Samara attends the Canada-UK Colloquium in London

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Happening Now Thursday, November 30, 2017 View Count = 2557

Samara attends the Canada-UK Colloquium in London

Two weeks ago, Samara Canada joined the Canadian delegation to the Canada-UK Colloquium in London, England. This annual event started 46 years ago to create a regular learning exchange between two countries that share many things, including democratic institutions like parliament, values like the rule of law and freedoms, security in multi-lateral bodies like NATO and the Five Eyes and, of course, common policy challenges.

Executive Director Jane Hilderman participated on Samara's behalf and writes about her experience in today's blog.


The Canada-UK Colloquium tackles a different policy subject each year. Last year it was the environment, next year it will be artificial intelligence, but this year it was “dilemmas of democracy.” 
As the attendance is kept small, at around 50 people, I was really pleased to participate on Samara’s behalf. Chatham House rules applied to our discussions, but I'd like to share some of the observations and themes (unattributed) that most struck me.

The topic shapes the membership of the delegations, which this year included senior and emerging academics, senior public servants, journalists, parliamentarians and a handful of non-governmental organizations. The UK’s Minister for the Constitution and Canada’s Minister of Democratic Institutions both addressed the Colloquium as well.

With the Brits serving as hosts, at the Palace of Westminster no less, the fallout of Brexit was a significant backdrop to this colloquium. Indeed, it didn’t take long into our first morning to come to grips with how much bandwidth Brexit is taking up across government. Despite the focus, there is little consensus as to how the Brexit negotiations will proceed. Without the 2016 referendum (48.1% voted to remain; 51.9% to leave with 72.2% turnout), the UK wouldn’t be in its present throes of angst and uncertainty. This prompted a significant discussion, given Canada’s own history with referenda, about the appropriate conditions for referenda, how results can be interpreted–and the sticky issue of whether Parliamentarians can, and should, reverse the decision of “the people” if evidence suggests irreparable damage to the national economic outlook.

Other “dilemmas” discussed are highly salient to both Canada and the UK at this moment. There is real concern that digital technology is dramatically changing the information environment for citizens and is able to exploit vulnerabilities in our own cognitive biases on a scale not seen before. The question is whether the right to freedom of speech can be maintained in the face of disinformation and misinformation campaigns. The regulatory framework for this problem is just beginning to take shape.

A few other thoughts that have stayed with me since the Colloquium ended:

First: Has democracy become vulnerable because there hasn’t been enough effort, energy and creativity dedicated to “selling” democracy at home? Did complacency set in as World War II appeared smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror, such that citizens need to hear why democracy matters? This reminded me of Samara’s Cannes Young Lions project earlier this year that tackled the “sales” question with the talents of young marketers–in short, you don’t see these types of ads all that frequently, so it makes me wonder if there’s some truth to the idea that democracy could use a marketing agency!

Second: There was a healthy exchange around the idea that falling levels of trust in democratic institutions are tied to rising economic inequality. If true, the policy response to falling rates of voting, etc., is a little counter-intuitive–better distribution of wealth. Others at the conference held that falling levels of trust were documented well before the middle class plateaued in their earnings and wealth. I’m not wholly convinced that economic inequities are the root cause of democratic malaise–for one, it implies institutions are off the hook when it comes to reforming and modernizing their work so that citizens can be better included.

Third: I’m afraid I didn’t depart with a greater sense of clarity as to a path for democratic renewal. If anything, I was reminded that some recommendations have been raised again and again for decades, such as the desire for elected representatives to seize their power and behave more independently. Other familiar terrain like electoral reform and citizens’ assemblies were also discussed. I wish there had been someone at the Colloquium with insights into how artificial intelligence might change our institutions (surely, if AI is coming for truck driving, it will come to legislatures, too).


Following the Colloquium, I went for a short run only to stumble across the fields of Runnymede, site of the Magna Carta’s signing in 1215. This was where the Crown (with its absolute power) began to limit some of its powers, and even cede it to the people (well, the “people” being a certain set of noblemen). I imagine this was a compromise that neither King nor noblemen were wholly satisfied with, and yet, it was the initial reform that helped lead to the next, and the next, and the next. In the course of hundreds of years, we ended up with a parliament and elected governments!

Even seemingly small reforms can matter a lot. Perhaps that’s the best seed to carry forward in the work of strengthening democracy in places like Canada and the UK.

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