullets (Welfare & Healthcare)
No. 16: The Alpha Male Syndrome (Power inequality)
No. 15: Variations on a theme of ransom (Unions)
No. 14: The Crisis of Civic Disengagement (Democracy)
No. 13: What’s wrong with being all-powerful? (Power inequality)
No. 12: Together We Can (Community empowerment)
No. 11: Long live the Con (Con politics)
No. 10: Give restorative justice a chance (Criminal justice)
No. 9: Weapons of mass confusion (Global politics)
No. 8: Of frogs and men (Environment & Energy)
No. 7: What exactly is pro-family? (Family policy)
No. 6: Why single out the freedom of discussion (Freedom of speech and belief)
No. 5: Belief is not enough (Freedom of speech and belief)
No. 4: Who’s against the Enlightenment? (Progressive Ethos)
No. 3: Aren’t they all Human Values? (Solidarity & Diversity)
No. 2: Why tolerate the Power Gap? (Power inequality)
No. 1: Is Redemption Possible? (Ethics)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Endangered Democracy: the Civic-Communitarian Response

While there is widespread recognition on both sides of the Atlantic that democracy is not working as it should, no consensus has yet emerged regarding what is to be done about it. Some say major constitutional changes are necessary; some call for more efforts to get the vote out; and others lament the futility of trying to tackle money power, social media distortions, or – with routinely around a third of registered voters (in the US and the UK) not turning out to vote – incorrigible apathy.

If we look more closely, however, at what thinkers concerned with the underlying political health of communities have been saying, we may be able to work out what prescriptions are really required. Thinkers such as Bernard Crick, David Marquand, Jonathan Boswell, and Henry Tam in the UK, or Philip Selznick, Amitai Etzioni, Michael Sandel, and Charles Taylor in North America, have been variously described as ‘communitarian’, ‘civic republican’, or in some cases both. Despite their differences on some philosophical or sociological issues, when it comes to democratic governance, they all maintain that it has to be grounded on a community of cooperating citizens.

If people thought only about their own individual interests, and were disinclined or unable to take into account the concerns and reasons expressed by others, then a superficial electoral structure would not be capable of facilitating decisions that enhance the common good of the people, or improve their respective lives as interdependent citizens. On a personal basis, some would exploit the fear and gullibility of others to make unjust gains for themselves. On a collective basis, the nation would be more divided and insecure.

The civic-communitarian response, to coin a term, is to press for actions to be taken to rebuild the community basis of democratic relationships. These are connected with three inter-related elements. First and foremost, there is the need to develop a real sense of togetherness among the people. A laissez faire attitude to leaving individuals to do as they please is a recipe for social fragmentation. Diversity and solidarity can be complementary only if concerted efforts are made to facilitate people learning about the distinct contributions each other can bring. Togetherness, in turn, requires objectivity in discourse. If lies, prejudices, intimidation, and misdirection were allowed to distort facts and undermine any prospect of mutual understanding being attained, people would rarely, if ever, come to see what would serve their common good, or why they should back one set of public policies rather than another for the sake of their country. Finally, togetherness can only be preserved if none has attained sufficient power to act with little regard for the consequences that may have for others, and it is recognised that people are broadly interdependent in safeguarding their overall wellbeing.

Let us look at what actions should therefore be developed to rescue democracy from its perilous state.


Democracy would be reduced to a contest among hostile factions without a sufficiently robust sense of togetherness. To cultivate it, there should be widespread opportunities for citizens to formulate shared missions through collaborative projects; move away from echo chambers to meet and get to know others at open communal events; learn to co-design civic outcomes; and engage with politicians, experts and their fellow citizens in reviewing how public actions actually affect them.

Mutual respect should be promoted through techniques that enable people to understand how they might feel if they were subject to some objectionable policy or treatment being proposed for others in a similar situation. There must be more effective mechanisms to investigate and remove discriminatory rules or procedures (such as those affecting district boundaries or ID requirements) that make it more difficult for particular groups in the community to exercise their electoral power. Reconciliatory support should be readily available to bring people with conflicting views together to explore common ground and avoid escalation, except in cases where some are determined to inflict injury on others.

To ensure people appreciate what it is to be members of their shared polity, there should be thorough explanations of what that membership entails in practice beyond any abstract talk of rights and responsibilities. Citizens of a country should be involved in reviewing the membership terms and conditions so that issues such as why new members may be needed, or what current members should or should not be allowed to do with money they have made in the country (e.g., moving it to offshore accounts), can be transparently addressed.


Communities’ capacity for democratic decision-making is inescapably linked to the extent to which their members can learn, reflect on, and exchange ideas in an objective manner. Although in a democratic society, no religious faith or secular ideology can be allowed to impose its doctrines on everyone, pluralism is only feasible if civil dialogues can take place as a result of all people possessing a shared understanding of what coherent reasoning and evidential examination entail.

Publicly financed, but independently run institutions are necessary to review and codify truth claims, so that trusted judgements on what merit belief are derived from the latest expert assessment and informed consensus, rather than arbitrary declarations or well-funded misinformation campaigns. This applies to every level of societal interactions where an authoritative resolution of conflicting claims is sought, right up to the Supreme Court, which can hardly lay claim to impartiality when, in virtually all the cases (since 1986) where the most politically contentious issues were decided on a 5-4 majority, members of the court backed the position favoured by the party of the president who nominated them [Note 1]. Instead of relying on the backing of the majority party in Congress, the court’s membership should be dependent on the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

And contrary to the myth that the freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct, the US has from the beginning set and enforced legal limits on irresponsible communication that may incite lawless behaviour; is unacceptable in itself (e.g., exchange of paedophilic words/images); makes use of information that belongs to someone else; contains false or misleading details; or threatens national security. There is an urgent need to apply the principles of restriction already embedded in existing laws and practices to those who use a combination of the political powers they have gained, the money provided by businesses disdainful of the public interest, and the levers of manipulation over social media, to deceive the public and undermine the sharing of factual reports.

Power Balance

Honest dialogues are necessary but not sufficient to sustain democratic governance. Those with amassed power and wealth can always just ignore what citizens consider to be better options. Instead of handing all decisions to a few on the back of electoral contests that barely engage with the real issues, communities should have more quality-assured deliberative events that will empower them to select public policies and representatives. At the same time, in line with subsidiarity, more decisions ought to be delegated to those who are better placed at the local level to consider what should be done. Voting arrangements should also be improved so that people can rank their preferences rather than accept that in safe, first-past-the-post seats (the predicament facing most voters) their vote is highly unlikely to make any difference whatsoever.

As the widening of wealth inequalities exacerbate the power gap between the corporate elite and the majority gripped by economic insecurity, a fairer distribution of resources should be advanced through more extensive adoption of worker cooperative practices and strengthening of public provisions to counter-balance private iniquities. Limits for financial support for political candidates must be brought down to a much lower level; and anyone who thinks that it is a side issue should be reminded that, for example, between 2004 and 2012, in each of the five bi-annual contests in the House of Representatives, over 80% of the candidates who spent more than their rivals won, while spending on federal campaigns in 2012 alone was over $6.2 billion, with 68% of that money coming from just 0.26% of the population [Note 2].

Libertarians have tried to argue that the retreat of state institutions would leave individuals with greater freedom, when in fact it would enable the most powerful corporations and the people with vast wealth or weapons to pressurise others into submitting to their demands. What is needed to strengthen democratic freedom is a two-fold enhancement of public accountability – with robust public bodies to hold individuals and corporations to account, and a network of state agencies that can investigate and take action against those holding political office, not excepting the president.


Communitarian and civic republican thinkers may not agree among themselves or with each other on every issue. But they do have in common an important set of ideas on how fair and vibrant communities can function democratically. These ideas are not about refining democratic procedures on the margins, but go to the heart of how any system that aims to share governing power equitably among the governed has to be sustained culturally and structurally. The actions outlined above are essential to revive democratic rule. Delays in their implementation will jeopardise any chance of democracy surviving the twin onslaught of plutocratic divisiveness and resurgent extremism.

Note 1: Rodriguez, L. (2016) ‘The Troubling Partisanship of the Supreme Court’, Stanford Political Journal: https://stanfordpolitics.com/the-troubling-partisanship-of-the-supreme-court-da9fd5a900ac
Note 2: Prokop, A. (2014) ’40 charts that explain money in politics’, Vox: http://www.vox.com/2014/7/30/5949581/money-in-politics-charts-explain (Chart 11) and (Chart 2).

Henry Tam’s new book, Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics is available from Policy Press: https://policypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy

[A version of this essay appeared previously in the newsletter of the Institute of Communitarian Policy Studies, Washington, USA, 2018]

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Time to Save Democracy

To govern ourselves or not to? This is the existential question of politics. With the rise of distrust, alienation, and extremism, it is all the more difficult to secure democratic self-rule when neither those in power nor the general public seem dependable when it comes to making decisions that can transform our lives, for better or worse.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, Henry Tam’s new book, Time to Save Democracy, explores what should be done to revive democracy. Presenting in a clear and accessible manner, he goes beyond the familiar ‘get the vote out’ ideas, to set out 9 key areas where reforms are necessary to ensure we can govern ourselves more effectively.

Against the suggestion that democracy has run its course, this book unpacks why democratic governance is indispensable and puts forward forty recommendations to help us avoid the twin threats of oppressive rule and debilitating chaos.

Reviews of Time to Save Democracy

“This is a spirited, wide-ranging defence of democracy, and a call to arms for its renewal, from someone who has practised what he preaches in both government and civil society. In the best traditions of reasoned pluralism, readers will find much to debate and argue about in this book.”
- Nick Pearce, Professor of Public Policy & Director of Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath

Time to save Democracy is essential reading for all those concerned about the state of democracy today but even more important reading for the increasing numbers who take democracy for granted. Always compelling and challenging in its analysis of democracy, past and present, the book is also full of hope. However, this is no insubstantial optimism but rather an insightful and richly informed progressive agenda for developing democratic cooperation ... [It] provides a powerful and convincing manifesto for democracy at a time when we most need one.”
- Diane Reay, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge and visiting Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science

“We cannot be complacent about the place of representative democracy in this country and across the west. The weaknesses of current models suggest that the turbulent politics and insecurities of the day may well overturn existing democratic arrangements. Henry Tam’s Time to Save Democracy offers a practical guide for those of us who wish to fulfil the goals of democracy as a framework for ‘collective self-governance’ at all levels of society, from community activists up to national politicians and civil servants. It should be read and acted on.”
- Stuart Weir, Founder, Charter88; and inaugural director, Democratic Audit, University of Essex.

“Henry Tam’s new book sets out strategies for developing and sustaining more democratic ways of relating to each other, rooted in more equal relationships of power. This is such a timely contribution to contemporary debates.”
- Marjorie Mayo, Emeritus Professor of Community Development, Goldsmiths, University of London

“At a time when 42% of people entitled to vote in the UK did not do so, including 15% who did not even register, it is important to create more and better ways for people to participate in democratic decision making. Henry Tam’s erudite book will certainly aid the development of democratic practice.”
- Titus Alexander, founder, Democracy Matters

“In Time to Save Democracy, Henry Tam reminds us of the importance of collaborative learning and the development of a critical mind set, and their centrality in our pedagogical approaches. This is a call to action for anyone interested in lifelong learning and the critical links between adult education, civic engagement and democratic participation.”
- Mel Lenehan, Principal, Fircroft College

Order your copy of Time to Save Democracy from Policy Press: https://policypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy