Monday, 22 September 2014

What does democracy mean in Britain?

Britain undergoes periods of democratic introspection about once every decade but what is often a frenzy of calls for constitutional change quickly subsides and the country returns to its normal state of constitutional lassitude.  Britain is not unique in doing this—crises in the body politic globally tends to lead to existing governmental structures baring the brunt of public opprobrium with the emergence of new political parties saying that they have the solution of the nation’s woes.  So what does democracy actually mean in Britain and why is our attitude to it so ambivalent?
For many in Britain, democracy relates to the right to express their opinion through the ballot box, a right that evolved between the Reform Act in 1832 and the Representation of the People Act in 1928—a process that took almost a century.  The extension of the vote to include those between 18 and 21 in 1969 marked an end to the democratisation of the electorate and the only way this could be altered is to extend the vote down to 16 and 17 year olds—something achieved with some success in the Scottish referendum.  Parallel to the extension of the vote has been the emergence of pressure group politics where interest groups seek to exert influence on government through parliamentary and extra-parliamentary pressure and party politics through which different sections is society seek to achieve electoral dominance.  So democracy in Britain can be expressed individually through participation in local, national, Union and European elections, through seeking to influence government policy through legitimate pressure and lobbying and from within political parties, processes made both more complex and more immediate by the twenty-four hour nature of the media and the emergence of social networking.  Politicians are now expected to be able to react immediately and often instinctively to emerging stories in the media with an appropriate and often inappropriate sound bites almost before events occur.  Today democracy is played out on the television screen, the tablet or smartphone—everyone it seems has an opinion—and there has been a ‘technologing’ of politics as never before.
The problem is that our constitutional and political structures have not been keeping pace with the changes in how people experience democracy.  In one sense that may not be a bad thing since constitutional change needs to be a considered process—rapid constitutional change is often poor constitutional change.  But the lag between people’s perceptions of how democracy works for them and a responding repackaging of constitutional structures to reflect those perceptions has resulted in a growing dissatisfaction with Westminster politics and its seeming inability to do more than adopting the classic ‘we know what’s best’ approach to challenges to its legitimacy.  This is reflected in the falling numbers of people who votes in elections, further reducing their legitimacy and the legitimacy of those elected to public office—why should we bother to vote when it doesn’t change anything?  Our democratic system is linked almost exclusively to the question of voting rather than taking a broader view of democracy as a participatory process—the campaigns in Scotland clearly show what the impact of active participation are and their effect on voter turnout.  Our representative system based on the notion that ‘if you don’t like what we’re doing you can vote us out at the next election’ is today insufficiently responsive to people’s democratic aspirations.  Whether an English Parliament is the solution to this is unlikely—it simply adds another tier of already discredited politicians. 

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