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.
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:
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.
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.
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.