Democracy” can mean what you choose it to mean. The opportunity for “we the people” to choose those that govern us might be a reasonable place to start. But if that’s the test Britain looks decidedly dodgy. Our Head of State is hereditary, our Upper House is unelected and our Head of Government has only the shakiest of personal electoral mandates to be in the job.
Democracy is arguably much more about protections against repression than anything else. Important freedoms like those of speech, the press and of action (within a mostly benign set of laws) are crucial. Here, though, we are subject to the judgment calls of others. We don’t (thank goodness) have the ancient Greek system of decisions being made by a show of hands in a public square.
So when we elect a representative to a Parliament or a Council we elect not a delegate but someone who we hope will vote according to their conscience and with our needs in mind. Sadly the Party whips often tell our representative what to do, not us. Hardly democratic.
I have lived in a couple of benign dictatorships – colonial Hong Kong and modern day Dubai. There were rather more freedoms in the former than the latter but no elections in either. And if you behaved reasonably you could live comfortably in both. The contrast between Hong Kong and the totalitarian Super State across the border was enormous. But so was the contrast between Dubai and the grotesque human rights abusing Saudi Arabia not far away.
Democracy is a fragile flower and the fact of elections does not necessarily protect us. Britain’s current autocracy has a huge parliamentary majority but only just over four in ten of those who voted actually voted Conservative. Hitler came to power in 1933 with only a third of the vote.
So Democracy and Free Elections are inseparable but holding the latter does not guarantee the former. We need to define Democracy much more widely than (just) elective democracy. Here a written constitution would help. In Britain to say something is “unconstitutional” has an element of value judgment in it. There’s no document to refer to to check. Even apparently permanent changes to our democratic systems, like the introduction of fixed time parliaments, can be changed at will.
Is democracy under threat in Britain? Or is a Government with a big majority simply using its power to make changes. Are any changes legitimised by that big majority? We have no constitutional court to refer to or to provide checks and balances. Parliament is sovereign – though the courts can rule on Judicial review. There are three main grounds of judicial review: illegality, procedural unfairness, and irrationality. But if a law is properly drafted and passed by a vote in Parliament a review is unlikely to succeed.
Sometimes, as someone once said, it’s helpful to go “Back to Basics” and if we do that to audit the effectiveness of our “democracy” it’s not encouraging:
▪️Can we refer to a document to check whether a proposed new law (etc.) is constitutional? We cannot.
▪️Do we choose all who pass laws and govern us ? We do not.
▪️Does every vote count equally? It does not. Some don’t count at all.
▪️Are there adequate and enforceable checks on the decisions of our Government? There are not.
▪️Is the aggregate vote for political parties approximately matched by the number of Members of Parliament they have. It is not.
In short our government system is profoundly undemocratic and unaccountable. Many strands of public opinion are underrepresented in Parliament. Grace and Favour rather than elections determines the composition of our Upper House. The constraints on the freedom to act of our Government are feeble at best. We are close to being an elective dictatorship.