Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Democracy - a question of meaning ...

From Wikipedia:
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law.[1] It can also encompass social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.
To most of us, the above is what we think is the way things work in any "democracy" but, is it?

In most "democratic" countries (and quite a few the "West" consider undemocratic) this generally means we get to vote every few years to determine who sits in a parliament, council chamber or some other "house" of representation and run a country, city, province or county on our behalf. If you live in a country where it is "one man; one vote" and a "first past the post is elected" system there is a complication if your candidate isn't elected. It also means that a "tribal" vote for a particular party can make it impossible to change a government. This was the case in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, the distribution of constituencies meant that there was a permanent majority for the Nationalist Party, the architects of Apartheid. If you lived in a Nationalist Constituency and didn't vote for them, your vote scarcely mattered.

The big question has to be, is this really democracy? Was the "democracy" practiced by communist dictatorships any better? Did the voter really have an "equal say in the decisions that affect their lives?" Simplistically - no. The ruling party usually has enough seats to overrule any objection from anyone in opposition. OK, so this is called "majority" rule, but it is a bit of steamroller as far as anyone dissenting is concerned, especially if you have no hope of reversing whatever the decision was because you can't change the government. It gets worse where the elected "Members" of the legislature claim that their "House" is also "sovereign" and that this means they don't have to consult the electorate on anything, no matter how large an issue it might be, between elections.

Personally I don't believe that any of these systems is really democratic. Why? Because most of them contain the single flaw - the electorate really only have a say over who "represents" them and not over what the collected "representatives" can and can't enact which impacts on their electorate.

As I remarked yesterday, much fuss has been made in certain quarters about the fact that the Greek and Italian governments have been changed without an election. It is claimed that this is undemocratic, but my impression from the news channels in those two countries is that the people are overjoyed at the change. Berlusconi owned almost all the newspapers and TV stations and, as the media invariably exert a huge influence in any election, could, conceivably, have swung enough voters to hang on in power - despite having almost single-handedly destroyed the Italian economy. The Italians are quite happy that, at last, he has been forced from office.

The Greeks present another side of the coin. They elected the Papandreou government and its predecessor, both in thrall to the communist controlled Trade Unions and both far left socialist in their policies. Cue very generous social welfare, health care, civil service pay and a free spending programme for everyone - plus a lack of tax policing and collection leading to massive tax evasion. The Unions are against the cuts, the government has little choice since their loans are now due for payment and those who do pay their taxes are now feeling the pinch. A change of government is welcomed by most there as well, but, yes, there is a price to pay.

It is interesting to note that there is no universally accepted definition of democracy, which was invented in Greece, not as a means of "electing representatives" but as a way of getting people removed from office and even exiled from the city states. Perhaps that is a concept we should explore again!

"Majority" rule has, in recent times, been declared by various liberal thinkers as the only acceptable form of democracy, yet the same group are quite happy to impose "minority rights" giving minorities power to frustrate a majority wish expressed in a "democratic" manner. Personally I find it disturbing that a system that was totally unacceptable in Africa, is now imposed in the name of "fairness and justice" to "protect ethnic minorities" in a sort of reverse apartheid. "Minority rights" are important, but should they be able to overturn the rights of a majority? Those who argue they should are, ironically the same people who fought to have the apartheid regime isolated and driven from government.

The EU is promoted as a "democratic" institution, but how much influence do the individual voters actually have? The answer is very little, certainly in terms of the definition with which I started. We "elect" the Strasbourg Parliament, but that's about it. The Council of Ministers appoints the Commissioners who actually make the laws - and it is claimed that this is a "democratic" process because the Ministers are "elected" by the voters and therefore empowered to make these appointments ...

Democratic? In my view, marginally. Very marginally. Frankly, its corrupt.

Is Britain's much vaunted system any better? Roughly a third of the seats at present can be described as "tribal" (The correct term is "Safe" meaning one Party enjoys an unasailable majority in that constituency) and in reality only the "marginal" seats ever change hands. Add to that the "Whips" who enforce "Party Discipline" and make sure all their MPs vote as they are told to by "The Leader" and you have to wonder if your voice is ever heard at all.

The explanation (excuse) is that we live in a "Parliamentary Democracy" and that "Parliament is Sovereign" and therefore free to do as it pleases once elected. You, the voter, have given them your approval and proxy to rule you as they see fit. Is it really democratic? It is argued that we can change the government, but the UK system (and most of those modelled on it) really only offer a choice of two Parties and, if neither happens to represent your ideals or views - well, tough.

I suppose we are left with Sir Winston Churchill's famous line - "Democracy: The worst of all systems of government. Except for all the others."


  1. I forget who it was - Stalin maybe? - who said "One man, one vote. And I'm the man." Sounds ok to me. But then I confess that I'm not a great fan of democracy - "democracy" in any sense means, at best, putting government in the hands of people who don't understand government and, at worst, putting government in the hands of people who are concerned only with their own benefit. Same people - different viewpoint. Or is that terribly cynical of me?

  2. Sadly, I have to agree that to often it is about putting government into the hands of the self seeking and self promoting members of society and of allowing to many who do not seem to be able to think before voting, to enjoy that privilege.

    As Pratchett says in the book "Mort:" "The Patrician believed in 'one man; one vote.' He was the man and it was his vote."

  3. In the States, you're hearing a lot of people shouting that "this is what democracy looks like". These are the same people who "pledge allegence to the flag... and to the REPUBLIC for which it stands".

    From Wikipedia:
    "A republic is a form of government in which the people, or some significant portion of them, have supreme control over the government and where offices of state are elected or chosen by elected people.[1][2] In modern times, a common simplified definition of a republic is a government where the head of state is not a monarch.[3][4]"
    (italics mine)

    Kinda makes you wanna tap the protesters on the shoulder and quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."


  4. Most would, I suspect go - "Eh?" Plato postulated that all states go from a form of autocracy, through democracy into oligarchy and eventually back to autocracy ...

    I reckon we are already in the third "state."