What the complacent West must learn from Ukraine’s fight for democracy and self-determination – the importance of education for democratic citizenship

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The Council of Europe knows the importance of Education for Democratic Citizenship: has the complacent West taken it for granted?

Twenty years ago, Bernard Trafford worked with the Council of Europe on its Education for Democracy (EDC) project designed to “prepare young people to become participating, democratic adult citizens”. He reckons there’s a lesson for us to learn in the self-satisfied West.

It appears that Vladimir Putin undertook his invasion of Ukraine, with its disregard for human life and numerous examples of genocide, because he reckoned that the West, and even NATO, were too decadent and divided to represent any serious opposition to his plans.

At the time, that may not have been one of his crazier misjudgements. The UK and the USA, to name but two Western countries, had grown so complacent about their democracies that many commentators (perhaps Kremlin-sponsored, with hindsight?) were lining up to rubbish them and question their value.

Nowadays, lies, distortion, aggression and threats of violence are now widely accepted as routine parts of political life. I cannot be alone in feeling ashamed of our government, of its constant political shenanigans, of the lying, cronyism, rule-breaking and mud-slinging that have marred and dishonoured the Mother of Parliaments.

Possibly to his surprise, Putin’s criminal bellicosity and, in response, the heroic defiance of Ukraine and the refusal of its democratic neighbours to be cowed have focused minds and pulled the West together. There is a new determination among member states to commit fully to NATO, of others to join it, and of the West to unite against Putin’s aggression.

Democracy as something new – and challenging

We Brits, enjoying an old democracy, too easily take for granted things that to those nations which, until only thirty years ago, suffered under totalitarian regimes controlled by the Soviet Bloc, were new, exciting, but also challenging. Their citizens, their parents, their grandparents and, in many cases, generations far further back, had no previous experience, and therefore no inherited grasp, of what living in a democracy means and demands.

How could they? They had known only dictatorship, secret police, fear and indoctrination. At the end of the 1980s, they had taken to the streets, fought and died for the right to elect their own legitimate governments and determine their own futures.

Education for living in a democracy

Following the collapse of Soviet communism, then, the Council of Europe identified the need to prepare children for becoming active, engaged citizens, particularly in the new democracies.  Accordingly, it launched its Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education Project (EDC/HRE).

As the new century began, I had completed an extensive piece of research into spreading democratic practice (in effect, developing what’s now called Student Voice) in school.  To my surprise, someone had noticed my work, and the Council of Europe asked me to co-author, with a Swedish headteacher, a manual that, in the Council’s words, describes “how the journey down the road towards democracy tends to take shape, help readers to estimate how far their school has travelled so far, and offer practical advice on starting, continuing and evaluating the journey… in EDC”.

I loved my trips to Strasbourg, where EDC representatives from all 46 nations of the Council of Europe helped to plan the book, critiqued our work and finally approved the text which has been translated into at least 18 languages. I still treasure my expert badge, visible in the picture above.

Much to admire

I was humbled then by the passion for democracy in those newly-freed countries. Their determination to educate children to appreciate the nature of democracy was balanced by a realistic appreciation of the potential pitfalls, requiring the development of the skills of tolerance, compromise and consensus – and, indeed, friendship.

Disagreements were often dispelled by humour, by the readiness to compromise of people who shared goals, and by the pleasure of eating and drinking together as colleagues.

Recognising difficulties

Unsurprisingly, there was tension between the Balkan states which had comprised the former communist Yugoslavia. The Herzegovinians and Serbians kept their distance from the Croats: yet, on my last visit to Strasbourg, I was moved to see Kosovo attending as a separate state, recognised under the “validity of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244”.

Then there was the Russian rep, in an almost comically ill-fitting, buttoned-up suit, who displayed blank incomprehension at the concept of free democratic choice, let alone education for it. Better-informed commentators than I currently note that post-Soviet Russia moved so swiftly from totalitarianism to kleptocracy and into Putin’s dictatorship that its people were denied the opportunity to experience true democracy.

What next?

Ukraine’s remarkable president Zelensky seeks peace, but not at the cost of allowing Putin’s tyranny to triumph. How that can be achieved is hard to see at present.

Nonetheless, whenever and however this crisis is resolved, the West in general and the UK in particular must pause, take stock, stop taking democracy for granted and cease cheapening and undermining it. Instead, like those heroic nations to the East of us, we must put our own democratic house in order, and then set to work to teach our future citizens to value, protect and improve it.

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