Democracy’s basic commitments were simply expressed in Lincoln’s 1862 Gettysburg address at the culmination of the American Civil War over slavery. It contained two principles. Firstly, dedication to “the proposition that all men are created equal’, and, secondly, to ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. These principles had been previously set out in the American Declaration of Independence which had asserted man’s ‘unalienable Rights’ to ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. If government failed to uphold those rights then ‘it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government’.
The stated intent was that all humanity would at last be treated as a whole, rather than differentiating between competing sub-groups of the population, defined by race, religion or any other classification. Should a sub-group be excluded from such processes they should have access to remedy. Should a sub-group be enabled to circumvent those principles and in so doing, exploit the rest, it would be a clear democratic malfunction in need of correction.
All ‘men’ may have been created equal, and in terms of innate potential, that certainly appears to be the case. However, not all people have been permitted lives where their equality has been allowed fulfillment. That is not unique to the US, but an aspect of the human condition in most societies. Moreover, it is a widespread, if not universal, experience that a single sub-group of populations is permitted to manipulate systems for their own benefit, no matter the harm that might be done to others.
The United Nations Charter of 1945 declared its members’ determination “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.” That declaration was subsequently adopted by the UN General Assembly and later incorporated in the European Convention on Human Rights, agreed by member states of the Council of Europe, with its acceptance being a condition of entry for any nations wishing to join, enacted also by the UK Human Rights Act 1998.
The fundamental message of this internationally agreed legislation, is that individuals should all enjoy the same rights to life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the same fundamental rights of others.
The most basic human right is that of a minimum living standard available to all. That is the foundation on which the pursuit of happiness rests. Its delivery is the first responsibility of democratic government. The 1942 Beveridge Report identified freedoms from what were referred to as the five giant evils in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Post second world war, UK democracy addressed the five giant evils through the provision of public housing, improved state education, basic welfare payments for the poor, disabled and elderly, the provision of unemployment benefits and acceptance of government responsibility to maintain full employment as far as possible, and the establishment of the National Health Service.
By the 21st century, discriminating against anyone on the grounds of their ethnicity had become illegal in most countries. And most advanced nations also upheld laws which proscribe discrimination against any individual because of their gender, religion or belief, age, disability, sexual orientation or gender reassignment. Discrimination against anyone on any of these grounds is now illegal in most situations.
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