“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract.
Holding votes is a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy. You can’t be a democracy without voting, but holding votes does not make somewhere a democracy.
Voting is the most visible outward manifestation of democracy, but it is actually a relatively small part of what goes to make up a democratic system.
We’ve seen this often in ex-Soviet states like Russia and Belarus. They both hold elections, but neither is a democracy. Why?
Firstly, society must be democratic. Participation in politics must be actively promoted. Politics must be seen as something that affects all, and in which all can and should participate. A population stricken by fear, economic or otherwise, cannot do this.
People must be accurately informed. The dominance of narrow interests in the media, be they those of the State or of a concentrated, non-diverse ownership undermines this.
There must be rule of law. Laws must be made without discrimination or partiality, and an independent judiciary, free of political, sectional, or media influence must enforce them.
Rule of law includes respect for the constitution, even if it is only partly written and uncodified. It is the overall framework for a democracy, and constitutional laws cannot be treated trivially or for political ends.
Standards of conduct and probity among politicians must be high. This does not just mean financial probity, but also a commitment to truth, accuracy and the interests of the country above all else.
This is particularly important. Politicians do not just reflect public and press opinion. They lead it, and set the example for everyone of how our democratic politics should be conducted.
And Democracy has to happen every day. It must be scrutinised, discussed, argued, written and demonstrated about constantly, or Rousseau was right. Apart from during an election, we would be just slaves.
For this to happen, there must also be transparency. Those that seek to hide reality, cheat, or mislead for their own ends are the opponents of democracy, not those that seek to expose such things.
And finally, democracy can change its mind. Decisions are temporary. It requires that what has been done can, with the consent of the people, be undone. Every those countries with very rigid constitutions have mechanisms to change them.
No decision made today by the people or their representatives can be binding on the people or representatives of tomorrow. It cannot be set in aspic. To deny this is to allow the dictatorship of today’s people over future people and generations.
To err is human, and democracy must also be for and by humans.
All of these aspects of democracy are currently under threat in the UK today.
Those who scrutinise, demonstrate, and participate in democracy are accused of not being behind Britain, or of being saboteurs. Dissent is portrayed as unpatriotic. Questioning power as subversion.
Politicians and the media actively bring pressure to bear upon the independent judiciary, and call judges “Enemies of the People”.
Cabinet ministers actively and knowingly mislead Parliament and the population, and are assisted in the propagation of falsehoods by a tame media that is either cowed by fear of them, or else shares their political aims.
They lead by example, and the currency of truth is debased and reduced to mere opinion to be shouted over and accepted or rejected based on feelings, not thoughts or evidence.
Reality itself is distorted and denied. Confusion is actively promoted to ensure everything is a blur, and clarity is almost impossible to find.
The Government actively avoids even itself knowing the truth about key questions facing the country.
Constitutional conventions and laws, such as the Devolution Acts, are casually flouted for political gain.
Parliament is sidelined, bypassed and undermined by a government that sees itself as the sole source of power and authority.
Public funds are used to make party-political deals for party political gain.
Elected representatives are cowed by their party machines into knowingly voting against the interests of the country and the people they represent.
Party leaders deliberately and knowingly put the good and electoral prospects of their parties above what they know to be the good of the country and its population.
And a single vote on a single day is held to be the unquestionable will of the people for all eternity. Like a child caught smoking, the people must be forced to smoke the whole carton until they’re sick, and forced to have yet more.
(That’s what de facto dictators like Putin and Lukashenko like to say when they change to constitution to keep themselves in power, by the way.)
And now, as it transpires that the campaigns in the 2016 EU Referendum may have broken spending rules, and used advertising so targeted as to put it beyond scrutiny, Cabinet Ministers seek to influence the Electoral Commission and any future court’s findings by pronouncing on it in public.
So, even the voting itself is undermined. We don’t even have that necessary but insufficient condition for a free, fair and functioning democracy.
I’ve never wanted Rousseau to be right about democracy in the UK. I fear he is close to being so now though.
“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.”
Or a referendum, Jean-Jacques. Or a referendum.
How to explain this erosion of democracy in UK in a historical perspective?
I think it’s a combination of a gradual erosion of certain constitutional elements such as conventions over many years, then arriving at an almost perfect storm of polarised main parties, both with some authoritarian tendencies (but in different ways).
A referendum (and Brexit itself) to be won at all costs, MPs and ministers willing and able to lie with impunity, a degenerating media (see the remarkable decline of The Telegraph), the BBC cowed by balance and the threats of losing it’s unique funding, and many other factors besides.
All coming together, all at just the wrong time.🔷
- The Social Contract, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)