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Democracy is changing

If it is true that the motto of a traditionalist is 'some change is good but no change is even better', there are few traditionalists in the UK at the moment. While the desire for change in the run up to the general election may not be as palpable as it was before the US presidential election in 2008, it is rising sharply.

But is pinning such hope on politics justified? Until recently, this question was anathema to politicians, many of whom felt that an air of self-importance was crucial to winning the confidence of voters.

Things are different now. The economic crisis, which has left gaping holes in public finances, huge budget deficits and rapidly escalating national debts, has had a sobering effect on western politicians. It has driven a consensus amongst many of them, including Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders in the UK, that a top priority is the reduction of the structural deficit and that cuts in government spending is the best way to achieve this.

As a result of all this, voluntary associations, charities, NGOs, businesses and faith communities are set to become the true agents of change in western societies, rather than professional politicians.

Faith groups in particular are aware of the coming shift. Recent statements by Faithworks, and by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, make it clear that voters should not to be seduced into thinking that Government is a social cure-all.

Judging by their recent interviews and speeches, it won't be politicians that turn out to be the seducers. All three candidates to become British Prime Minister are repeating the message that real change needs to come from the bottom up, where in communities across the country it is voluntary associations, driven by a sense of purpose, that see lives transformed.

But resisting a seduction is not the same as exercising mistrust. Indeed, representative democracy, however inadequate, is something that should inspire our trust. Viewed historically and globally, it is a rare achievement, made possible only through the struggle of previous generations. And it embodies many of the same ideals that are prized by voluntary organizations, such as liberty, justice and responsibility, all of which are central to scriptural traditions.

At a time when most of the world's poor live under regimes in which the abrogation of these principles is flaunted, this is not the time to lose faith in democracy. But it is time to do democracy differently.

Peter Heslam

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voluntary private associations are set to become the true agents of social change
representative democracy
is a rare achievement, embodying liberty, justice and responsibility