Government usually operates under the restrictive nature of a constitution whether it be written or not. A constitution often puts limitations on government, telling the incumbent government what it can do but, more importantly, what it cannot do. Within Britain, the Law Lords in the House of Lords have the final say in interpreting our unwritten constitution though the European Courts are likely to play a more increased role in this aspect as Europe becomes more integrated.
The word “government” refers to the party in power in the House of Commons and also to individuals who have specific power within certain fields – such as the government of transport, the government of education etc.
Another aspect of government in a democracy is that everybody accepts what a democratically elected government wishes to introduce. As a majority of the electorate voted in the government, it is accepted convention that its policies are accepted by the people on whose behalf they run the country. For the period of time the government is in power, the way the country is run is effectively handed over to the government by the people. In recent years, there have been successful challenges to government policy outside of the law courts : the Poll Tax was abandoned because of actual physical challenges to it by street demonstrations; the issue of bannig fox hunting in Britain, may or may not be pushed through because of street demonstrations.
There has been a trend in recent years for unpopular bills to be challenged by the public – one could argue that this is pure democracy if the number of people involved represented a majority of the people in the country who believed that the government had got it wrong.
Within Britain, the government has the right to levy taxes, declare war, initiate both foreign and domestic policies, control the military etc. How far these will be eroded in the future is difficult to determine. The pro-England nationalists claim that all these governmental rights will be lost to a federal Europe and that “Britain’s government” will cease to exist.
Democracy is a frequently used word but its meaning is rarely fully understood. A democratic political system is one in which the ultimate political authority is vested in the people. The word democracy comes from the Greek words “demos” which means the people and “kratos” which means authority.
Individualism, which holds that the primary task of government is to enable each individual to achieve the highest potential of development.
Liberty, which allows each individual the greatest amount of freedom consistent with order.
Equality, which maintains that all persons are created equal and have equal rights and opportunities.
Fraternity, which postulates that individuals will not misuse their freedom but will co-operate in creating a wholesome society.
As a political system, democracy starts with the assumption of popular sovereignty, vesting ultimate power in the people. It presupposes that people can control their destiny and that they can make moral judgements and practical decisions in their day lives. In implies a continuing search for truth in the sense of humanity’s pursuit of improved ways of building social institutions and ordering human relations. Democracy requires a decision-making system based on majority rule, with minority rights protected.
Effective guarantees of freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, petition and of equality before the law are indispensable to a democratic system of government. Politics, parties and politicians are the catalytic agents that make democracy workable.
For a number of centuries democracy was regarded as a dangerous and unworkable doctrine. It took a hold in the western world during the C19 and C20 and was attacked by both extreme left and right wing political groups. There are those who condemn it as mob rule that vulgarises society and as a belief that tolerates mediocrity and incompetence. It has also been criticised as a sham – a belief that can’t work as it goes against human nature. i.e. a government will claim to be democratic in name but in practice it will decide what it will do for the people as an election victory has given it the public mandate to do this but it will rarely – if at all – use referendums to fully find out what the public think about potential legislation during the life time of that government.
Plano and Greenberg believe that for democracy to work in its purest form it needs to have certain pre-requisites. Society has to be educated and responsible. The state must have a degree of economic stability. Social cohesion and social consensus must exist. Above all, it requires the acceptance of the democratic “rules of the game” :
that there should be frequent and fair elections.
that the losers must accept the verdict of the public and allow the majority to govern.
that the majority will respect the right of the minority to provide the government with opposition
if the minority wins a future election, it will be permitted to take over the reins of government.
Can democracy ever be created in its most perfect form? It is argued that if governments try to move in the direction of democracy then they have the right to be labelled democratic. Democracy found in western Europe was given a huge boost in the 1980s and 1990s when many communist governments gave way to what were termed democratic ones. The same thing is occurring in the Third World which is further undermining the hold of authoritarian regimes but giving a further boost to western style democracy.