After the actual word “Brexit” it was the most used word in the whole of the Brexit debate. I speak, of course, of the word “Democracy”.
The word “democracy” and the practice of government which it typifies, has a long and chequered career, going back to the ancient Greek state of Athens. It refers to a form of government in which the people of the state have the authority and opportunity to choose their governing legislation and those who legislate. Who people are and how authority is shared are core issues for democratic development.
This word, or one of its derivatives, was primarily used by the proponents of Brexit to emphasis their case for withdrawing from the European Union. The argument of the so-called “Brexiteers” referred to the fact that, at the 2016 EU Referendum, the electorate voted, albeit by a small % margin, to withdraw from the EU.
On 23 June 2016, the recorded result was that the UK voted to leave the European Union by 51.89% for Leave to 48.11% for Remain, a margin of 3.78%. This corresponded to 17,410,742 votes to leave and 16,141,241 to remain, a margin of 1,269,501 votes. The national turnout was 72% of the population eligible to vote. So, the overall democratic decision of the British electorate was to “Leave the European Union”, with England and Wales voting to “Leave” while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to “Remain”.
As the above information shows “democracy” is understood in terms of the outcome of a single substantive referendum, moreover, a referendum in which the voting citizens in only two out of four constituent British countries, rather than a majority of all UK citizens in all British constituent countries, voted to leave the EU. The UK is to leave the EU on 31 January 2020 with a British population arguably equally divided between leaving and remaining in the EU. “Democracy” is here understood as “the winner (Leavers) takes all”, with the losers (Remainers) becoming a page in the history books!
It remains to be experienced as to whether the promises given to the British people in consequence of leaving the EU will come to fruition. The situations and events in the national life of the UK over the coming years will reveal the truth or otherwise of the Brexiteer promises and their insistent expressions of the “democratic will” of the British people.
In the meantime, it is legitimate to ask as to whether some of the other outstanding concerns of democrats in the UK will merit the attention given to democracy by the Leave proponents in the EU Referendum. Such concerns would include the following:
• The reform of the voting system in the UK. At present this is the “first past the post” system of electing local and national governments, as well as referenda. It has been consistently shown that a “proportional” voting system would be a more just and more universal system of voting.
When it suits their purposes, successive British governments have been fond of directing attention to the successful practices of other countries – why not a more modern and democratic form of electing governments?
• The reform of the British House of Lords. This chamber of British government is composed of unelected persons, perhaps representing designated political parties but not associated with a specifically designated political constituency or electorate. Members of the House of Lords are appointed, often in consequence of political patronage. Moreover, “Lords” or “Peers” (for such are members of the House of Lords known in parliament and in daily life) are appointed for the duration of their lives.
Consequences of this system include the reality that, by its very nature, the House of Lords discriminates in favour of an elderly and ill-represented membership. So too, the numbers of members in House of Lords is grossly disproportionate to its democratic functions and responsibilities. Adding more calumny to democracy is the fact that the House of Lords also admits the unelected bishops of the Church of England, the so-called “State Church” in a multi-faith society.
• It is widely considered that “democracy lies at the heart of the rule of law” and that a “democratic society” is one in which there is a functioning government that upholds human rights through a Parliament that is sovereign. The fact that, for many in the recent EU Referendum, the decision of the people was regarded as sovereign, and not the House of Representatives in Parliament, indicates that the British Constitution is minimally known. A major factor in this is that the British Constitution remains in an unwritten form.
Democracy permits representation of the people. Therefore, democracy requires an active citizenry that takes part in public life, is educated to so act in a politically responsible way and is sufficiently politically astute in order to avoid being manipulated. In this way, the citizenry’s freedom under the law of the land is maximized. It is to be understood that the “basic standards in political, social and economic rights are necessary to ensure that everyone can play a meaningful role in political life”.
For the above reasons it is fundamental that the British Constitution is in written form and can be made available to the perusal and understanding of everyone.
• Probably the most undemocratic institution in British life is the monarchy. The UK is a Constitutional Monarchy. This is a form of government in which “a non-elected monarch functions as the head of state within the limits of the constitution. Political power in a constitutional monarchy is shared between the monarch and an organized government such as the British Parliament”. Nevertheless, the people of the UK are often falsely regarded as the “subjects” of the monarch and not as “citizens” of the UK.
One constitutional expert, Vernon Bogdanor, has defined a constitutional monarch as “a sovereign who reigns but does not rule.” So, a constitutional monarch acts as a visible symbol of national unity, and the exercise of their powers are generally a formality, without the sovereign enacting personal political preferences.
In the UK, the monarch is determined through the hereditary line of the House of Windsor. However, it is not just the head of this house that is maintained by the British State, it is the whole extended family – who are given “royal” titles. Most of these “royals” at best have representational roles and little to do with the political and democratic functions of the British State. Moreover, none of this family have ever been elected to perform any form of role or function.
The above are a selection of aspects of British life that, as important as they are, do not function according to democratic principles, are matters of governance that have generally been avoided by successive British governments, and have never in modern times been the subject of a substantive people’s referendum. A list of such issues could include the perpetuation of an honours system that bestows awards based in ranks within the “British Empire”, e.g., MBE, OBE, as well as the role and function of the Church of England as the State Church of the British nation.
It is to be noted that most silence on the above-mentioned matters comes from those, politicians and media commentators included, who were most vocal about “democracy” being enacted through and determinative of the outcome of the 2016 British EU Referendum on membership of the EU. Surely the time has come for the citizens of the UK to be permitted to exercize their constitutional rights to determine the shape and outcome of each of these matters.
Democracy in the 21st century existence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland demands nothing less.
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Tagged Brexit, British Constitution, democracy, EU, hereditary, honours system, House of Lords, referendum, state church, the Monarchy, voting system
A few weeks ago, the House of Commons was presented with the latest Queen’s Speech in which the government, despite the expectation of a General Election, set out its priorities for the coming period of Parliament. It is rare for such speeches at any time to focus on issues of human rights, especially with so much current attention being on the Brexit debate and the ongoing political uncertainty. The latest Queen’s Speech was no exception.
With so much in the political and social worlds that seem to divide the British nation at present, it is timely and helpful to take a step back and focus on the values that unite us – especially the fundamental rights and freedoms we all share.
Amnesty International (AI) is an organisation that exists in order to protect and enhance human rights worldwide. So, in anticipation of the 2019 Queen’s Speech, AI put together an alternative Queen’s Speech in which it listed its seven human rights’ priorities for challenging injustices – both in the UK and around the world.
In what follows I will set out these seven priorities and, with the encouragement of AI, provide a brief explanation of what AI has stated about these priorities.
1. A Bill to embed respect for family life in all immigration and asylum decision making, including enabling more refugee families to be reunited in safety in the UK.
The Government should underline respect for the best interests of children and the importance of family life by extending family reunion rights to child refugees in the UK, so that children have the right to bring their parents here to join them. Adult refugees should be able to sponsor their elderly parents, siblings, and children up to the age of 25.
2. Measures to strengthen support and protection for human rights defenders.
Championing human rights around the world should be at the heart of UK foreign policy – and this must include increasing support for brave human rights defenders who face unprecedented levels of repression and abuse.
Defenders are ordinary people doing extraordinary things – lawyers, journalists, activists – defending the environment, uncovering corruption, promoting the rights of women and girls. They are the agents of change in their communities, and they need strategic support from the UK which includes access to funding, emergency protection, greater promotion and recognition.
3. A Bill to overhaul the UK’s immigration system to ensure respecting people’s rights is the primary priority of the system.
This must include ending indefinite immigration detention, restoring legal aid for immigration and nationality cases, guaranteeing the best interests of children, and ensuring no one – including EU nationals living in the UK – is unjustly deprived of rights to British citizenship.
4. A Domestic Abuse Bill that gives equal protection to all survivors of domestic abuse.
The Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill could be a trailblazing piece of legislation, but it will fail unless it meets the needs of migrant women. They must have access to safe reporting systems, without the fear of immigration enforcement, and be able to access public funds and support services. Migrant women should be asked if they are safe, not where they are from.
5. A clear commitment that the UK will remain a member of the European Convention on Human Rights after Brexit.
It is vital that human rights are prioritised and protected throughout and beyond the Brexit process. The Government must also commit to retaining the Human Rights Act and to restoring the domestic rights and protections which UK citizens have lost through the previous Government’s decision to scrap the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the general principles of EU law.
6. Legislation to strengthen the arms export control system to ensure the UK complies fully with its human rights.
The fact that the UK has supplied more than £4 billion of military hardware to Saudi Arabia since the outbreak of the conflict in Yemen, despite the clear risk of it being used to commit or facilitate violations of international humanitarian law, shows that the current system is not fit for purpose and requires a complete overhaul.
7. Regulations that will enable free, safe, legal and local abortion in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, passed in July 2019, decriminalised abortion, provided a moratorium on prosecutions and made abortion lawful – including in cases where there is a risk to health, serious malformation of the foetus and in cases of sexual crime. The Government must now put in place regulations to enable free, safe, legal and local services by 31 March 2020.
As anticipated, the recent Queen’s Speech said little about fundamental human rights and the values that underpins them. Nevertheless, Amnesty International continues its work of protecting people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity is denied.
As a global movement of over 7 million people, AI is the world’s largest grassroots human rights organisation. It is composed of ordinary people from across the world standing up for human rights.
The organisation investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilises the public, and helps transform societies to create a safer, more just world. On reflection, it would have been wiser, more prudent and just, to have spent the time, effort and money involved in mounting a Queen’s Speech on advancing the cause of human rights issues – in this country and elsewhere.
Amnesty International has received the Nobel Peace Prize for its life-saving work.
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Tagged abortion law reforms, Amnesty International, arms export control, European Convention of Human Rights, family life, human rights, human values, injustice, legal aid, Nobel Peace Prize, Queens's Speech, refugees, UK foreign policy