What are the principles of good governance?

By Steve Atherton, Justice & Peace fieldworker

The campaign that led up to the referendum on membership of the European Union raised questions about the way we do politics here in the United Kingdom. I wrote in the Pic a few months ago that most of us vote with our feelings, making our decisions on emotional rather than intellectual grounds. This was borne out by the level of debate during the campaign.

In Switzerland they hold a referendum whenever there is a big decision to make but, thank goodness, our democratic system is different. We elect representatives to Parliament where they hold debates, both in the chamber and in committees, and make decisions on our behalf. We have access to our MPs and can vote them out at election time. The horror of the murder of Jo Cox brought home that most of our politicians are honest and trustworthy. When we invoke democracy as a precious and integral part of what it means to be a modern state, we mean more than being asked to vote on every single issue that needs a decision.

We use the word 'democracy' as shorthand for the values we take for granted: a country that is secular, progressive, liberal and free. A democracy provides freedom to walk the streets safely, to bring up a family, to worship in accordance with our beliefs, to be protected from poverty, to have access to health care, to be treated equally under the law, to disagree with the government and to do so in public. Democracy protects our freedoms. The secular state is important because it creates the space where all religious beliefs can be held rather than only the state religion. There are many countries at the moment where it is dangerous to be Christian.

Within our secular state of the UK we are free to promote the deeply challenging principles that Catholic Social Teaching helps to make clear: respect for human dignity, the common good and the preferential option for the poor. What would our way of doing politics look like if we used these principles as the measure for how we behave as a nation?

Human dignity: all life is to be cherished, from conception to natural death; all people have equal dignity regardless of talents, race, gender or other accidents of birth; people are to be encouraged to become the best possible version of themselves. The common good: the goods of the world are gifts from God to be enjoyed by all, not by a chosen few; we are called to work for this, not to leave it for someone else to do; this will not be easy because it goes against our selfish instincts. It asks us to be universal in our view of the inheritance of the world's goods. It asks us to take risks. It asks us to trust. The preferential option for the poor: we look after the weakest members of society; the broken, the damaged, the lost and abandoned are to be our priority because we too are all of those things but for the gifts we have been given. This is the hardest to put into practice – but it was the practice of Jesus.

This article was written before the EU referendum result was known.