Is Britain Democratic?

The answer to the question posed in the title depends on how one defines democracy. If allowing people to vote perhaps once every five years is enough to make a country democratic, then the UK is democratic. If democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people, then I believe the answer is a definite no, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Britain is a monarchy. Although it can be argued that the monarchy is purely ceremonial, this is not entirely true. There is still a great deal of power vested in the Crown, and it is only a convention that such power is always exercised as advised by the Prime Minister. The monarch must be kept advised in regular private chats with the Prime Minister, who must in turn listen respectfully to the monarch’s opinions – although the public are not allowed to know what these might be, or whether the Prime Minister has been influenced by them. Also, the monarch can veto or require changes to certain categories of legislation before they can even be put before Parliament.

Secondly, the House of Lords is another anachronism, stuffed with successful business leaders and former MPs being rewarded for their loyalty to their party, almost all of whom are clearly members of the British Establishment; even formerly radical politicians will have been assimilated by the time they get a peerage. Ironically, the only elected members of the Lords are the remaining hereditary peers, elected by other hereditary peers. Finally, the presence of Church of England bishops bring a touch of theocracy to the Lords. The Lords had their wings clipped in 1911 by the Parliament Act, but in practice they can still amend or even block bills; members of the Lords can also act as government ministers without the inconvenience of being elected by anyone.

Thirdly, elections use a crude first past the post system which favours the largest parties. The number of MPs is nowhere near proportional to the number of votes cast for each party; in the last general election, Labour gained just over a quarter more votes than the LibDems, but won more than four times as many seats. This makes it difficult for small parties to grow large enough for voters to feel that voting for them is worthwhile, contributing to the present situation where Labour policies have converged on those of the Tories, because of the lack of any UK party which can challenge Labour from the left. Another consequence of the present system is that only voters in marginal constituencies have any chance of influencing the outcome.

Fourthly, a great deal of power, the Crown prerogative, is in practice in the hands of the Prime Minister, who is elected as an MP by the voters in only one constituency out of more than 600. The electorate across the country may vote for a particular party, but they have no say in the choice of that party’s leader. One might say that, in some sense, people voted for Tony Blair to be PM, but they were never given the chance to vote on whether Gordon Brown should succeed him.

Fifthly, the UK electorate are only very rarely given a direct say on a specific issue through a referendum. There are a number of policies, such as renationalisation of the railways, which would appear from opinion polls to be supported by a majority of the electorate, but are not offered by any of the main UK parties.

In addition to these constitutional issues, there are questions that could be asked about the role of lobbyists, the number of MPs and Lords who are directors of, or investors in, companies whose activities Parliament may be called on to regulate, the ownership of newspapers and television and how this affects reporting of current affairs, the percentage of senior civil servants from a privileged (fee-paying school and Oxbridge) background, and so on. In other words, to what extent is the real power in the UK wielded by the British Establishment? I suspect that the truth is that Britain is really an oligarchy behind a facade of democracy. It matters little whether the Tories or Labour form the government, since they are both wedded to neo-liberal policies; the mega-rich and the corporations are the ones who are truly in power.

There are two ways in which the Scottish Parliament is already more democratic than the one at Westminster. Scotland has a system of proportional representation which gives even small parties a chance of winning list seats, and there is no equivalent of the unelected House of Lords. Therefore Scottish independence will automatically make Scotland more democratic, by transferring power from Westminster to the more democratic Scottish Parliament. As for some of the other issues listed above, there will be the opportunity to tackle these when the Scottish Constitution is drawn up. In any case, it is likely to be easier for the electorate of a small country to hold its politicians to account; the bigger a country is, the more remote its government must be from the majority of its people, and not just geographically.

A Yes vote in September will be a vote for democracy.