On the surface both Great Britain and America fulfil all the basic requirements of democracy, they have universal suffrage, and both governments are regularly held accountable to the people. However, when it comes to judging which is the most democratic, you have to look at how each system works. When looking at the governmental systems up close it is easy to see them both as being less than full democratic.
In both the UK and USA any citizen, be they male or female, black or white, has the right to vote in elections, as long as they are over eighteen years old. This universal suffrage is something that is desperately needed if a country is going to be democratic, for if some citizens are excluded from the right to vote then a government is obviously not democratic because not everyone who lives in that country is getting a chance to say how they want it to be run.
Similarly, the fact that both governments are regularly held accountable to the people makes them democratic, however, looking more closely at the details means that, in this instance, America is slightly more democratic. In the US the date of elections are fixed for every two, four or six years, the candidates are elected in November and inaugurated in January, and those dates cannot be changed. But in the UK, the Prime Minister can set the date of the election himself, as long as it does not exceed a five year gap between elections. This means that the election can be set to coincide with good publicity for the PM and their Party, or to avoid bad news. This facet of elections means that America is slightly more democratic because their politicians are more accountable, they cannot be shielded from their fate, and have to stand before the electorate, no matter what.
America’s democratic claims are also reinforced by the strict separation of powers that is stipulated in the Constitution. The Executive has no direct influence in Congress, Congress has no power over the Executive, and the Judiciary has no power over either, and cannot be influenced by either. Because of this there is no chance for a President to form a dictatorship because, theoretically at least, the system of checks and balances protect democracy. However, in the UK the executive is inextricably linked with the legislative as the Prime Minister is a Member of Parliament, as are all the other Ministers. This means that the Executive has the potential to dominate Parliament, regardless of other viewpoints. This means that America is more democratic in this respect the legislative body cannot be overtly controlled (though it may be subtly manipulated) by the Executive.
Also, both the Prime Minister and the President have impressive powers of appointment. They can both select senior judges, ambassadors and many other senior figures, but the difference is that the President’s nominations have to be ratified by the Senate, while there is little to stop the Prime Minister nominating whoever he wants for a particular position. In this way America is more democratic because the President cannot arbitrarily appoint someone to a particular post. Such was the case of Harriet Miers, Bush nominated her for the Supreme Court when she had no experience as a Judge and had worked with him for years. Although she withdrew her application, the Senate probably would not have ratified her appointment, thus proving America’s democracy.
Added to this is the larger number of elected positions in America officials like town Sheriffs are elected, while far more in the UK are simply appointed. Although the Conservative leader David Cameron has said he will introduce elections for offices like Police Commissioners if he is elected. In this way America is more democratic because the people have a greater say in who runs their country at all levels.
Contrasting this though, is the fact that the British Executive may be held accountable more frequently than elections would allow through Prime Minister’s Question Time and other departmental question times. In these sessions the government is questioned on all of its activities by the opposition, and their own party, meaning that, theoretically, the Executive shouldn’t be able to keep important secrets from the people and become too overpowering, instead they are frequently reminded of the fact that they work for the people. However, in the States the President and his Ministers are not faced with these sessions, and so are not held accountable so often. In this way Britain is more democratic.
Another strike against American democracy is the influence that money has on elections. Without money it is very hard, virtually impossible, to win a campaign in America, hence the high percentage on incumbents that get re-elected, because during their term in office they have created the network of contacts that can fund their campaigns. This makes it very hard for a new people to break into American politics unless they have somehow collected the money. However, in Britain, money is not so stifling in elections; this is partly because campaigns are shorter, taking weeks instead of a year, and because in the UK general election candidates are guaranteed time on the TV and radio, and can take advantage of the national press, while in the US everything has to be bought. In this way the UK is more democratic than America.
Also, the Electoral College system distorts public opinion. All the Electoral College votes for a particular state go to the candidate who received the most votes in that state, even if it was 50.5% to 49.5%. In this way the election results do not truly reflect public opinion, which really doesn’t aid American democracy. But in the UK elections aren’t much more democratic because the First Past The Post system also distorts popular opinion, as was seen in the 2005 election when the Conservatives won more votes but fewer seats than Labour. So in reference to electoral systems neither country is overly more democratic.
America is known as the greatest democracy in the world, and Britain has been called the mother of all democracy, yet, if you look more closely at the governmental systems you will see many points that reflect an undemocratic quality in both countries. But, though there is not much to choose between them, the US is less democratic, largely because of the enormous influence money has on American politics, if you’re not wealthy it is very hard to break into politics, and even is you are, as in the case of Ross Perot, the strict two-party system also makes it more difficult. The UK is not a lot more democratic, but the fact that money isn’t such an issue means that politics is more accessible to a wider number of people, as long as they want to get involved. But the fact is that a pure democracy is often unworkable, and it may be that democracy has to be partially sacrificed in order to have an effective and efficient government.