Is Britain really as democratic as it seems?


One of the most interesting dialogues to arise from the calls of a second Brexit referendum is whether or not such a referendum would be democratic.

Of course, this is a valid question. 52% of the electorate who turned up to vote on the 23rd of June 2016 voted to leave the European Union. While I argue that having a second referendum, in full face of facts which were pure speculation in 2016, would not be undemocratic, I respect that some Brexiteers feel that their say would be undermined if a second referendum for the Untied Kingdom’s EU membership would ever be called.

Was that a typo, or has Brexit revealed some of the fraying ends of British democracy?

Even ignoring

Even ignoring the fact that two of Britain’s autonomous regions (non-English countries) voted largely to remain in the European Union (Northern Ireland, who could well be most affected by Britain leaving, and Scotland, who are seeking a second independence referendum of their own) and are being forced to withdraw from the EU by Westminster, Britain’s democracy isn’t quite what it seems.*

*(The majority of London also voted to stay, which may to some extent undermine the Westminster-bubble argument as presented above. However, Westminster is not London, and the ruling classes are out of touch because of class, rather than geographical, divisions; see below.)

In the ‘Western World’, ‘democracy’ has become almost synonymous with ‘benevolent’; one of the few quotes attributed to Winston Churchill which can be printed in 2019 without eliciting conversations about whether such a racist man should as glorified as he is today (he shouldn’t) is: “democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms”. Indeed, in other parts of the world and throughout history, alternative forms of government have been perceived as preferable.

If one of a nation’s most important aims – and it should be – is to continue to improve the way it governs its people, having an open and honest conversation about the merits and drawbacks of democracy is an important conversation. However, ‘democracy’ is so firmly established as the right and most civilised way things should be done that anybody who tries to argue for alternative government, or lack thereof (anarchism, authoritarianism), might be branded as a traitor – and, given the heavy connotations these latter two labels have garnered in the 20th century, this may be excusable.

There are no legitimate arguments for monarchy

This article is not an argument against democracy or supporting an alternative form of government, but rather an acknowledgement that we should be critical of our government’s chosen forms. A system which describes itself as a democracy while exercising autocratic practices is damaging, dosing the population with palliatives by telling them they are getting the best government possible; therefore, they should not be questioned. Of course, the British government is open to questioning and criticism, but chiefly from within the House of Commons. A country which arrests peaceful student protesters may not take exterior criticism seriously; and why should MPs, rather than individuals, vote on their confidence in a government?

Inherent in the ‘is a second referendum democratic?’ question is the sub-textual reminder: ‘You have a democratic government! Democracy shalt not be undermined!’

However, by repeatedly claiming that the British parliamentary system is democratic, the conversation ignores all of the inherently un-democratic parts of the way Britain is governed (again, ignoring the lackluster devolution of powers to non-English countries), while constantly resisting criticism.

The following are the ways that Britain is not democratic:

  1. Britain’s Head of State is a Monarch.
    There are no legitimate arguments for a monarchy. (The best I’ve heard, that it acts as a symbol which binds the Union together, is of course undermined by just how disjointed the Union politically is.) Tourists would still flood to the palaces if the monarchy disbanded, as is evident across Europe. The Commonwealth may well ‘disband’ (disappear?) if the monarchy ends, but what is the Commonwealth but a living monument to colonisation? The EU is a much less controversial, if not necessarily more inherently valuable, partnership. Conversely, there are many arguments against a monarchy, besides from the glaring elephant in the room (taxpayers’ money). The Queen has power to deny the formation of any democratically elected government – and even if she may never exercise this, the fact that the head of state can lawfully illegitimize a democratically elected government is archaic and cause enough for outrage. Indeed, even in 2019 the Royal Family have proved they are above the law: Prince Philip will not face charges for crashing his car into a family while driving without a seatbelt, and special social media laws may soon be put in place to silence criticism of this undemocratic ruling family. Furthermore, the Royal Family is a living justification of the class system, a representative glass ceiling which insures that the poorest of British society are inherently told you will never rise to the top; you might be able to grow beyond the means you were born in, but only just. This might seem like a small thing, but mindset influences action. Schoolchildren from families rich enough to send them to schools alongside princes and princesses inherit a sense of superiority and snobbery by association, and often end up being the ones who run our country. Poor people are told they will never become the ruling class.
  2. There is a legitimate argument to be made that Britain borders on elective autocracy.
    Now it is very important to distinguish that the key word here is ‘borders’, and this serves in no way to undermine the struggles of those living under a legitimate dictatorship. But it is true that due to the First Past the Post System, the minute a party wins a majority, they hypothetically have the power to pass (almost) whatever laws they please (if if weren’t for #4 – see below). Don’t get a majority? That’s fine, just buy (read: bribe) the support of another party, which the Conservatives did in 2017 with the DUP. It is, of course, preferable to form a coalition with parties with just enough seats to cross the threshold – the larger the party you merge with, the more distilled your majority. The Prime Minister and their chosen cabinet outline laws and ideas which the majority of their party (and coalition party) might well feel pressured to vote for – vote against your own party policy so many times, and you might find yourself with neither a party nor a seat. While not all of the cabinet’s ideas pass the Commons, a party which knows how to flex its muscles could potentially ensure a victory for almost all of their laws. The minute a Prime Minister gets into power (provided the very autocratic Monarch allows them to form a government), they could potentially do whatever they please – much more easily, at least, than the leader of a more inherently representative parliament. (By ‘inherently representative’, I mean a government in a country which usually is formed up of coalitions, rather than a ruling party which must form a coalition to get ‘past the post’ and gain authority.)
  3. The government can pick and choose when elections occur; a.k.a. Theresa May was an unelected Prime Minister for a year.
    Despite the age-old adage that the electorate votes for a party rather than a Prime Minister, there can be no doubt that the ideology of a party changes with its leader. If Ed Miliband had been Prime Minister and resigned, giving power to the much more socialist Jeremy Corbyn and automatically passing him the premiership, would there not have been outrage? There should have been a General Election when David Cameron resigned, but, due to a governing party’s overwhelming influence (see #2: elective autocracy), the Tories, fearing their stability, did not, of course, call one. Adding insult to injury, nobody in the Conservative Party voted for Theresa May until 2017, who simply won the Leadership contest because the other candidates dropped out. From 2016-2017, Britain had an unelected Head of State and an unelected Head of Politics, while media and the far right rattled on about how a second Brexit referendum would be ‘undemocratic’. To top it all of, if the government really believed that the electorate vote for a Party, rather than an individual, where is the justice for the constituencies who voted for the MPs who left their parties to join ‘the Independent Group’?  These constituencies deserve by-elections.
    (It is of no surprise that the Independent Group, as well as right-leaning Labour members, use the argument that people vote for individuals rather than a party to argue against the need for a by-election. Maybe certain politicians don’t want democracy at all.)
  4. The House of Lords exists.
    A group of unelected ‘Lords’, who do not need to have any political experience whatsoever, can delay the laws passed by the House of Commons, until they approve of them. ‘Commons’, as in common people, as in ‘Not Lords’. The United Kingdom has a problem with classicism. Monarchs and Lords can both reject the will of the people – a group of people who are subjects, before they are citizens. For a Kingdom to be democratic is an oxymoron. Democracy and monarchy cannot co-exist.

Matteo Everett

Note: this is a slightly modified version of an article which originally appeared on https://thenomad97.wordpress.com, titled ‘Britain: Democracy – or elective autocracy?’

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