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Question for the Week. Democracy: Do We Know What It Is?

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 48th week, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this series of posts, which may go on for ever, I’m posing questions to elicit that most elusive of human activities: thought! Oh no: surely I’m not expecting people to use their most hungry organ and engage in a process unique to the species? I’m afraid so.

These posts won’t always necessarily represent my ideas or opinions, though they’re bound to be influenced by them. They’ll raise questions on many different topics in the hope of generating discussion, engaging imagination or simply encouraging the questioning of beliefs, opinions and attitudes. I’m a writer, and the essence of writing lies in asking questions.

democracy

The latest figures I could find (for 2012/13) rank Norway as the most democratic country, with UK coming in at number 13 and USA lagging behind at 16. But do we know what we mean by democracy? I’ll give a couple of definitions from respected sources, as a starter:

SOED:

Democracy: Government by the people; a form of government in which the power resides in the people and is exercised by them either directly or by means of elected representatives; a form of society which favours equal rights, the ignoring of hereditary class distinctions, and tolerance of minority views.

Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Parliamentary democracy: democratic form of government in which the party (or a coalition of parties) with the greatest representation in the parliament (legislature) forms the government, its leader becoming prime minister or chancellor. Executive functions are exercised by members of the parliament appointed by the prime minister to the cabinet. The parties in the minority serve in opposition to the majority and have the duty to challenge it regularly. The prime minister may be removed from power whenever he loses the confidence of a majority of the ruling party or of the parliament. Parliamentary democracy originated in Britain (see Parliament) and was adopted in several of its former colonies.

And:

Bertrand Russell famously, and cynically, defined democracy thus: ‘Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.’

I live in the UK, so my interest lies mainly in that group of small islands. In May 2015 we voted for a new government, or, to be more accurate, 66% of those eligible used the power of their right to influence the nature of that government. Was the process democratic? Is this land of ours really a democracy?

We currently have a government in power that gained a little over a third of the votes cast. And, if you look at the entire electorate, including those who didn’t vote, the current party gained support from around a quarter of the people. So, three quarters of the population didn’t vote for the party in power. (These figures are rounded for ease). The current Conservative Government, however, like all political parties before them in power, behave as though they have a mandate from, or an authority to act on behalf of, the people of the UK. Clearly they have no such authority.

So, the basic principle of democracy, that the power resides in the people, fails. The UK is not democratic.

But, of course, we have a Parliamentary Democracy, which enables voters to empower elected representatives to put forward their views. Do we have a democracy under these rules?

Well, no. The electoral system is so poorly devised that it allows a political party to gain more power than that actually suggested by the number of votes it attracts. If we look at votes cast, the Conservatives would have only 37% of the seats available, i.e. 240 seats; far from a majority. The Green Party, with 3.8% of the vote should have 24 seats, but only have 1. And UKIP (like them or loathe them), with 12.6% of the vote, should have 81 seats; they actually have 1 as well. I use these figures to illustrate the point that the people of the UK are now governed by representatives far from representative of their actual wishes.

So, we don’t even have democracy under the odd rules of a Parliamentary Democracy.

One further example I’d like to put forward (one of many such available). Our MPs in UK are supposed to represent the wishes of the electorate. They are, after all, our representatives and we pay them, which presumably means they are supposed to represent the wishes of their constituents. However, in a recent free vote, MPs voted against a change in the law relating to assisted suicide for those with terminal illness. This, in spite of the fact that a poll shows that 82% of the population support the proposed change.

So, the elected representatives of the UK people do not put into practice a major plank of democracy, but, instead, abuse their power by insisting that they know best, rather like a nursery teacher dealing with naughty infants.

My conclusion is that the UK does not operate a democratic system of government by any measure of the term. I’d be interested in your views on the subject and your ideas of what we can and should do about it.

My own ideas for improvement include a compulsory voting system with proportional representation, coupled with an election system that replaces only a proportion of the MPs at any one time (say a third), so that we avoid the inevitable and damaging short-termism that comes with fixed-term parliaments. Of course, it should go without saying that the upper house, the ludicrously expensive House of Lords, should initially be stripped of all hereditary peers, who are there simply due to an accident of birth, and the unrepresentative bishops (less than 10% of the population attend any church), and ultimately replaced with a second chamber consisting entirely of elected representatives. The whole power base should be moved out of the unsuitable buildings currently housing them at huge cost, and placed in a centrally located (somewhere near the middle of the country) purpose built circular chamber, to remove the constant bipartisan conflict that bedevils politics in the UK. Perhaps an attempt at consensus politics would bring the UK closer to the democratic ideal. Just a thought.

I’ve had my say. I welcome and encourage your input. Please feel free to be as vocal and passionate as you wish, but please don’t be rude to others who comment. Politeness costs so little after all.

Here are some useful links for those who are interested.

Counties by Democratic Ranking

Quality of Democracy

World Democracy and Freedom

EB on Dictatorship

EB on Democracy

UK General Election Results from Parliament.

12 Responses to “Question for the Week. Democracy: Do We Know What It Is?”

    • stuartaken

      I think the USA, like the UK, is probably largely ruled by the money men, the accountants and financial whizz kids for whom everything is about the bottom line. Soulless and unimaginative and addicted to money. As you say, DM, very sad.

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  1. stuartaken

    I see your point, Mick. The ‘mob’ mentality has ever been a threat to civilisation. However, I suspect that most of the hype surrounding such hysteria is actually restricted to the publications themselves and simply exaggerated by these gutter press organisations. My suspicion (to a small extent informed by my time as a press photographer on a local paper) is that most members of the public are very aware of the tricks and devices used by the media to sell their wares and take much of what they read with a pinch of salt. It’s undoubtedly the case that the public is fed huge quantities of negative press on a great many topics, yet when you talk to people you learn that they are either unaware of the message of the moment or they view the reporting with deep scepticism. Of course, there is always a vocal minority, and they are generally the ones who receive maximum press coverage. So, we get hours of pictures of rioting in a given location but never hear a word about the millions more who view this activity with disgust. The majority is, most of the time, silent. But that doesn’t mean it is ineffective. It’s informative that many people in the USA were deeply concerned at the antics of the ‘UnAmerican’ committees of the McCarthy era, and it was mainly the leaders, politicians and government agencies that considered communism the dire threat that McCarthy tried to make it.
    I think people are generally more intelligent and sensible than the authorities and the media, with their vested interest, would have us believe.

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    • Mick Canning

      Since people are usually pretty decent and generally sensible as individuals (i.e. when not in a group), then you are probably right. Certainly, I would hope you are. I do work at times with groups of disaffected young people, and find that when you talk to them away from the pressure of being with their peers, and having to conform to their expectations, they are usually thoroughly agreeable and sensible individuals.

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    • stuartaken

      I can’t comment on the others, but Thatcher was probably the worst leader this country has ever had. Dictatorial, bullying, totally lacking in compassion and a worshipper of greed. She and her government are entirely responsible for the current social inequality in the UK. She destroyed industries, elevated selfishness to a desirable status and condemned the very idea of society. I was so disappointed; I’d naively hoped that having a female leader would inject some compassion into politics, but she did the exact opposite and was more ‘macho’ than the men she surrounded herself with. I suspect that her reign (she came across as someone who thought she was the Queen) has actually set back the possibility of another female leader of UK for decades. Definitely one of the leaders who illustrates the point that leaders are bad for the world.

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  2. noelleg44

    Good post Stuart! While I can’t speak for our cousins across the pond, I can tell you why the US is 16th with regard to democracy. We have a President who is only President for some, makes treaties on his own without Congress, creates taxes without Congress, and changes laws passed by Congress unilaterally to suit his own ends, He lives and vacations like a Czar. We have a Congress of elected individuals who, as soon as they are elected, forget all about the people who elected them and behave and vote to benefit themselves and live above the laws they pass. Democracy? Not here!

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    • stuartaken

      Yes, Noelle, you have election by TV, something that is rapidly becoming the case here. If only the wealthy can enter the field of politics, then democracy is handicapped from the start and any development of the system will naturally lean toward the wealthy in society. Poverty quickly becomes an inconvenient distraction to be swept under the carpet and blamed on the poor. As we all know, power corrupts and the greater the power given to any individual or group of individuals the more likely they are to be corrupted. Your system, like that in the UK, tends toward short term gain for the few rather than long term benefit for all. I don’t know what name we could give to these political systems, (capitalist dictatorships, perhaps?) but it certainly isn’t true democracy!
      Perhaps the real problem lies in having leaders at all. Now, there’s a subject for a blog post!

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  3. Mick Canning

    Good post, Stuart. Interestingly (although perhaps not wholly surprisingly), I agree with about 95% of your comments and proposals, but disagree with the thoughts about reflecting the opinions of the population as a whole (your example, the Assisted Dying Bill). If MPs were required to echo the opinions of the electorate, we would probably have (for example) the death penalty for a number of crimes. That alone reminds me that our elected representatives, for what it is worth, are there because we supposedly trust them to debate and analyse topics in a more measured way (Yes, I’m talking about the House of Commons – don’t laugh) than the population at large. Obviously, no system is perfect, and heaven knows we need proportional representation, a way to ensure better voter participation, reform of the upper chamber and all those other things that you mention, but on that one topic alone I think we have to accept ‘the will of the House’.

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    • stuartaken

      Thanks for your comment, Mick. The question was really about democracy and what it actually means, of course. If we are to have a true democracy, then decisions should be made according to the wishes of the majority of the people, not according to the wishes of representatives that don’t actually represent the views of their constituents. It’s true that a result of such a system would be that some decisions would not find favour with all. That is the nature of democracy in its truest form. Whether we agree with majority decisions or not, in a democracy it is supposed to be the majority decision that prevails. The majority of people in the UK support capital punishment for certain crimes. If we have a democracy, then that is what should happen, regardless of our personal opinions. Otherwise, what we have is a system that allows the so-called representative politicians to build up any excuse to let them make unpopular decisions simply because they view such activity as expedient. This allows politicians to excuse party activity on the grounds that they ‘know better’, when, in fact, they frequently do not know any better at all. An example of this is their insistence on remaining in a building which is placed in London, encouraging London-centric policies; a building which costs a fortune to maintain and is utterly unsuited to the task. Any common sense approach to government would place Parliament in a geographically central location and in a building with a circular chamber to prevent the constant conflict that bedevils UK politics.
      Democracy has been described as the lesser of the known evils of governance. My own view is that we would be better off with a system that provided proper education for all and then employed anarchism (that is, the minimum rule of law), rather than the current system that simply allows lawyers to devise a legal system so complex it must rely on their expensive services. That’s obviously an idealist viewpoint, but, in the absence of the ideal, I’d prefer to see a proper democracy, rather than the mishmash we currently tolerate, even if that would mean that some popular decisions went against my personal views.

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      • Mick Canning

        I do take your point, Stuart, but I cannot escape the memories of times when newspapers (for example) and leaders whipped up a kind of hysteria, a mass frenzy, on topics as diverse as paedophiles, benefit ‘scroungers’ and communists. had the prevailing mood been taken into consideration at those times, we might be saddled with some really nasty laws now.

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