Winston Churchill once remarked, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried….”
Churchill’s famous comment reflected the simple truth that whilst the variant forms of democracy may contain commendable attributes and aspirations, they are also the source of a multiplicity of weaknesses and imperfections. In addition, they have been shown to be easy prey to manipulation and unscrupulous betrayal.
I assume that Churchill was primarily thinking of the ‘representative democracy’ system that we have operating in the United Kingdom. The one under which many of us grew up innocently expecting, or at least hoping, that the broad wishes of the majority of the people would be respected and delivered; that the essence and heart of the nation would be carefully preserved.
The perfidy of the political deceits of the last seven decades have proved that to be an empty hope. Any trust that the electorate placed, perhaps naively, in charlatan career politicians, who call themselves ‘honourable‘, was dissipated and lost long ago.
In its place, we are left to view the hideous scars of the disfiguring social and cultural vandalism that has been visited upon our nation. Not only have the culprits escaped punishment, many have received honours when they deserved ignominy, and have prospered when they deserved scorn and retribution.
In the light of that, following the EU referendum result, I suppose it cannot have come as a surprise for us to find that a very large proportion of our political representatives do not believe in democracy of any sort at all.
It has also become abundantly clear that the political classes appear to be fully supported in this disgraceful dereliction of duty by large sections of the civil service, the establishment and, to their undying shame, a substantive element of the judiciary.
I have listened to the extensive Brexit debates in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords. In turn, I have been annoyed by the obvious general ignorance of many participants; angered by the empty-headed displacement of intellectual logic by blunt political prejudice; and infuriated by the scandalous, often secretive, self-interest of so many of our political representatives.
I wonder, have the conclusions of the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proved to be true? He argued that representative democracy is not democracy at all, but an elective aristocracy; that it is not the people, but the people’s representatives, who decide what will be the law.
Is it the reality then, that our much-vaunted ‘British democracy’ is, in fact, a delusion?
Have our political representatives formed an oligarchy; a grand hierarchy of powerful figures who see it as their right to rule over the masses? Or is there a plutocracy of the wealthy, many of whom don’t even live here, but can manipulate ‘events’? Or is it a mixture of both?
Democracy can be defined as ‘the form of government in which the sovereign power is in the hands of the people’. If the sovereign power is ever removed from the people, by whatever means, then it is, by definition, no longer a democracy.
The people can ‘lend’ their sovereign power to elected representatives in parliament for short periods of time for government. But ownership of the sovereignty does not pass. It is never Parliament’s to give away. It never, under any circumstances, belongs to them.
Populism, a close kin to democracy, can be defined as ‘a political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite’. Accordingly, a ‘populist’ is someone who actively supports the interests, concerns, and aspirations of the ordinary people
I would suggest that the words of American President Abraham Lincoln in his famous 1863 Gettysburg address, speaking of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” sound essentially populist.
Indeed, the close identification of their Greek and Latin origins would suggest that the words democracy and populism mean exactly the same thing; that the will of the majority of the people is paramount. But, if that’s the case, then why do the political classes pay unreliable lip-service to the former whilst arrogantly denigrating and sneering at the latter?
In my opinion, the answer is that, being fully paid-up apparatchiks of the current system, they feel in control of the levers of power in our current non-democracy. Populism presents a threat to that.
When the vast majority of the population couldn’t read or write, possibly not as long ago as you might think, then representative democracy may have been seen to be a sensible proposition. But times have changed.
Unfortunately, from the uneducated conceit of their public comments since the referendum, it would seem that many of our political representatives, particularly in the House of Lords, hold the opinion that the general public still can’t read or write. They also appear blissfully unaware of the multiplicity of alternative sources of information available today to the electorate that they hold in such contempt. They have much to learn.
Many associate democracy with freedom. Occasionally one hears the hopeful cry “we live in a free democracy”. But if UK democracy is a failed democracy, then it is neither democratic nor free.
When the LibLabCons coalesced into a single political grouping they destroyed political choice. They also effectively disenfranchised anyone who chose not to vote for the one beacon of light that was UKIP.
But even within UKIP there was a centrist cabal who, if they had achieved their aims, would have extinguished the option of even that sole alternative hope. Fortunately, they have failed. UKIP has not only survived but grown stronger. The fight for freedom, free speech, independence and political choice goes on.
Now, if the great Winston struggled to improve on representative democracy, then I’m certainly not going to pretend that I can. But maybe the cautious and careful introduction of some elements of direct democracy, proportional representation, and written constitutional limitations on the unauthorized power of the ‘political aristocracy’, might better reflect the changed times.