Democracy is a word frequently used in British Politics. We are constantly told that we live in a democracy in Britain and that our political system is “democratic” and that nations that do not match these standards are classed as “undemocratic”. D Robertson, writing in 1986, stated that:


“Democracy is the most valued and also the vaguest of political terms in the modern world.”



Robertson continued by stating that the word only starts to mean something tangible in the modern world when it is prefixed with other political words, such as direct, representative, liberal and parliamentary.


Direct Democracy



This belief is based on the right of every citizen over a certain age to attend political meetings, vote on the issue being discussed at that meeting and accepting the majority decision should such a vote lead to a law being passed which you as an individual did not support.

Part of this belief, is the right of every one to hold political office if they choose to do so. Direct democracy also believes that all people who have the right to, should actively participate in the system so that it is representative of the people and that any law passed does have the support of the majority.

Direct democracy gives all people the right to participate regardless of religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, physical well being etc. Only those who have specifically gone against society are excluded from direct democracy. In Britain, those in prison have offended society in some way and, therefore, their democratic rights are suspended for the duration of their time in prison. Once released, and having ‘learnt a lesson’, their democratic rights are once again restored.

Direct democracy is fine in theory but it does not always match the theory when put into practice. Direct democracy requires full participation from those allowed to. But how many people have the time to commit themselves to attending meetings especially when they are held mid-week during an afternoon? How many wish to attend such meetings after a day’ work etc?

If Britain has 40 million people who can involve themselves in politics if they wish, how could such a number be accommodated at meetings etc? Who would be committed to being part of this system day-in and day-out when such commitment would be all but impossible to fulfil? How many people have the time to find out about the issues being discussed whether at a local or a national level ? How many people understand these issues and the complexities that surround them? How many people understood the complexities of the problems surrounding the building of the Newbury by-pass, the installation of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Greenham Common etc?

If people are to be informed on such issues, who does this informing? How can you guarantee that such information is not biased? Who would have time to read all the information supporting the building of the Newbury by-pass and then read the material against it, before coming to a balanced personal decision?

Because of the realities of direct democracy, few nations use it. Some states in New England, USA, do use it at a local level but the number of people involved is manageable and the culture of the towns involved actively encourages participation. The issues discussed are relevant purely to the town and ,therefore, there is a good reason for involving yourself if you want your point of view heard. Meetings are held in town halls across New England – which, apart from cities such as Boston, is not highly populated. But how could the system work in heavily populated areas?

In the recent mayoral election in London, the small turnout of voters indicates that one aspect of direct democracy was not there – active participation by those who could have participated. Of those who did vote, how many will actively participate in the running of the city? Is the mechanism in place for people, other than those appointed by Ken Livingstone, to involve themselves in day-to-day decisions? This will be done by a cabinet selected by the mayor. The people of London will have no choice as to who sits on this city cabinet (just as the national electorate has no say in who sits on the government’s cabinet when it is picked). Is it physically possible to have a system that involves all those in London who wish to do so? How many Londoners understand the complexities of the issues which the city government will have to deal with? At this moment in time, London cannot be run by a system of direct democracy.

Technological developments in the future may change this. The expansion of the Internet and the speed with which communication can now be achieved, may favour direct democracy. The present government set-up a system in 1997, whereby 5,000 randomly selected members of the public (the so-called “People’s Panel”) are asked about their reactions to government policy. However, there is no system in place which allows the public to help formulate government policy, and critics of the “People’s Panel” have called it a gimmick with no purpose.



Representative Democracy 



Several off-shoots have grown out of representative democracy : participatory democracy and liberal democracy.

Britain is a representative democracy. This is where citizens within a country elect representatives to make decisions for them. Every 5 years in Britain, the people have the chance to vote into power those they wish to represent us in Parliament. These MP’s meet in the House of Commons to discuss matters and pass acts which then become British law. Within the House of Commons, each elected MP represents an area called a constituency. The voters in this constituency passed on the responsibility of participating in law making to this MP who, if successful within the Commons, could be re-elected by that constituency at the next general election. However, in stark comparison to direct democracy, the people hand over the responsibility of decision making to someone else who wishes to be in that position.

For five years, MP’s are responsible to their electorate. In this way they are held accountable to them. If they fail to perform (or if the party has done badly during its time in office) they can be removed by the people of their constituency. In this way, the people exercise control over their representatives.

However, by handing to their MP’s the right to participate in decision making within the Commons, the electorate is removing itself from the process of decision making. Though MP’s have constituency clinics where the people can voice an opinion on an issue, the electorate play no part in the mechanism of decision making – that process has been handed to MP’s and the government.

Within representative democracy, usually two types of MP’s emerge. There are those who believe that they should act and react to what the party and electorate wish – they believe that they have been elected to represent both; though an argument would be that the party wants the best for the electorate so the two are entirely compatible.

The other type of MP’s are the ones who believes that they should act in accordance to their conscience regardless of party and electorate stance. This gives such a MP the flexibility to ignore the wishes of both his party leadership and his constituency – therefore allowing himself to do as he/she sees fit. Is this democratic in any form? However, is it realistic for a MP to do what his/her constituency electorate wishes all the time? If he/she always follows the wishes of the majority within his/her constituency, what happens to those in the minority? Are they condemned to five years in which their views may be heard but are not acted on? Does a representative within the boundaries of “representative democracy”, only represent the majority view and thus state that the wishes of a democratic society have been fulfilled? The “Tyranny of the Minority” is something that pure democracy is meant to prevent.

One way of expanding the participation of the electorate and therefore the whole ethos of democracy would be to initiate more mechanisms whereby the public can participate, should they wish, in the decision making process. Such mechanisms could be the greater use of public enquiries and referendums. Both would allow the public the ability to participate in the complete process of examining an issue, but they would not guarantee that the public would have any say in the final decision made by government.



Liberal Democracy 



Britain, as well as being a representative democracy, has also been labelled a liberal democracy. Historically there are five main points behind liberal democracy :

the government should be limited in its impact on the person and the government should not enjoy arbitrary power. Elections must be free and fair. the government should do what it can to remove obstacles limiting the well being of people. This includes all groups with none excluded. the government’s involvement in the economic market of a country should be minimal. the government should be there to deal with problems when needed the right to vote should be extended to all (no longer applicable to Britain).

A country that claims to be a “liberal democracy”, embraces the whole issue of civil liberties. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly freedom of religion etc. (within the confines of the law) are of paramount importance. Within Britain these have been safe guarded by what is called the “rule of law”. This guarantees someone equality before the law and it also ensures that the powers of those in government can be curtailed by laws that are enforceable in courts. This has been further developed by the growth of the impact of the European Court which can act as a ‘check and balance’ against the governments of member states.

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