They also serve

In The Joy of Politics I defined politics, after Kenneth Minogue, in contradistinction to despotism, and then challenged my readers to imagine a legitimate political system that was not democratic.

In the following excerpt of a commentary for Reuters, John Lloyd riffs along similar lines about politicians, citizens, and civil servants.

“Democracy does not simply reside in governments, and the behavior and policies of their leaders. It […] takes root, in the actions and aspirations of citizens.

“These citizens, crucially, include civil servants. These are servants of governments, but are also civil, belonging to the civis, to the citizen, the Latin root given early democratic power by the status of a Roman citizen in its republican incarnation. Thus there is a tension in the phrase “civil servant,” which expresses the tension inherent in being part of a state bureaucracy. Government bureaucrats serve presidents, or prime ministers – but not at their whim. Civil service is not servitude; it implies reciprocity. In return, there must be observation, by those in power, of the democratic limits. It is one of the many features which distinguish democracies from authoritarian states – where service is servitude.

“Essential to these states which are not authoritarian – especially those with an authoritarian past – is that politicians are able to fulfil at least the minimal responsibilities of their calling. These are to protect the democratic mechanisms and civilities which brought them to and sustain them in power. They also serve: they have the huge privilege of serving the citizens. […]

“There is still, when tested, vigorous life in democracy and civil society. Populists do express popular frustrations, which have strong foundations. They are right to seek power to address them. But democracy demands responsibility: to explain the down- as well as the upsides of policies, to work through the institutions which maintain necessary checks on supreme power, to separate legitimate remedial action from mere (even if popular) prejudice. Civility, civil servants – and powerful administration officials – can save us from an eventual abyss, and give us hope that a decline is not irreversible.”


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