The State of Democracy in the UK

Historical Context

The UK’s democratic political history is best characterised by gradual (relatively peaceful) reform, perhaps traceable back to the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215. This was the first time that the monarch agreed to a limitation of their powers, although this was more for the benefit of a small elite (the Barons) rather than the population as a whole. Subsequent centuries saw the monarch ruling against a Parliament that was increasingly assertive. This came to a head in 1642, when Civil War broke out between Parliament and Charles I, resulting in the execution of the monarch and a brief period of being a republic. This lasted until 1660, with the death of Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II as monarch. Britain has had a monarchy ever since, albeit with a gradual reduction in their powers. The Glorious Revolution of 1689 finally established the primacy of Parliament over the monarch, along with the principle of constitutional rule.

Until the mid-18th century, politics in Britain had mainly been the preserve of the aristocracy. The onset of the industrial revolution changed society, leading to the development of a new kind of class structure. Pressure increased to increase the opportunity to participate in politics from the ranks of the newly-formed ‘middle’ classes. As a result, a series of Great Reform Acts extended the franchise to more and more people, until, in 1928, universal suffrage was established. Politics was now an activity involving the masses, rather than just the elite. Britain’s model of parliamentary democracy became a model for other countries.

Features of democracy in the UK

Democracy in the UK is characterised by regular, free and fair elections. These are conducted by secret ballot, where everyone’s vote in private and so free from outside pressure. Everyone’s vote is of the same value, there is a choice of candidates/parties, everyone over the age of 18 has the right to vote unless they are in prison or have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Voting is not compulsory in the UK. The Electoral Commission oversees the administration and running of elections. Its purpose is to ensure that election rules are being followed, for example, spending limits, and to ensure that electoral fraud is not being committed.

The State of Democracy in the UK, figure 1

Parliament is another feature of the UK’s democratic system. This consists of the monarch, the House of Commons (which is elected) and the House of Lords (which is appointed). The government is formed by the party which has an overall majority in the House of Commons. In the event of a hung parliament (where there is no overall majority), parties are able to join together to create coalitions. This is very rare in the UK, due to the characteristics of the electoral system. The electorate votes in Members of Parliament every five years, under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. In addition to this, there are elections for local councillors, Members of the European Parliament, and Mayors of major cities Voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also vote in elections to their devolved legislatures. Since 1997, referendums have been more widely used in the UK to vote on single issues. These can be binding (Parliament must accept and implement the result) or advisory (Parliament does not need to implement the result).

Finally, pressure groups also supplement the ‘formal’ structures of UK democracy. These are groups which vary hugely in size and influence but are usually concerned with a particular issue or a particular group in society. Examples of these include the Confederation of British Industry and Greenpeace.

Participation crisis

Concerns have been raised over a ‘participation crisis’ in UK democracy. This has been fuelled by declining turnout rates in elections and rising levels of apathy (people not being ‘bothered’ by politics). For example, in the 2001 UK general election, turnout was only 59%. Also, membership of political parties such as Labour and the Conservatives has dropped dramatically over the years. People tend to identify much less with a political party, whereas they did much more in the early part of the previous century. The negative public perception of politicians may also be a factor in this. In addition, the characteristics of the electoral system in the UK means that many people live in ‘safe seats’, where one party is all-but guaranteed to win, so this makes people less encouraged to vote, or be interested in politics generally.

However, some have argued that political participation may be taking place in different ways and that the idea of a ‘participation crisis’ may be overstated. For example, people involve themselves in politics through signing petitions, debating on social media, joining pressure groups, going on protest marches, donating money to a cause, and so on. The large turnouts in the Scottish and EU referendums are further evidence that perhaps people are not participating less, just in different ways.

Could democracy in the UK be improved?

One way to improve democracy in the UK could be to hold more referendums on key issues. This would improve democracy because it would encourage more people to take an interest in the issues and be involved (see: success of Scottish and EU referendums in involving people in politics)

Other similar ways of involving people in politics may be to ask the public to be involved in focus groups (where people’s views are canvassed by the government or other bodies), or to initiate recall of their MP (where constituents can vote to remove their MP and trigger a new election, for example in the case of wrongdoing). More use of online petitions may also help (e.g. e-petitions which gain over 100,000 signatures can be discussed in Parliament)

Reducing the voting age has also been suggested as a way of improving democracy, for example lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. This may help engage people in politics from a younger age, and also make politicians think more about young peoples’ issues. The downside of this is that many 16-year-olds may not be mature or knowledgeable enough about politics, and if they do not vote, turnout percentage may actually decrease.

Lastly, democracy could be improved through the increased use of ‘e-democracy’, for example, online voting, e-petitions, using online resources to organise campaigns, and debating on social media. This may make it practically easier to be involved in democracy and therefore encourage higher participation levels. Arguments against this would be the concerns over security/voter fraud, and that not everyone may be able to access such democracy equally.

Question Time:

We know that the UK is suffering from a participation crisis because fewer people are getting involved in politics. We can measure this by the decreasing turnout at general elections, for example, in 1959, there was a turnout of 78.7 percent and in 2010; there was a turnout of 65.1 percent. These figures reveal that election turnouts have been steadily decreasing for a number of years and as such, it is time to address the issue. After all, how can we complain about the lack of democracy in the UK if we do not exercise the few democratic rights that we do possess?

The decline in turnout in general elections is a significant indication that the UK is suffering from a participation crisis as the trend has existed since 1959. Furthermore, the turnout during the 2001 election was the lowest since 1918 at 59.4 percent and although it rose to 65 percent in 2010, it is still significantly lower than it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

Why? Political parties are, arguably, more concerned with getting the most votes as opposed to representing the people. If this means targeting all of their policies towards large groups, then they will ensure their policies are perfectly tailored to attract their votes. The issue, however, is that this technique is no secret. Due to Britain having a two-party system, this results in the very limited number of political parties creating similar, if not the same policies. With no choice, abstaining from voting seems like a much more appealing option.

However, some argue that anything from voting in a referendum to watching the news can be a form of participation. If participation is the act of being active in politics, then isn’t discussing current affairs over the dinner table a form of this? Sharing opinions and voting on polls show that one is active in politics. Aman Ubhi, ‘The UK’s Participation Crisis’,

Using the source above, evaluate the view that UK democracy is in crisis. (30 marks - try to give at least 3 arguments for and 3 against)
Your answer should include: Elections / Parties / Membership / Representation