Sunday, 18 January 2015

What is democracy?

Switch on the news and you'll probably hear the word "democracy".  In 2011 what was referred to as the "Arab Spring" involved many countries which had previously been run autocratically, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen rise up and try to overthrow the regime.  There were hopes that these regimes would be replaced by a democratic system, but in many cases, one tyranny was replaced by another, and the fallout and bloodshed continues today.
What is this democracy that people fight so hard for, and are prepared to die for?  What freedoms do we go to war to preserve and promote?

The word Democracy comes from the Greek language, meaning "rule of the people".  It's a form of government based on the following:

  • people are free to choose and change their government in fair elections;
  • eligible people can take part in political life, stand for election, criticise and protest;
  • all citizens have basic human rights that are protected;
  • there is a rule of law, applying equally to all citizens, and those accused of breaking the laws are entitled to a fair trial;
There are two key types of democracy.  First is direct democracy, where the people can have their say on issues directly, for example through referendums and votes.  As technology improves, it's becoming increasingly possible to exercise this type of democracy, with the will of the people being measured through online polls.  The second type, seen more often in the government of countries, is a representative government.  The people elect a representative to speak for them on issues.
The House of Commons -
Democracy contrasts with forms of government where the power is held by a small group of individuals, for example in an absolute monarchy or an oligarchy, though in truth these boundaries are often blurred.  It's more accurate, as Karl Popper suggests, to say that democracy is distinct from a dictatorship, or tyranny, because in democracy the people can control or reject their leaders without need for a revolution.

Do we really have democracy in Britain today?

Our political system is a whole lot more democratic than many around the world today, where people may have very limited rights, and opposition to the government is fiercely crushed.  We have an independent judiciary, upholding the rule of law and entitling everybody to fair trial.
The High Court in London -
However, are our politicians really representative?  Do they consider the needs and wishes of their constituents when they vote in the House of Commons?  Or do we actually have an elected dictatorship?  Our "representatives" are elected every five years, and in between those elections they are free to do as they wish, without regard or recourse to the wishes of the electorate on any issue.  Despite the case that in many cases, a Member of Parliament is elected with fewer than half the votes (and poor turnout means that their vote may be a tiny proportion of the population) and that our electoral system means that the elections are unfair in the first place.  For more on this see my previous post Does your vote count?  A prime example would be the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Despite overwhelming public feeling against the invasion, Tony Blair backed the US' foreign policy and Britain participated in the invasion.  While Labour were still reelected after this, it was with much reduced support, and Tony Blair stepped down as Leader in 2007.  It seems very unlikely that we would have been involved in Iraq if we had a more representative government.

What do you think?  Do you feel Britain is still an example of democracy in action?

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