Britain’s Democratic Deficit by Tom Kilcourse, Author. He has been a garage hand, a coal miner and a bus driver, before gaining a trade union scholarship to study at Ruskin College, Oxford. He later gained a State Scholarship to read economics at Hull University.
Britain not only claims to be a great democracy, but presumes on occasions to lecture other states, or to interfere in other ways, on their undemocratic processes. It is worth asking, therefore, how valid Britain’s claim is. Can the governance of Britain really be considered a democratic process?
Beginning at the very top of the governmental structure we see that the head of state is an unelected monarch born to the position. The present queen is undoubtedly popular, but she is nevertheless unelected. She is there for life, or until she voluntarily stands down. Furthermore, the British people now know who the next monarch will be, Charles, and who will follow him, William, before the crown is handed to William’s son, George. The third named is still an infant, so we can reasonably say that we know who will rule over us for the next eighty years or so. At no point will the British public be asked to express their views through a ballot box.
Not only is the monarch the head of the armed forces, but is also the titular head of the Christian Church of England, an increasingly meaningless title. The elected government is her/his majesty’s government, and the Prime minister is the monarch’s First Minister. The British public is assured that the monarch is ‘above politics’ and does not interfere in government policy. Few believe that.
Monarchy in Britain is essentially a family business, with numerous relatives of the monarch treated with exaggerated respect as they perform a number of ‘public duties’. The system is ingrained in the British psyche, while an efficient public relations machine and subservient press work to keep it that way.
Beneath the monarch, political matters are the business of two chambers, the Commons and the Lords. The latter is sometimes called the ‘upper house’ or the ‘second chamber’. This too is unelected. The Lords, a few of them hereditary, ninety two, while the rest are appointed, form the second largest legislative assembly in the world. Only the Communist Party General Assembly in China is bigger, but the House of Lords is fast catching up, with many more lords than there are seats in the chamber to accommodate them. It is the only ‘upper house’ of a bicameral parliament in the world that is larger than the lower, elected house.
Membership of the Lords is a sinecure for many, a reward to ex-members of the commons for keeping their noses clean. They are joined there by a group of twenty-six bishops and a general hotchpotch of the ‘great and the good’ appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister. They, like the monarch, hold their unelected positions for life with the general population over whom they rule having no say in the matter.
At the bottom of this governance hierarchy lies the House of Commons to which 650 members of parliament are elected for five-year terms by the general electorate. The Prime Minister sits in the Commons, but only by convention. Other cabinet ministers may come from the Commons or the Lords. Each member of the Commons is elected by an area-based constituency on a first-past-the-post basis. They are supposed to represent the interests of the people in their constituency, as well as the wider, national interest. However, they do have competing loyalties, most notably to their political party and their careers.
Being a Member of Parliament (MPs) is now a profession in a ‘business’ where power has become increasingly centralised over the decades. The vast majority of election candidates belong to a political party. There are very few independent candidates. Although a candidate is nominally chosen to by the constituency party the reality is that most are selected at national level by a central panel. This means that candidates favoured by the Westminster elite are often ‘parachuted’ into a constituency that they barely know, and sometimes don’t understand. Being career politicians, these people are then eager to please the power brokers within the party and government, a place in the Cabinet may depend on it.
Up to a point, the election of MPs can be considered democratic, but only up to a point. In truth, the first-past-the-post system favours the two main parties, Conservative and Labour. Independents rarely get elected, but candidates from the minor parties are also placed at a disadvantage by the system. Quite simply, in a constituency that has five or six candidates standing, the winner may have attracted no more than a third of the votes cast, or even less. The two-thirds who voted for alternative candidates are effectively disenfranchised. The present Conservative government was gained less than 40% of the votes. That was sufficient to give them an absolute majority in the Commons, while another party that attracted 4 million votes nationally won only one seat.
Beneath this three-tier government machine, Monarch, Lords and Commons, the ordinary British elector barely has a voice, hence the old joke ‘What do you think of British democracy?’ ‘I think it would be a good idea.’
What would that ‘idea’ look like. The likelihood of replacing the monarch with a president is so remote in Britain as to be not worth further consideration, but the bicameral parliament could be made much more democratic.
When it has been suggested that the House of Lords should be elected, it has encountered two main reservations. First, if both houses were elected they would compete with each other for popularity with the electorate. The result would be less efficient government, a barely conceivable prospect. Secondly, many of those now appointed to the Lords bring with them special skills and experience of the world outside politics, a claim that cannot be made for the Commons.
These reservations have merit, but need not prevent change. Election to the Lords could be based on non-geographical constituencies, major institutions in business and social life, for instance. The Trades Union Congress perhaps, the Confederation of British Industry and various industrial bodies, along with the Royal College of Nursing etc. The universities too could contribute. Such a scheme would ensure that the Lords retained its expertise in various non-political areas, and Peers would not be competing with MPs for the attention of the ‘man in the street’. Needless to say, elections should not be party based, and election should be for a limited period, say seven years.
As for election to the Commons, the first-past-the-post system is denying the ordinary electorate a proper say in who rules them. There are various alternatives that have been suggested, any one of which would produce a fairer representation of differing views in the populace. What prevents change is the advantage that the present system gives to the two main parties which have shared power more or less equally since world War Two. Neither party will introduce change, just as ‘turkeys don’t vote for Christmas’.
Meanwhile, British politicians will continue to chide other states for their lack of democracy. What impertinence!
Tom Kilcourse began working life as a manual worker in Manchester, where he had been raised by poor grandparents. He worked as a garage hand, a coal miner and a bus driver, before gaining a trade union scholarship to study at Ruskin College, Oxford. He later gained a State Scholarship to read economics at Hull University.
During his career in management development he was widely published in academic and management journals, spoke on management in America, Europe and the UK, and appeared in educational videos on management made for the BBC. He began writing short-stories in the 1970s and has been published in various literary magazines.
Since retiring, he has published two short-story collections, ‘The Human Circus’ and ‘More Short Stories’ and continues to be published in journals. He has also published four novels, ‘The Great Collapse’, ‘Who Killed Clarissa?’, ‘A Deadly Deception’, ‘A Phantom Madman’, and ‘The Great Collapse’, in which he weaves social commentary into mysteries. Also, he has published a short autobiography ‘It’s Only Me’ and a book on management development. Tom also writes essays on politics and economics.
© Tom Kilcourse