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Evaluate the Notion that the UK is a Truly Democratic Nation

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  • Pages: 6
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  • Category: Democracy

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The UK is a democratic nation when the term ‘democracy’ is used loosely. Citizens of the UK over the age of 18 can vote for whom they would like to represent them in government. However, when the realities of representation, electoral procedures and parliamentary structures are analysed, the extent to which the UK is truly democratic is questioned.

In the UK we elect politicians to represent our interests. This in itself could be seen as undemocratic – we are not picking a delegate but someone who will act of his or her own accord. We are giving another person the right to make decisions on our behalf; we are not personally having any say in the decisions of government.

One could argue that there should be more referendums on heavily debated issues, such as foxhunting or gay child adoption, in order to ensure the nation is largely on side with the eventual decision passed by parliament. This, however, would be a step towards ‘direct representation’, which is arguably a slower and less effective form of representation.

The UK’s form of representation is an efficient way to implement what is essentially democracy. There are of course ways in which we could make it more democratic but this would probably come at the cost of efficiency of government.

When discussing whether or not the UK’s type of representation is truly democratic, one has to analyse whether or not the UK’s way of electing our representatives is truly democratic. The UK use the ‘First – Past – The – Post’ electoral system which nearly always produces a majority government. This is beneficial as it allows government to push through policy, which they outlined in their manifesto relatively easily – it also allows the public to hold a single party accountable, if their government fails to deliver.

Although this system is largely popular in the UK it is far from being a fine example of democracy. The UK’s electoral system is based on the notion that one votes for a particular candidate to represent the area which one lives in. However, due to the dominance of political parties in the UK, one can only vote for a single candidate from a particular party; this stops the people in a given constituency being able to express preference between candidates within a given party. This can also prevent the political promotion of women and ethnic minorities within a constituency, if no women or ethnic minorities are put forward in a region by within a particular party.

The main problem, when considering levels of democracy within our electoral system is that a given government can gain a large majority within the Commons with only a small percentage more of the vote. For example in 1951 the conservatives gained 48% of the vote and labour gained 48.8% of the vote – the conservatives emerged with a majority of 16. How can we call ourselves a democratic nation when the party that gains more of the vote does not win government? Another example of our electoral system being undemocratic is the continual dissatisfactory representation of the third party. In 1987 the Alliance received 25.4% of the vote yet only gained 4% of seats in the Commons. The reason for this is our representational system of constituencies. It is very geographically divisive and more importantly, regularly ignores a lot of people’s votes. A persons vote not counting towards the make up of the democratic assembly of their country is seemingly very undemocratic.

Another fault of our supposedly democratic voting system is that we do not elect the Prime Minister which, given the fact that he has probably more power than the average President, this allows people to lay claim to the fact that they hold the leader of their country to account. This fact in itself makes our country, in part, undemocratic.

Also the head of our state is the Queen. Is she a democratically elected figure? No. The fact that the monarch has resigned a royal prerogative to the Prime Minister is the reason for their existence in our society. However, the Monarch does still have power over any parliamentary figure or law. What qualifications did the Queen acquire to gain this job? None but birth right.

The Queen however, is not the only part of our legislative system that has got there by birthrights. 92 members of The House of Lords sit there because of hereditary peerage. Before 1999 the majority of peerages were acquired by inheritance. Effectively enshrined in our constitution is the fact that we are not all born equal – thus making the UK undemocratic.

When considering the extent of the UK’s democracy, one has to analyse its’ constitution. This is more difficult than in most countries around the world because of its’ uncodified nature. The fact that the UK’s constitution is uncodified means that it is subject to constant revision and modification. If there is a strong, stable government in power, the Prime Minister could quite easily push through legislation which completely modified our constitution. The fact that the underlying rules which make the UK function can be easily changed by a group of people numbering less than 500 is superbly undemocratic. In the USA, for example, the constitution is written and codified and every citizen knows his or her rights within the country. If the constitution is to be changed, vast numbers of elected political bodies have to agree.

Although having an uncodified constitution has its’ advantages – one of them is not being left open for accusations of its’ slightly undemocratic nature.

The executive branch of the political system is also brought into question when considering the democratic potential of the UK. The executive branch is run by the Civil Service. This structure of British politics is non-party affiliated. This ensures neutrality when legislation is being carried out. However, the Civil Service cannot be held to account by the Commons very effectively due to the anonymous nature of the Civil Service. This means that the un-elected members of the Civil Service can have a direct effect on the way the country is run. They can do this by varying levels of enthusiasm, precision and effectiveness by which they put into place the legislation that has been passed by Parliament. This, again, is slightly undemocratic as people who have certain jobs can have more effect on the running of the UK than others.

Another major issue of democracy within the UK at the moment is the continuing devolution of power to the EU. Other European representatives can easily over rule the UK’s elected European officials when determining legislation even if it directly affects the UK. Sovereignty has been handed over to the EU and so the UK’s domestic government can be over ruled. One could argue this is undemocratic. However, there was a referendum in 1975 over whether or not the UK should remain in the EU and so one would find it difficult to argue that the EU are being undemocratic.

The main piece of relatively new legislation which improves a persons democratic rights is the Human rights act. This act ensures peoples freedom from oppression and unfair treatment by guaranteeing every citizen of the UK their individual rights. This, amongst other things, gives an individual the right to hold the state to account in a court of law. The Human rights act secures the fact that the UK is democratic, at least to an extent.

In summary, the UK is not particularly democratic after careful analysis, but it is democratic to an extent. The UK could easily be more democratic, but this would come at the price of efficiency. When considered in a global context, the UK is highly democratic; but when scrutinising as to whether the UK is truly democratic in nature, I have found that it is democratic but only moderately.

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