How Far Do We In Britain Live

In A Democracy? Essay, Research Paper

The definition of democracy is ‘rule by the people’, or ‘the power of the people’. The ‘demos’ comes from the ancient Greek, it is the people and ‘kratos’ is to rule. Democracy today has come to mean the decisions arrived by the majority (or a simple majority), the right of every citizen to vote and hold office, and the duty of all citizens to participate actively in the system. So in an undefined sense, political power is ultimately in the hands of the whole adult population, and no smaller group has the right to rule. But only when democracy is qualified by other words, such as liberal, representative and direct, can it take on a more useful meaning. So to understand democracy, we must look at these different faces of it.

Liberal democracy is most commonly seen in industrialised western countries. It has four main ideas:

? That the government should be limited (the individual should enjoy some protection from arbitrary government), and its purpose should be the removal of obstacles to individual well-being;

? The market should have a paramount role with minimum state interference;

? The state should play the role of ‘night-watchman’; the franchise should be steadily extended to encompass men with property to members of the working class.

The overall idea is that there should be a limited government, the individual should enjoy some protection from arbitrary government and that the government should be in some way tied to the will of the people. The central existence of liberal democracy is the existence of civil liberties – the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the freedom to dissent. In Britain these civil liberties and guaranteed by the ‘rule of law’ and the separation of powers. The rule of law guarantees us equality before the law. And the separation of power maintains a separate executive and jury, so that laws enforceable in courts can curtail the powers of rulers.

But a criticism of liberal democracy is that our rights and freedoms are not all that free. So although we, as British citizens have freedom from arbitrary arrest, we can be arrested on suspicion; although we have freedom of expression, we are not free of libel; although we have the right to be free from surveillance without due process, it can be given by a judge, and although we have the right to the freedom of movement, we are still controlled by passports.

It has been thought that liberal democracy has come to embody the limited claim that the working class has the right to compete with the established state institutions and society. This is because no one voice is louder than another, liberal democracies are representative, political authority is based on popular consent, the wishes of the masses.

Today liberal democracy has become very closely linked with representative democracies. The idea for representative democracies, is that the citizens elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. This works in Britain by voters electing Members of Parliament, the person that they think will best represent their views. These MPs meet in an assembly, the House of Commons, which is responsible for making laws. Every MP has the right to speak and vote on proposed laws, either for or against. Proposals become law if a majority of MPs vote in favour of tem. By voting for a representative, the voting citizen is handing over the responsibility for decision making to someone else.

Although voters hand over the responsibility for decision making to their elected representatives, they still have a further part to play in the system. There is accountability; the representatives are accountable to the electorate, so the electorate in someway exercises power over its representative. For, unless the representative acts in a way that meets the approval of their electorate, they will not be reselected and so will lose their seat. This fear will affect their behaviour in favour of the electorate, but the electorate has had to hand over its personal power and the personal contribution to the formation of legislation.

The role of the representative is therefore very important. Some representatives argue that their duty is only to do what their party or electors have instructed, others argue that once they have been voted in and have been handed the power, it is their duty to act according to their conscience. Edward Burke put this view forward, and the Burkian representation has often been called in to justify the behaviours of MPs.

There are both points for and against representative democracy. On the one hand, we lose the influence of a direct democracy, it is difficult to know the publics opinion individually on every topic that will come up in government. Since the people’s individual views cannot be taken into consideration, some people feel that Luke’s third face of power could come into play. This is the manipulating of desires by those in power. People with power can persuade others that what is on offer is actually desired. So the power can be misused to create an element of elite oligarchy. As the representatives cannot refer back on every issue, they will have to use their own opinions. As these representatives will be educated, they may hold different views and opinions to the average person from the masses, so there is an element of exclusiveness again.

This elitism goes further back, as parliament is not a microcosm; it is predominantly white, male, middle class educated men. Other races, sexes, and classes are greatly underrepresented, so their views cannot be out forward as well. Our system also means that we do not have delegates, who have to put forward our views specifically. The system only had free votes occasionally, the rest of the time the representatives are expected to toe the party line, so again it may not be possible for our representatives to put forward the views of the people the represent. The system of ‘first past the post’ does not represent the majority; the party with the greatest proportion does not necessarily have the majority of votes. So the people in power do so sometimes without the backing of the people. And those in power belong to parties that have their own issues and certain interests. And above all, the power relationship between the electorate and the representative has to be questioned by the fact that it is the European Union that has sovereignty over our laws.

Although there are many reasons against representative democracy, it is felt that the reasons for are of greater importance. All MPs know of the Burkian theory, when they put themselves up as a representative they know the responsibility they have when using their digression. They also know that how they act will effect whether they get voted into power again. And it is possible for an individual to have their voice heard as specific interests can go into parliament through lobbying through an MP. A parties policies are very clearly laid out before an election, you know what values you are voting for when you hand over your power. And most importantly, because of a representative democracy, representatives have a close attachment with their constituency. They will be there frequently, holding surgeries and be expected to answer mail from their constituents.

Linking back to the liberal democracy, in Britain, the way that it works is through the parliamentary system, so it is known as parliamentary democracy. This in the UK means that the government is formed from whichever party can command a majority in the House of Commons. Criticism for the system comes from the left and the right sides. Marxists believe that democratic parliaments are a front that can be used to exploit the majority of the population. They feel that the competition is between political ?lites; there is no real choice as fundamentally they all represent the interests of the ruling classes. There is no change in power just the alternating of it. Parliamentary democracy is seen to be concealing the location of real power, which is based on wealth and capital, not on the backing of the people. The growth of capitalist institutions outside the state, such as the International Monetary Fund and the EU, further expose the limitations of parliamentary democracy.

Criticism also comes from the right. Some Conservative ministers have suggested that parliamentary democracy can lead to ‘elective dictatorship’, that representative institutions do not necessarily guarantee freedom, but can do the opposite and prevent it, becoming the “engines of tyranny”. “They can be manipulated by minorities, taken over by extremists, motivated by the self-interest of organised millions.” Democracy means that the power is ultimately in the hands of the whole population, and that no smaller group should rule. But some people are apprehensive at the thought that this can happen in a parliamentary democracy. There is a fear that elected governments have few checks, other than from the opposition, who are generally from the same ?lites class. It is interesting to note as a criticism, that the House of Commons is the only democratic element of Parliament.

A close opposite to the representative democracy is the direct democracy. This type of democracy was first used in ancient Athens. Every citizen had the right to speak and vote at the Assembly. So every citizen had the chance to directly determine what the laws should be. Direct democracy is the direct and continuous participation of citizens in the tasks of government. Direct democracy requires time and commitment, and is not practical with the large numbers of people there now are in Britain, and other democratic countries. It is also important to note, that the Athenian democracy excluded the majority of people from political participation, only male citizens born in Athens over twenty could vote. This reduced the amount of people that could take part in the Assembly, who counted as a citizen, so all women, slaves and foreign residents were excluded. But it has been suggested that with the rapid rise of communication technology, it may be possible in the future to at least consider it. At the moment, our only form of direct democracy is at referendums, and in Britain’s history, there have only even been five.

A model that has been developed to explain who holds power in democratic Britain is the pluralist model. According to the pluralist model, power is exercised by the mass of the population, rather than by a small elitist group. They argue that if a majority of people do not like what their representatives are doing, they can vote them out of office at the next election. They also argue that people should take a more active role, between elections, for they can join interest groups, for amongst other thing, political parties, trade unions and pressure groups. They argue that group activities such as these are vital for a successful functioning political system.

Pluralists are not interested in whether power is even or uneven, but weather or not it is widely dispersed. According to this model, as the state acts impartially, responding equally to the demands of different pressure groups, so single group can dominate in society. This ensures that people can exert influence over decision makers, to ensure that the power is dispersed and not concentrated, at the same time allowing minority voices to be heard. This is all in favour of Britain being a democracy as it is a way of letting the masses, the many, rule, or at least have more influence over the ruling.

We, living in a liberal government, have a representative democracy, a direct democracy, a parliamentary democracy and a responsible democracy. We have regular elections conducted on the basis of political equality and the idea of ‘one person, one vote, one value’. These elections are free and the electorate has the ability to vote independently, in a secret ballot, aimed to prevent intimidation or corruption. We also have civil liberties, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement.

Although this may be true in theory, there is also the argument that despite this, power is always held by a small group who have the ability to use it to their own end. Groups who have privileged backgrounds can join the city, the judiciary, the diplomatic service, the civil servants, banks and big businesses, to dominate Britain over the twentieth century. There is the argument that not all groups have equal access or are accepted to allow a pluralist society, this is what ?litists believe. Consensus can be only skin deep, while there is actually a ruling class.

There is also the view that power really lies in the economic infrastructure and the capitalist system, where a countries wealth is owned by individuals. The system is not neutral, but manipulates people’s views. When problems occur in the economy or there is a national crisis, the government will turn to the use of force to enforce policies, so the ability to use force is the real basis for government and not consensus. This is a strong Marxists idea.

Pluralists acknowledge a ‘political elite’, which acts within the powerful constraints of regular elections and public opinions, but the ?litists and Marxists believe there is a further element of secrecy in democracy. So although Britain has a democracy, it is not strong enough to be able do defend itself against all criticism and opposition.


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