COVID-19: An Opportunity to Reinstate Democratic Deliberativeness

Dr Myriam Hunter-Henin, Reader in Law & Religion and Comparative Law (UCL Laws), explores democratic decision-making during the Covid-19 pandemic. She is the author of Why Religious Freedom Matters for Democracy: Comparative Reflections from Britain and France for a Democratic Vivre Ensemble (Hart 2020).


For all the tragic consequences they bring and the uncertainties they trigger, pandemics are also bearers of truth: they reveal the helplessness or vitality of our decision-making processes and the underlying structures of social inequalities.[1] The latter have raised particular concerns. The narrative that “we are all in this together”[2] soon crumbled under the weight of social, economic and racial divisions, which the pandemic and the confinement only heightened.[3] The former, the health of our decision-making procedures, has attracted less attention. Yet, problems associated with our democratic decision-process, particularly the lack of deliberativeness, is also a sign as well as a source of the aforementioned inequalities. As for these inequalities, they have taken on more salience in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Times of crisis are not usually conducive to vibrant political deliberation. On the contrary, for the sake of efficiency, emergency measures and concentration of powers often lurk in the background.[4] Nonetheless, the current pandemic seems to have revived the appetite of civil society in the UK for greater engagement with/from state institutions. Recent calls for post-mortem examination of political decisions as to the timing of lockdown thus revolve around the extent to which the government sufficiently engaged with scientific advice. Similarly, it was the lack of prior consultation, this time with teachers, parents and unions, which attracted the most virulent criticisms against the government’s decision to partly reopen schools in England. There may be slight cause for optimism in these calls for consultation and reason-based decisions.

Compared to recent times in which experts were clearly dismissed from public debate, the pandemic may be an encouragement for a wider and more informed participation. Several qualifications immediately spring to mind. Consultation with stakeholders will only enhance deliberativeness if it is of the requisite quality: consultation with stakeholders does not necessarily create a space for open exchange between official and participant views.[5] Moreover, the incentive for such consultation may be purely short term, hence its effects short-lived. The government may engage with stakeholders merely to avoid taking unrealistic decisions, which would then provoke resistance on the ground and force decision-makers into subsequent volte-face.

Such pragmatic considerations, whilst important, would tend to restrict deliberation to implementation questions. Finally, consultation—even if of the requisite scope and quality—will only achieve democratic deliberation if it is carried out in a climate supportive of free expression. Restricted parliamentary debates,[6] the propagation of conspiracy theories on social media[7] and press conferences reduced to official briefings averse to questioning will affect meaningful engagement between state institutions and civil society.

Beyond all the caution imposed by the above qualifications, the COVID-19 pandemic may therefore have revived a lost appetite for deliberativeness in the UK’s public sphere. If so, this would be one positive outcome of these terrible times.  As I have argued elsewhere, in another context of controversies over religious freedom, deliberativeness lies at the heart of an inclusive democratic vivre ensemble.[8]


[1] See in the context of another pandemic, the analysis carried out by Richard J. Evans Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830–1910 Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 1987.

[2] On the tensions between solidarity and inequalities heightened by the pandemic, see https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/we-are-all-together-human-rights-and-covid-19-response-and

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/25/covid-19-pandemic-shines-a-light-on-a-new-kind-of-class-divide-and-its-inequalities

[4] K. D. Ewing (2020) “Covid-19: Government by Decree”, King’s Law Journal 31:1, 1-24.

[5] John Morison, ‘Citizen Participation: A Critical Look at the Democratic Adequacy of Government Consultations’ Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, (2017), pp. 1–24.

[6] See the enquiry launched to investigate the impact of Covid 19 on Parliament, https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/constitution-committee/news-parliament-2019/harris-hunt-evidence-session/

[7] On blame theories and pandemics, see Donald G McNeil Jr, ‘Finding a Scapegoat When Epidemics Strike’, 31 August 2009 https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/health/01plague.html.

[8] Myriam Hunter-Henin, Why Religious Freedom Matters for Democracy. Comparative Reflections from Britain and France for a Democratic Vivre Ensemble, Hart, Comparative Public Law Series, 2020.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.


Featured image: Boris Johnson Covid-19 Presser 11/05 by Number 10 on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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