The State of British Democracy

Democracy: The Idea

Deriving from the Greek, Demos Kratos – People Power – Literally, direct self government and decision making by the people.

Today this idea is widely interpretated as indirect or representative democracy, where voters elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf.

Democracy implies varying degrees of people power, participation, representation, responsible government and consent. Democratic participation may take many forms, from voting and standing for political office to meetings, marches, demonstrations, peaceful lawbreaking and violent political opposition. Even riots and terrorist attacks have democratic claims, since they are ‘people power’ in the literal sense – although all states and governments will deny those democratic claims when such activities are directed against them.

Democracy: The Reality

In the British general elections in May 2005, when Tony Blair recorded his “historic third term”, it is worth noting the stats.

Labour’s “winning majority” actually compromised of only 35.2% of the popular vote, equating to approximately 22% of the electorate based on the estimated turnout of 61.3%.

That’s not even 22% of the population but 22% of the registered voters![1]

The figure 35% is used almost as spin to try to divert public attention from the colossal elephant that now overshadows politics in the UK. The shadow casts serious doubt over the true legitimacy of such indirectly elected representatives and indeed, the entire political process.

The truth is a staggering 39.7% of the registered voters chose to vote for nobody!

“The Quiet Landslide”

In the 2001 British general election, 41% of the public didn’t vote at all. It was dubbed Labour’s “quiet landslide”.

Of the 59% who did vote, only 40% voted for Tony Blair. [2] That equates to around 24% of the British electorate!

Following that very election, the UK government went to war in Iraq. So based on the support of 10,724,953 people, Tony Blair took the United Kingdom into a unpopular war with little support.

To give an idea of how representative that figure is, in the 2001 census, the population of the United Kingdom was recorded as 58,789,194. Although not all of the population that make up that figure would have been eligible to vote, clearly the stats raise serious questions.

I have often wondered how Blair has managed to remain in power after all that has happened since that war began. After all, everyone knows that we were duped about the reasons for going to war in Iraq. It is common knowledge. And there are very few people who believe the world is a safer place as a result of our government’s actions. But what I didn’t realise was, the answers, of course, are staring us all in the face. The reason Blair is still in power is precisely because of the 40% of the public voters who are so utterly apathetic and disillusioned with the whole political system that they didn’t vote in the first place! It is the 40% that allows the government to get away with pretty much anything that they wish and for people like Tony Blair to get away with murder and still be able to stand tall on a pack of lies and spin.

Democracy in Britain

In Britain, representative democracy developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries under pressure from popular movements such as chartism and the trade union movement, and was, in part, a conscious effort on the part of the political power-holders to forestall radical demands for more direct or extensive political democracy. In the words of conservative Quinton Hogg (Lord Hailsham) –

‘If you don’t give them reform, they will give you social revolution’.

Many at the time were fearful of the idea of giving the mass public the vote. They could not have dreamed of a situation like the one that we have today.

According to the Office of National Statistics the total population of the UK in 2005 was estimated to be 60,209,500.

The total number of people who voted in the in the British Elections of 2005:

27,110,727.

The fact is, people are not participating in this “democracy” of ours. It’s the Kratos without the Demos. Power without the People.

Why?

Through the early to mid 1800s, the idea of democracy was synonymous with the French revolution of 1789. It was deeply associated in the minds of both conservatives and also many liberals with the chaos, fear and terror that had followed this bloody period of history. Democracy was seen across Europe as something dangerous and to be avoided.

After all ‘what indeed would happen in Politics when the masses of the people, ignorant and brutalized, unable to understand Adam Smith’s free market, controlled the political fate of estates? [1]

Could it be that ever since the French revolution and the volatile 1800s, so much time, money and thinking has been channeled into cultivating ways of manipulating public behaviour to prevent social revolution that the result is this static non-participatory state of affairs that we have today? A situation where the public, by and large, no longer care who governs them or what they do?

One thing is certain, the battle to control and rule over the public has been a resounding success. We now live in an ideal state. A politician’s utopia. And a corporate dream.


Go back to bed Britain. Your government is in control.


[1] Hobsbawn E.J. ‘The Age of Empire 1875- 1914’ Abacus books

14 thoughts on “The State of British Democracy

  1. This article is not about Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron or whoever else may end up in 10 Downing Street on 20% of the registered voters approval. This is about stepping back and looking at the bigger picture which is something which the media never does on our behalf. And why would it? After all, the media is a part of the machine that seeks to blindfold us to the reality. And the reality is that we do not live in a true democracy. We live in a fictitious democracy based on an illusion.

  2. nice quote.. Quinton Hogg (Lord Hailsham) –

    ‘If you don’t give them reform, they will give you social revolution’.

    Reminds me of Benjamin Disraeli‘s words that…
    ‘reformation from above is preferable to revolution from below’

    In the end elites will concede only that which ensures and enables them to maintain a grip on power…

    Interesting points raised here – esp about apathy (more interesting is how this interlinks to post-modernism, in a political sense -)

    Christopher Norris writes…

    ‘more specifically: the turn toward post-structuralist, post-modernist and neo-pragmatist doctrines of discourse and representation is one that can only lend support to prevailing (consensus) notions of reality and truth by making it strictly unthinkable that anyone could offer good arguments-or factual counter evidence-against the effective self images of the age, or ideas of what is (currently and contingently) ‘good in the way of belief’’

    …that to challenge the status quo is unthinkable because the status quo IS reality…therefore fewer people believe that ‘a better world is possible’…

    You are right, our current political climate is a politicians wet dream come true…

  3. Congratulations Jay!

    Out of the 51 people who have looked at this post over the last 7 days, you are the only person who has commented.

    I think that stat (1 out of 51) clearly supports what you were saying …

    ‘that to challenge the status quo is unthinkable because the status quo IS the reality…therefore fewer people believe that ‘a better world is possible’…’

    Maybe I should start a football blog! I am sure then I’d be inundated with opinions, analysis and comments! I can see it now…

    10 million comments on whether the ball crossed the line or not! Like our future depended on it!!

    Getting back to what you were saying, I don’t think it is that people don’t believe a better world is possible, because in my heart of hearts I believe we all know that it is. I just think that people don’t have the sort of voice and representation that they have had at stages in the past. We are all divided. And weaker for it.

    Thanks for your input. I will have to digest the Christopher Norris quote. good stuff.

  4. Out of the 51 people who have looked at this post over the last 7 days, you are the only person who has commented.

    I think that stat (1 out of 51) clearly supports what you were saying …

    I was one of them. I read it, agreed with it and was going to leave a comment but then the apathy kicked in and I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say. Not that that has changed today.

    I think that the problem lies with the political parties. In the old days the parties themselves were elected and they’d pick a cabinet and leader amongst themselves and run the country more like a committee.

    These days we vote for a PM in much the same way that other nations vote for a President, it is the personality and charisma of the leader rather than what the party stands for (and let’s face it this changes regularly anyway). This PM then runs the country single handed, much like a President and appoints and removes people at will, particularly if they don’t toe the line. Not at all like the old political parties.

    All the parties seem to have melded into one anyway so there isn’t much choice between the parties themselves which again brings it back to the individual running the party. If you don’t like the three candidates you don’t really have any other choice. Which I think is why the Far Right are getting so many votes.

    The whole process is skewed towards the elite. It is extremely difficult for your average Joe to run for MP, unless you are supported by the big three parties. And you don’t get anywhere within those parties unless you are rich or willing to kowtow to those that are.
    Even should Mr Public get elected as an independent he’ll have no influence whatsoever as he isn’t part of a Political Party. He can never be PM and therefore is a wasted vote.

    As for starting a new party, again a waste of time.

    I think a great step in the right direction was made by the on-line petitions. This gave everyone a voice and a way of voting on issues that are important to them. However Tony Blair has already stated that the petitions will have no influence whatsoever on policy. And so another waste of time.

  5. “All the parties seem to have melded into one anyway so there isn’t much choice between the parties”

    “another waste of time.”

    “If you don’t like the three candidates you don’t really have any other choice.”

    “As for starting a new party, again a waste of time.”

    “no influence whatsoever”

    Hello Ray. Thanks for your comments.

    I just wanted to pull out some of the language that you have used in your comments as I feel it perfectly illustrates what I was trying to say about public apathy and the sense of inevitably and helplessness that people now feel more than ever towards politics.

    Words like ‘waste of time’ popped up twice in your comments and ‘no influence’ was emphasized with ‘whatsover’ tacked on the end just to add to that feeling of helplessness. I’m not a language expert but I just wanted to pick up on that as I think it does sums up pretty well how the majority of voters feel today in the UK.

    But I also want to show you a courageous example from the 1920s of people power. An example of how public belief and conviction at that time changed the British government’s policy in international affairs. I also want you to think about how if people then, had had the attitude of defeatism and apathy towards politics that is prevalent amongst the public today, how different the outcome might have been. This story illustrates that people can make a difference and that belief, bravery and a public display of (dare I say it) solidarity can change the direction of the world we live in today.

    See Demos Kratos – An Example of

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  7. Excellent article and a similar situation is happening in the United States. I believe that there is something here worth doing further research and study. This article should be researched further and taken to the next level for it is extremely important the point being made. A second article would be an excellent source of information and for all of us collectively try and educate the masses. I would like to add that the real culprit here in the apathy is the filtered bought out media in which special interests have bought and dominate most forms of mass communications and are lying to the public and eventually lack of true free press is what takes the sheep straight into the slaughter. Great article and please write another one and take it a step further.

  8. Thanks for your comments BikiniSurf!

    I just wanted to add this extract from a book I am currently reading:

    It is widely assumed that, under capitalism, power lies in the hands of elected parliaments or presidents. We commonly hear that a politician has “taken power” following an election. Yet that is mistaken.

    The origins of the British State go back to the Middle Ages, with its modern form shaped to suit the needs of capitalism in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. There was no democracy in Britain in the early 19th century. Parliament was chosen by a tiny minority – 95 percent of the male population was excluded from voting until 1832, 80 percent remained excluded after the reform of that date, and women did not get the vote until the following century. Democracy was anathema to those who ran the British State at the time. They denounced it as “mob rule” and the masses as “the swinish multitude”. The British historian Macauley wrote in the early 19th century, “Universal suffrage would be fatal for all purposes for which government exists” and “utterly incompatible with the existence of civilization”.

    Mass pressure forced extensions of the franchise, but it was not until after the First World War that something approaching universal suffrage was conceded in Britain – and even then some women had no vote and some upper class men more than one. However the extension of the vote did not change the fundamental character of the state. In his book Capitalist Democracy in Britain (Oxford, 1982), Ralph Milliband wrote:

    The politicians’ appropriation of ‘democracy’ did not signify their conversion to it: it was rather an attempt to exorcise it effects… A carefully limited and suitably controlled measure of democracy was acceptable, and even from some aspect desirable. But anything that went beyond that was not. The whole political system was geared to such sentiments.

    – Excerpt taken from ‘Revolution in the 21st Century‘, Chris Harman, Bookmarks publications, 2007

  9. If you think all of the above is bad, think about our current situation! The current prime minister Gordon Brown cannot even lay claim to having a minority of the public’s approval and appears to have no plans for the foreseeable future to put his popularity to the vote. If he did there is every indication he would no longer be Prime Minister if polls are to be believed. He is a very unpopular and unimpressive leader. And yet this man continues his spell in office indefinitely.

  10. Surely there can be few people left that truly believe we remain in a democracy. Lets look at the facts, the public are given one opportunity to vote on what matters every five years. Each party has a manifesto and we must vote for the party manifesto in its entirety, we cannot vote on single issues.

    The political parties are prepared to embrace the internet in one way traffic to preach to us, but they have not used it to allow the British public to have their say on issues that matter.

    There is no reason why the internet cannot, or should not be used to allow the electorate to have their say. But, thus far, no political party appears willing to promote this concept.

    There appears to be some agreement on a UK Bill of Rights, this could protect the rights of the individual, properly written, it could also provide the opportunity to have democracy restored by giving us a vote on issues, rather than a five year vote on political parties.

  11. The working class comprises the majority in society, it has the power to shake the system. Unfortunately, this does not mean that most of its members have a clear idea of their ability to replace the existing system with a better one. On the contrary, being brought up in capitalist society leads most people to accept the ideas of the system to a greater or lesser degree – its racism, sexism, competition and greed, and the belief that there is no other way of living. As Karl Marx once wrote “the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.”

    Working class organisations, such as trade unions for example, simply do not have the resources necessary to compete with the capitalist media hence only a minority of people accept ideas that challenge the system as a whole. The majority take most things for granted and accept much of what the capitalist media says.

    It is only when those whose labour keeps capitalism going are engaged in fighting aspects of the system that they discover they have the power to paralyse it. Only then do large numbers begin to see clearly that their interests run in opposite directions to those of capitalists. They discover through struggle that they can challenge the system, and that as a class they have an interest in uniting to replace profit making and competition with a society of democratic self organisation. It is through struggle that people discover that they have the collective capacity to change society.

    When you look through history again and again we see examples of how the moral and intellectual condition of the working classes has deteriorated.

    In 1870 Thomas Cooper, a former activist in the chartist movement 30 years earlier, surveyed the workers of the north of England and and said:

    ‘it is true, in our old Chartist times, Lancashire working men were in rags by the thousands; and many of them lacked food, but their intelligence was demonstrated wherever you went. You would see them in groups discussing the great doctrines of social justice… they were in earnest dispute respecting the teachings of socialism. Now you will hear no such groups in Lancashire. But you will hear well dressed working men talking of cooperative stores and their shares in them, or in building societies (banks). And you will see others, like idiots, leading small greyhound dogs, covered with cloth on a string… Working men had ceased to think..’.

    If only Thomas Cooper could see the streets of London today! Millions of Londoners standing around at bus stops and on trains, before and after work, all reading the same “news” from the same sources – the free newspapers containing nothing but the same old ideas of the system – racism, sexism, competition and greed – reinforcing the ideas and beliefs and maintaining the status quo that keeps the majority ignorant and exploited.

    People need to see beyond the capitalist rhetoric and realise that yes an alternative society is possible. It is clear by voting turnouts and disillusionment that the majority want a society in which production is for human need and not for profit. A society in which those who work, not those who own, make the decisions. A world in which human beings of all races and nations cooperate and children learn the lessons of the past of war and poverty in history lessons, astonished that such atrocities could ever have happened. Maybe I am naive, but I believe it is only when the majority wake up from their slumber and stand up and take power that it will happen.

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