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Worrying trends about democracy

Mike McCartney

19th April 2022

A new survey talks of a collapse in support for the status quo

According to an article in the Observer (10/04/22):

"A dramatic loss of faith in the ability of British democracy to serve the interests of UK voters is revealed in a new report that finds that donors to political parties and big businesses are now commonly viewed by the electorate as the main drivers of government policy."

Before we go on to briefly consider the contents of the article, there is time for a recap.

How about defining democracy?

  • Defined as a system of government where the people either make political decisions themselves or have direct influence upon them.
  • In a democracy people have free access to information.
  • Government is elected and is accountable to the people.
  • The rule of law applies.
  • There is a peaceful transfer of power from one government to the next.
  • Government is carried on in the interests of the people.
  • There is a high degree of political freedom.

What about explaining ‘liberal democracy’

  • The term used to describe most, modern established western democracies such as Britain or the USA.
  • It is characterised by free and fair elections.
  • Government is limited, usually by a constitution.
  • Government is accountable to the people.
  • The rule of law applies with all citizens equal under the law and government itself subject to legal constraints. This implies an independent judiciary.
  • There is normally some degree of separation of powers between branches of government, with internal checks and balances – implying a strong, entrenched constitution.
  • There are special arrangements, often a ‘bill of rights’, protecting the rights of individuals and minorities.
  • The transition of power from one government to the next is peaceful, i.e. the losing parties accept the authority of the winners.
  • The existence of representative institutions.
  • There is free access to independent (from government) sources of political information. This implies freedom of expression and free media.
  • It is described as ‘liberal’ largely because it conforms to the nineteenth century philosophies of political liberalism as expounded by such figures as James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and John Stuart Mill, as well as being contained in the founding principles of the United Nations.

Lastly we can think generally about whether Britain can be described is a true democracy

  • We could say that there are free elections. Virtually all are entitled to vote and stand for office. Elections in Britain are, by and large, fairly run and there is little corruption. However there is a strong argument that elections to the Westminster Parliament are unfair (include material demonstrating the distorting effects of first past the post). Elections to devolved assemblies, however, are fairer.
  • The existence of an elected, accountable House of Commons is a positive element, but the House of Lords (to date anyway) remains unelected and so fails the ‘democracy test’.
  • All citizens are represented by an MP and can expect their grievances to be taken up and represented to public bodies by MPs. But sleaze and corruption like the MPs’ expenses scandal, and a whole host of others we could mention here, has caused the public to wonder whose interests are elected representatives are willing to put first.
  • Britain has now passed the Human Rights Act so the European Convention is binding on most public bodies. However, legal experts have pointed out that the ECHR has only been applied in a tiny number of cases, and most of the victories secured would have happened without reference to the ECHR.
  • There is a free, independent civil society, with many parties and pressure groups free to operate and to mobilise public opinion and represent popular demands to government. Though actions taken against public demonstrators, such as the G20 demo where people were detained for up to eight hours, or the treatment by police at the Sarah Everard vigil, put this into question.
  • There is a free media which is not controlled by government so the public have access to independent sources of information. That said, newspapers have no obligation to be politically neutral and may distort the message.
  • The rule of law applies and is protected by a largely independent judiciary. But statistical evidence shows that when the government is challenged in the courts it still wins far more cases than it loses.
  • There are a number of general criticisms of the British political system which can be added to the assessment. These include: the persistence of unelected elements such as the monarchy and House of Lords, the lack of separation of powers and therefore, arguably, an over-powerful executive and the lack of a codified, entrenched constitution.

So, back to the article and its disturbing, but unsurprising, findings:

"The study traces growing dissatisfaction with advanced democracies worldwide over recent decades, reflected in falling turnout at elections, falling party memberships, and more people switching loyalties, including to populist alternatives."

What is particularly worrying is nearly non-existent faith in the system among the youth:

"Young UK adults (18-24) are least likely to say democracy serves them well (just 19% say it operates well against 55% who say badly), while those aged 65 and over are most likely to say it is working for them (46% say well and 47% badly.)"

Read the full article here.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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