It is probably the most over-used and most misunderstood word, especially in political circles, in the present-day English language of the British people.
It is used as if the meaning of the word was clearly and singularly understood by everyone within hearing distance of its utterance. It is used and defended by persons on all sides of the multi-sided spectrum of British political discourse. It is a word that has been used and abused since the time of the ancient Greeks. Indeed, it is a word that is specifically Greek in its composition.
I speak, of course, about the word “democracy” (Gr. “demos” = common people; “kratos” = strength). As generally defined, understood and written about, democracy is a system of government where the citizens exercise power by voting. It is a system of government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives. It is these persons, the elected representatives, who then carry out the duties and functions of government.
However, there is a real need today to point out that there is “direct democracy” and “representative democracy”. When related to matters of governance it is to be understood that, in a direct democracy, the citizens as a whole form a governing body and vote directly on each issue pertinent to the government of their country. In a representative democracy the citizens elect representatives from among themselves. These representatives then form a body to govern the country. It is this latter form of democracy that is practiced in the United Kingdom.
(It is worth pointing out that there are “alternative democracies” as well as “anti-democracies”, but these approaches to democracy, though written about and/or practiced to a greater or lesser extent over historical time, are largely irrelevant to a contemporary discussion on the subject in the UK).
When practiced in the polity and government of a country there is the assumption that, under a representative democracy system of government, the people are part of a classless and tolerant form of society. So too, it is understood that those persons elected to govern do so as “representatives” of the people – they are not the peoples’ “delegates”!
Therefore, to be a “democrat” is to be a person who supports the principles and practices of democracy – in the UK as elsewhere. It is also important to understand that to be a democrat is to have faith in the skills and wisdom of those elected to govern. This means that, when it is necessary or appropriate, the elected representatives will use their political judgement to make decisions that may be counter to what a majority of the people may wish for or expect. They are elected for their competence, not their obedience!
The foregoing, whilst primarily alluding to government at a national level is, nevertheless, relevant and applicable to whatever level of democratic government is being practiced in the UK.
The debate that has been raging in the UK during recent years about Brexit has been the reason why the subject of democracy has been discussed and debated so often and so widely. However, it may be more accurate and precise to state that both the word “democrat” and the supposed understanding of “democracy” have been bandied about by all and sundry without there having been the necessary and substantial discussion and debate as to what the words and concepts mean!
It is argued by some that, following a referendum on whether the UK should leave or remain within the European Union, a referendum that narrowly decided that the UK should leave the EU, the government has failed to carry out the wishes of the people. Such an understanding of the process would suggest the exercise of a “direct” form of democracy, rather than the British constitutional form of “representative” democracy.
Inevitably, however, in not immediately carrying out the direct “will of the people”, accusations have been levelled at the British government and its Parliament and, by implication, those UK citizens who voted to remain in the EU., that the “will of the British people has been betrayed”. Such accusations have been a constant theme of by right-wing newspapers, hard-line Brexiteers, populist demagogues and their acolytes, as well as by those British citizens who have been persuaded by these propagandist sources.
In this context, it is pertinent to point our that only 72% of the British voting public voted in the EU referendum. Of this number, 48.1% voted to remain in the EU, with 51.9% voting to leave the EU. Therefore, the leave voters represented only 37% of the British voting population – hardly constituting “the people” of the UK”, especially when it is considered that 35% of the voters chose to remain in the EU. Indeed, the really worrying thing for British democracy is that 28% of those in the nation who were eligible to vote did not do so!
Over and above the more obvious democratic issues surrounding the Brexit campaign: it is appropriate to mention the following issues: the questions associated with the funding of the Brexit campaign; the misconceptions about the simplicity of the Brexit process; the false advertising and blatant lies told to the public about what political and social problems would be solved by leaving the EU; the mis-appropriation of social media outlets for publicity purposes; the indirect and manipulative targeting of the electorate through covert action; the possible involvement of hostile international political interests.
Further, those who would purport to be the champions of the people’s democracy are rarely to be heard referencing those other, perhaps more blatant, examples of the lack of democracy in the UK, namely:
– the continuation of an unelected second chamber, the House of Lords, in British governance;
– the unrepresentative and outmoded voting system of “first past the post” for the election of governments (local and national) in the UK;
– the continuing existence of a constitutional system of hereditary monarchy in the UK that has its widespread privileges and powers financed by the British taxpayer;
– an unelected Head of State (whether that person is a member of the monarchy or a private citizen);
– the unacceptable system of private ownership of land in the UK by an extremely small minority of landowners – ownership that has its roots in historical privilege and abuses; *
– the gross inequalities of wealth that exists between the various ranks and classes of people in the UK;
– the continuing existence of an Established Church, the minority Church of England, with a monarch as its head, in a multi-cultural, multi-faith (or no faith) UK.
* In England, half of the land is owned by less than 1% of the population; the aristocracy and gentry still own 30% of the land, and potentially as much as 47% remains in hereditary aristocratic estates (Guy Shrubsole, 2019).
Each of the foregoing is, by itself, a scandal. However, when taken together, they exemplify a nation that ill-deserves the description of being democratic. Nevertheless, the above are only a few examples of those issues that are selectively avoided by those who would see themselves as democrats and “champions of the people’s democracy”.
The foregoing came to mind as I recently read the book “Democracy and Its Crisis”, by the English philosopher and writer, A.C. Grayling. Prompted by the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the USA, Professor Grayling investigates why the institutions of representative democracy seem unable to hold up against forces they were designed to manage, and why, crucially, it matters.
After considering “the moments in history in which the challenges we face today were first encountered and what solutions, however imperfect, were found”, Professor Grayling proceeds to lay bare “the specific problems of democracy in the twenty-first century and maps out a set of urgently needed reforms”.
As he traces the “advent of authoritarian leaders” and the simultaneous “rise of populism”, Professor Grayling considers that representative democracy appears to be “caught between a rock and a hard place”. He concludes that, if a civilized society – one that looks after all its people – is to flourish, then this is the space that representative democracy must occupy.
In devoting an appendix in the book to the subject of Brexit, Professor Grayling considers that the referendum of 23 June 2016 is an example of how “the constitutional and political order of the UK is in a highly questionable state.” The opening paragraph of that appendix is unequivocal in stating that “Without overexaggerating, it is arguable that the EU referendum itself and the government’s subsequent actions resemble something like a coup.”
He goes on to discuss how such matters as the Briefing Paper 07212 published on 3 June 2015 informed all MP’s and members of the House of Lords that the referendum was advisory only, and that it would not be binding on Parliament or government. “This point was iterated viva voce by the Minister for Europe in the debate in the House of Commons later that month.” Further, he points out that there was no threshold designed for the referendum and the franchise was not extended to include sixteen and seventeen year olds, expatriate citizens who had lived abroad for more than a certain number of years, and EU citizens resident in the UK and paying their taxes (whatever happened to the principle of “no taxation without representation”?).
In the event, as mentioned in the above, a small minority of actual votes cast in the referendum (representing only 37% of the total electorate), “was taken by the politicians in favour of Brexit as not merely justifying but mandating the actions they took following the referendum. There is therefore nowhere near enough justification or legitimacy for a Brexit.” That this situation continues to be tolerated by Parliament is mystifying.
With this and much else, notably the Parliamentary White Paper which reasserts the fact that Parliament retains its sovereignty in the governance of the UK (as against the Brexiteer slogan that “we should take back control of our sovereignty”), Professor Grayling provides evidence to justify his view that the EU referendum and its outcomes are illegitimate. In doing so he illustrates how a major political event in the UK “exposes the sham of the constitutional arrangements, so easily and readily manipulable by the executive for highly partisan ends, however damaging by the executive to the polity and populace as a whole.”
It is A.C. Grayling’s viewpoint that “no constitutional system should allow a partisan group to hijack the interests of the whole: this is happening in the UK and the US as these words are being written. This is not what the architects of representative democracy intended, and it is fundamentally against the interests of the people of these countries. It is therefore a matter of urgency to return our advanced polities to their democratic roots.”
At a time in the history of the UK when elections are to take place for our country to be represented in the European Union, when anti-democratic voices are being raised by populist demagogues as the nation is in a state of political and social turmoil, and when the nation’s parliament seems impotent to make democratic decisions, it is essential that those citizens and politicians who genuinely understand and appreciate democracy and what it means to be a democrat have the courage, wisdom and integrity to make their voices loudly heard, their opinions widely known and their common interests utterly exemplified.
A.C. Grayling’s book has identified the crisis in democracy. I commend his book to the reader. It is now time that genuine democrats re-establish not only the intention of representative democracy but also its form as a political order that is the most appropriate “vehicle for carrying democratically expressed preferences into good government for all.” It is time re-assert the strength of the common people of the UK and put an end to a very British coup!