"Democracy: The worst form of government... except for all the others."
Quip by Sir Winston Churchill, November 1947.
For the moment, Britain's fragile democracy has survived its latest challenge from people with power, influence, and money. More needs to be done to accommodate the influence of mass media, social media, worldwide communications, and large movements of populations. Other Western Democracies are also struggling to adapt to and to overcome their own democratic crises. This material from our special exhibition for Hemyock Castle's Heritage Open Days 2019 is about Britain's long, slow, continuing progress towards democracy; particularly the contribution of people associated with Hemyock Castle.
Update April 2020. Interesting how quickly countries have become much more authoritarian in response to COVID-19. Many people – and journalists who normally claim to defend democracy – seem to encourage and welcome this trend. They also seem happy when some police exert arbitrary powers which are not actually backed by laws passed by our Parliament. As well as hoping that we soon resolve COVID-19, I hope that UK's democracy & its rule of law are not seriously damaged and can be restored as soon as possible.
Update October 2020. Now, even some politicians and media folk have noticed the UK's democratic deficit. But their responses differ widely: Some long (perhaps unrealistically) to return to what we had before; some see this as an opportunity to promote their own agenda of changes; incredibly, some justify their own bad / dangerous behaviour with claims that a political opponent also "broke the rules." The vast majority of people are doing their very best; but the thin veneer of civilised behaviour by our "betters" has cracked remarkably quickly.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown the importance of lengthy press conferences, supported by experts and their visual information. If the UK Parliament is to regain its supremacy over the Executive part of government, including its insistence that important policy announcements be made first within Parliament; Parliamentary procedures will have to change to allow visual information and expert advisors, instead of just verbal debates between politicians. They will also have to allocate sufficient time for ministers to provide urgent detailed statements and explanations.
Starting this project, I had expected easily to find a simple widely accepted list of the conditions needed to support a thriving democracy. But each expert proposes a different list, so perhaps no simple list or diagram can be complete? My mindmap sketch on this page summarises the main conditions. Its complexity demonstrates the complexity of democracy and also helps explain democracy's fragility: Loss of any important aspect can seriously damage that democracy. Rather than the actual detail, notice the complexity of even this incomplete diagram.
This mindmap groups the conditions needed for a thriving democracy under four headings:
Under each heading, the conditions are subdivided into those which must be provided by public / national authorities; and those which are more the responsibility or concern of individuals. For clarity, many of the linkages between items are not shown.
Some people, especially some young people, have little faith in politics and democracy; lured by the excitement of direct action or street demonstrations – or by demagogues – rather than taking part in, and respecting, democratic votes. This happened across Europe in 1968, particularly in Paris. 2019 brought more street protests.
Britain's journey to its current "representative democracy" has been long and painful. But in recent centuries, Britain has usually been able to adapt to popular demands, without the upheavals and bloodshed seen elsewhere in the World. With luck, Britain will again find a peaceful way through its current turmoil.
Question: How do recent events, crises and trends fit into this discussion of democracy? How do they demonstrate the different aspects & requirements for democracy? How do they show its limits & limitations? For example:
Democracy is simple in concept, but remarkably difficult in practice; both to introduce and to sustain. Conditions have to be just right for democracy to emerge and for it to thrive. Without constant effort, democracy declines into a more remote and authoritarian form of government.
Democracy seldom works when people are on the edge of survival; it also declines when people are so comfortable that they become complacent: In both cases, there is drift towards giving power to "strong leaders" or unelected "experts," who promise "to make the trains run on time."
Universal suffrage with secret ballots make it much harder to bribe or coerce enough voters to affect election results. There have long been measures to control & limit the possible distorting influence of the mass media: Newspapers, radio, TV etc. However, the Internet, Social Media, Crowd-Funding, and possible foreign interference represent new challenges to democracy.
Most of us claim to believe in democracy and universal suffrage, but when a democratic decision goes against us we are all apt to complain that other voters are too old / too young, too rich / too poor, too bigoted / too complacent, too ill-informed, too open to bribery or propaganda, or just plain stupid. We have heard all these complaints, particularly since the UK's 2016 EU referendum and the USA's 2016 Presidential election.
Repeatedly we encounter the popular myth of the "Benign Dictators"; strong leaders who often offer simplistic solutions in order to gain power; "Solutions" which often include blaming particular groups and sections of society or "outsiders" for society's wider problems. But later, it is hard to replace these strong leaders and to rebuild or restart genuine democracy: After a strong leader is deposed or dies, the tensions they kept in check during their reign often break-out into open conflict as the different factions jockey for power.
It has taken Britain hundreds of years to evolve the current system of representative democracy, where almost all adults aged over 18 have a free, secret, equal vote in elections which choose their representatives: Members of Parliament and local councillors they elected to oversee the permanent civil servants & public officials employed to run Britain's national and local government. Unlike in USA, the permanent civil servants and public officials are not themselves elected and do not lose their posts after elections: They are required to carry-out the policies of whoever is elected to represent the voters.
Very occasionally, Britain holds a referendum where voters can directly take a decision on a particular topic: An example of Direct Democracy.
Much more often, Britain's national and local government runs public consultations, asking for the views of organisations and individuals. But very few individuals participate in these.
In our age of social media, there is now an official system for online petitions which call for a particular action by government. However, although some petitions appear to receive electronic "signatures" from large numbers of people, there is much less reasoned debate, or verification of those signatures, than in normal elections.
This same social media also makes it easier to spread political ideas, however questionable; to organise street protests; and to raise money via "crowd-funding." These are all potential threats to our established representational democracy.
There is constant pressure to make elections "fairer" and to increase participation, particularly of younger voters. There is talk of changing the voting system to give better representation to minority views; of redrawing electoral boundaries to reflect population changes; of reducing the voting age to 16 or even to 14; of making the act of voting easier and more convenient by allowing more postal or even online voting. In reaction, there is some pressure to increase the threshold before people qualify for a vote, hoping to ensure that voters have sufficient maturity and commitment. Also although it is claimed that youngsters deserve the vote because they will live for longer with the consequences; most societies assume that older people are better equipped to shoulder the responsibility, and that they will take proper account of the interests of younger people. Always there is a danger that radical change could destroy centuries of careful progress, particularly if done to give one political faction an advantage.
Although apparently antiquated, Britain's systems of Polling Stations where voters have the secrecy and security to mark their personal vote on a paper ballot form is remarkably effective: When run properly, this paper-based system is inherently resistant to fraud, tampering, coercion, bribery, and even to cyber attacks.
Other webpages in this series:
These webpages were created as part of a special exhibition at Hemyock Castle's 2019 Heritage Open Day
Hemyock Castle receives no funding, and makes no charge for entry on Heritage Open Days. We welcome donations to The Blackdown Support Group & Musgrove Leukaemic Group Somerset
Hemyock Castle, Hemyock, CULLOMPTON, Devon, EX15 3RJ, UK.
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