Just How Democratic Is Britain?

We’re home to the Mother of all Parliaments, but just how representative are we?

‘How Democratic is the United Kingdom?’ was one of the first exam questions that was set whilst I was studying for my A level in Government and Politics, and it remains one of the most fundamental questions that really made me think and challenge the idea of the contemporary system we live in today. As I recall, and hate to admit, I had to resit my first attempt at answering it because I failed it completely, but that’s just a testament to the complex nature of the question: there is no straightforward yes/no answer. Let’s not kid ourselves, this isn’t an Athenian Demo Kratis, a direct democracy simply wouldn’t work in a society as large as ours, so we rely on a representative democratic system. This representative democracy is inherently flawed in many areas, but ticks enough boxes to be designated as a valid democratic system.

So, to what extent is the UK a democracy? As the Latin Demo Kratis translates into ‘by the people, for the people’, therefore the term ‘democracy’ implies that the government in this country is elected by the people and works for the people. This is true to an extent. We currently exercise a ‘First Past the Post’ system of electing officials, where every person over the age of 18 (unless you’re in prison) has the right to cast a single vote. Whoever gets the most votes is elected to represent the constituency. This system, at face value, seems to be a valid, democratic way of electing officials. But what about, for example, those under the age of 18? When we reach 16 in the UK, we can legally get married, own property and join the military (however, none of these are possible without a parent or guardians consent). From the age of 13 we can legally be employed to deliver the papers, from 14 we can be employed to help with a milk round, and from 15 we can legally be employed to work part-time in shops as long as we have a valid National Insurance Number. From the age of 16, we are legally allowed to hold a full time job, whilst from the age of 17 we are allowed to hold a UK driving licence. To live in a democracy implies that all eligible citizens are allowed to participate in the democratic process equally. Surely the 16 year old with the part-time pot-washing job is contributing just as much to society as the 18 year old part-time waiter, however only one of them will be allowed to vote when election time comes.

Furthermore, the First Past the Post system is a flawed and undemocratic method to elect representative officials. If a candidate wins a majority of votes, however slight, then he wins. This is just too simple for me, and this method could lead to a ‘tyranny of the majority’ in extreme circumstances. If government is elected by the people and is supposed to work for the people, then who represents the sizable minority of constituents who voted for another candidate? Their votes are simply discarded. This would be slightly more tolerable if the candidate who won could also represent the wishes of the minority as well, but what if the candidate has an agenda that the minority don’t agree with? This, technically, would leave the minority without representation that they agree with until the next election. However, all other methods of voting seem to be just as flawed as First Past the Post, so maybe we just have to accept it for what it is. In defence of First Past the Post and UK democracy, it is a system that has survived the test of time and has been relatively unchallenged. When it has been challenged, it has won, and I only need to refer you to the recent doomed campaign to implement the AV+ voting system in order to emphasise this point. Also, minority groups can still run (and succeed) high profile campaigns to have their agenda recognised in parliament, regardless of who won the last election.

MP’s are elected to represent their constituents in parliament, but the party whip system forces MP’s to vote in line with their parties agenda, regardless of the will of the constituents. Those who break ranks and actually vote on behalf of their people against the will of the party leadership are punished by the Chief Whip, who has the power to discipline rebellious MP’s. The whip system undermines the democratic nature of the UK, as it often forces MP’s to be ‘between a rock and a hard place’. In controversial situations, either they vote in line with party leadership and betray their constituents, or rebel against party leadership and face disciplinary action from the chief whip. In a true democracy, MP’s would be free to cast their vote how they see fit, and if they didn’t vote in the interest of their constituents then it would hurt them during the next election.

On a final note, even though our representative parliamentary democracy in the UK is flawed, it is still a lot fairer than many other systems around the world. We can at least be thankful that we don’t live in a dictatorship or an autocracy and that we retain our liberal freedoms and human rights. To use an extremely overused quote from Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Ben Wolfe

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