We no longer live in a democracy. The UK is now more a sort of elective dictatorship – and will remain so for as long as Theresa May continues to be Prime Minister and she continues to approach her role as she does currently.
What Makes a Modern Democracy?
A common fallacy is that it is all about the voting. As long as all adults have chance to vote every few years, everything will work out in the long term. That’s just a tiny part. Modern democracies have evolved over centuries and it is the interplay of several components (which we take for granted) which are all needed.
The terms “democracy” and “liberal democracy” are almost interchangeable these days. Wikipedia, as ever, has a go at defining both: Democracy and Liberal democracy. Its components can be broken down in many ways. Here, I’m using those stated by political scientist Larry Diamond. I shall mention two of them only very briefly and concentrate on the last two.
According to Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government; the active participation of the people; protection of human rights of all citizens; and the rule of law.
Basically, this is a system for choosing and replacing the Government through free and fair elections. The British system requires that Parliament is sovereign. A basic requirement for any democracy is that the system produces a government broadly in line with the public’s wishes, i.e. that it is representative of the people who voted for it, but not beholden to their every whim and wish. This is not the place to discuss the merits of our “first past the post” electoral system, so I will say no more except, by world standards, I think we’re still pretty good. Obviously, the unelected House of Lords is a major aberration, but again, this is not the place I wish to discuss reform of the Lords.
Diamond’s view of this includes not only voting, but also embraces active “citizens”, i.e. active in politics and civic life. Implicit in this is that the electorate are reasonably well-informed about what they are voting for. I contend that this last point was simply not true for the EU referendum.
The election turnout figures since WWII from Wikipedia show a broadly steady trend at about 75% until the New Labour years, which mark a significant fall to about 60% in 2001, followed by a slow recovery back to around 70%.
For comparison, the turnout for the EU referendum was 72.2%, only slightly above the figures for recent general elections. I draw no conclusions from these figures here.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists five fundamental rights: Right to equality; freedom from discrimination; right to life, liberty, personal security; freedom from slavery; freedom from torture, and degrading treatment. To these, for a “liberal democracy”, I would add the freedom of expression, which includes freedom of speech and of the press.
By European standards, Britain fares badly under “freedom of the press” with the vast majority (by circulation) of the media owned by foreign or non-domiciled billionaires with agendas far removed from public opinion. I have commented on this in the past and simply draw attention to this fact here.
But I do want to say some words on the right to equality and on freedom from discrimination. Linton Kwesi Johnson in a rare and interesting interview in Saturday’s Guardian, states “I believe that racism is very much part of the cultural DNA of this country, and most probably has been so from imperial times”. Evidence for this is overwhelming and endorsed strongly in an excellent book I read recently: Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor. He has particularly harsh words – repeatedly – to say about the extreme racism of Winston Churchill, for example. The Windrush generation has just brought the institutionalised racism of UK immigration policy into the limelight. It affects many, many more than those who arrived on the Empire Windrush. UKIP (when it was a force to contend with) and the Tories (by adopting UKIP-type policies) have strongly encouraged the rise of the racists and bigots in our midst.
But this is still not the reason I say we’re living in an elective dictatorship.
Rule of Law
The rule of law divides into four key areas: an independent judiciary, the right to a fair trial, presumption of innocence and equality under the law.
A judiciary independent of the executive arm of Government is hard-wired into the Constitution of the USA and has, so far, saved us from the full evils of Trumpism. Britain succeeds in this area too, but more by custom and practice than anything concrete – until the European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into UK law, by the Blair government. The Tories have threatened to overturn the Human Rights Act 1998, so beware.
I think we do fairly well on fair trials, so no further comments on this.
And so to the factors supporting my assertion we are becoming more like a dictatorship: presumption of innocence and equality under the law.
Presumption of Innocence
For centuries, this has had two practical effects. Defendants have the right to have their evidence considered by the magistrate, judge or jury (alongside all the other evidence). And the onus is on the state (i.e. prosecution) to prove (beyond reasonable doubt in criminal cases) the guilt of someone accused.
Theresa May’s hostile environment policy has effectively removed this right from immigrants, including the Windrush generation. The same problem has spread, via the DWP, to the much harsher sanctions regime for poor and disabled people applying for benefits. In both cases, aspiring immigrants and benefit seekers are disbelieved (i.e. assumed guilty) and it is they who must prove their “innocence”. This is a flagrant violation of natural justice and of the rule of law. Such practices can normally only be found in fascist-type dictatorships, not democracies.
Equality Under the Law
The hostile environment applies to undocumented (i.e. NOT illegal) immigrants and to the poor and disabled. It follows, as night follows day, that this is discriminatory: race, gender, disability, you name it. So we no longer have equality under the law. QED.
With Amber Rudd gone, the spotlight turns to Theresa May herself. Good. And about time. She’s at the dead centre of Britain sliding into some kind of elective dictatorship. I’ll leave it there.