How fragile is our democracy?

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“Democracy is precious.  Democracy is fragile.” – Joe Biden reminded us in his inauguration speech. The ceremony was a cheering celebration of constitutional democracy, with the three branches of the federal government interacting to mark the change of administration.

British democracy remains fragile, without much prospect of strengthening its institutions or healing its divisions before the 2024 election.  Our prime minister wields executive ‘prerogative’ powers inherited from the Tudor and Stuart monarchies.  The queen appointed Boris Johnson prime minister, a day before Parliament rose for its summer recess.  He then attempted to prevent Parliament from sitting for an extended period, to allow himself to govern without scrutiny.  And, of course, he, many of his MPs and the right-wing press labelled the Supreme Court ‘the enemy of the people’ for ruling that he lacked the prerogative authority to do so.

The Vote Leave campaign fought the 2016 referendum with the cry of restoring parliamentary sovereignty.  Johnson scarcely conceals his contempt for Parliament and its scrutiny: whipping his backbenchers to support whatever ministers propose, pushing through bills which allow ministers to fill in the details later (under what are called ‘Henry VIII powers’), and packing friends, relations and donors into the Lords.  Ministers insist that the 43.5% vote they received last year represented ‘the will of the people’. Local government continues to be weakened, starved of funds, bypassed by contracts given to consultancies and outsourcing companies.  No wonder so many voters are disillusioned and alienated from conventional politics.  Ministers are also trying to bully the Electoral Commission, and to raise spending limits for campaigns to favour their well-funded party.

We are edging towards a constitutional crisis, the most visible aspect of which is the likelihood of Scotland and Northern Ireland moving towards separation.  But the incompatibility of Johnson’s promised ‘levelling up’ agenda with the centralising and privatising instincts of his Cabinet threatens another crunch: all the evidence I have seen suggests that a rebalancing of England’s economy and society is possible only if local government is allowed a leading role.  The Conservatives promised in their 2019 manifesto that they would establish a Commission on the Constitution and Democracy within 12 months of the election – but they have now decided this offered too many hostages to other ideas.

Can we make strengthening democracy one of our themes for the forthcoming local elections, and hope to attract the support of anxious voters who have watched the USA face and overcome a challenge to its operation?

All politics is local, for ordinary citizens who care about public services, clean roads, good schools and local policing.  Local councils throughout England have seen their budgets squeezed year by year, with conditional offers from London flowing more often to Conservative-held seats and Tory targets, and with central government spending large sums on private suppliers for functions local authorities could have filled more cheaply and sensitively.  Make the most of the stories about private companies short-changing food parcels, and the track and test system malfunctioning because highly-paid consultants didn’t know their way round the English regions.

The surge of volunteers at the beginning of the pandemic showed that many of our citizens wanted to get involved in helping others within their community.  Many of them were never contacted because the task was given to firms that did not understand local geography or needs.  Can we convince them that stronger local democracy would harness local goodwill?  And should we be populist enough to point out the corruption of a Conservative government handing out contracts to companies which pay their executives far more than local council officers and their workers far less than council workers, and which in many cases contribute from their profits to Conservative Party funds and right-wing think tanks?

Conservative moves to reduce local government to an implementing agency for central government are undermining local initiative and local community.  Liberals passionately believe in local democracy, as the necessary foundation for an open and fair society.  Can we stick that on a leaflet and push it through doors this Spring?

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

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18 Comments

  • One of the keys of democracy (as witnessed in the USA recently) is for losers to accept the results of votes.
    There are still too many people in this party who do not accept that the Brexit referendum in June 2016 indicated a clear desire by the UK people to leave the EU.
    The people who tried to thwart that cannot be called democrats.

  • John Marriott 21st Jan '21 - 1:54pm

    @Alan Jelfs
    How can 37% of those eligible to vote for anything constitute ‘a clear desire’ in favour of anything? That clearly applies also in the result of General Elections.

    Now, as far as the EU Referendum was concerned, more people voted Leave than Remain; but not that many more. So therefore, in my definition of democracy, those pulling the strings should clearly have moved towards a severing of links with Europe; but certainly not a complete break, which is more or less what we have ended up with. To be honest, for most people, Europe was clearly not uppermost on their minds until a few years ago. That said, as a ‘loser’ in your words, I accepted the result of the referendum as soon as the results were declared. What I have never been able to accept, however, is the desire of the ‘winners’ to throw the baby out with the bath water.

  • Alan Jelfs..

    ‘Leave’ won but it was hardly your ‘clear desire’ more of Wellington’s “A damned near-run thing”..

    As for ‘trying to thwart’ I’ll refer you to Keynes’s (reportedly) words “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”. Immediately after the referendum results there were umpteen ‘about faces’ (sorry, ‘clarifications;) from those who’d led the Leave campaign. few of which agreed..

    From..International Trade Secretary Liam Fox….”No Brexit deal ‘would be bad’ for UK”…..
    Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson….”Leaving the EU without a deal on Brexit would be ‘perfectly OK’…
    Brexit secretary David Davis…”MPs must choose between May’s deal and crashing out of EU”
    Theresa May…”Brexit means Brexit means the best possible deal….

    Confused? I was!

  • Barry Lofty 21st Jan '21 - 2:38pm

    While I agree with both John Marriott and expats on their assessment of the Brexit vote, Lord Wallace stated what really annoys me on a daily basis and that is the corruption and cronyism which is always lurking in the background of the Conservative party but seems more blatant with this present government and is consistently swept under the carpet as each new revelation is revealed. I know that this type of cronyism is always with us but that it seems to be an excepted part of the governance of our country is deeply worrying!

  • James Moore 21st Jan '21 - 2:42pm

    The problem is that centralised corporate democracy is not democracy at all – it is simply the tyranny of the majority. Liberals have know this since the days of J.S. Mill – and probably since the days of Aristotle. True democracy can only exist if ordinary people are trusted and empowered through devolution and decentralisation.

    Some of Jo Grimond’s greatest writing is that which attacks corporatism – whether it be the corporatism of government, business, parties or trade unions. Corporatism takes power away from people and make them feel powerless and disenfranchised. Corporatism also often denies free speech too – that is why the authoritarian populist right and the authoritarian ‘woke’ left often hate free speech and dissent.

    Perhaps the main challenge for Liberal Democrats today is to recapture some of Grimond’s Liberalism – and not get sucked into the ‘democratic centralism’ of Labour or the corporate capitalism of Facebook Clegg.

  • The main point is so many people think that power (and economic power especially) is so remote to them.
    While the Tories have ejected their global capitalist base from the party, they have become the hard right. The Labour party has also done nothing to assure people that they would be an alternative government.
    For Scotland and Wales, It is seems that they would be better off independent and they could do better as independent states if they don’t have London dictating centralised ‘All fits all’ policies.
    Wales (my country) and Scotland could even join EFTA and later the EU as newly independent countries, just as those in Eastern Europe did.
    Conservative and Labour are still level in the opinion polls but around 37-40% have still to make their minds up that did originally vote for one of the two big parties.
    Here, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, SNP and the Greens could make the breakthrough.
    I would advise the Liberal democrats to concentrate on CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM.
    That is a fully decentralised FEDERAL system, with a fair STV system, Local income/corporation tax raising powers.
    Britain can be divided into states, such as Anglia, Mercia, Northumbia, Wessex, etc…
    Any local parliament having even the right to hold independence referendums.
    (What right does Westminster to refuse Scotland’s request, when they didn’t need EU permission to hold a Remain/Leave referendum for the EU ? )
    Economic: Local stock exchanges in each region.
    What better people power than individual wide share ownership, it gives ultimate power to the people.
    Any further social policies can lead on from there.
    It is clear the future cannot be the status-quo. It just won’t address the problems facing those on the British Isles.
    Ignoring the change will eventually lead to the full breakup of the UK as it stands now.

  • David Evans 21st Jan '21 - 3:21pm

    Ernest, only Lib Dems and a few other political wonks have any real interest in Constitutional reform. Those who concentrate on it in the UK are doomed to waste their time.

    Do something Liberal that people want!

    At least then we might just get a few more Lib Dem MPs.

  • This reminds me pots, kettles and a revoke policy.

  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Jan '21 - 4:27pm

    Forvever more the words ‘new covid variant’ will render democracy dead. Discuss.

  • Paul Barker 21st Jan '21 - 6:00pm

    An excellent article. We can talk about the day to day & Local results of our broken Democracy & the principles of Devolution & Fairer Votes, we should not talk about the details.

  • Good job we left the EU. That isn’t democratic.

  • John Marriott 21st Jan '21 - 7:54pm

    Every time some of us mention constitutional reform, we hear the rejoinder that this does not get many votes. “Who on Earth is interested is things like that?” we hear them ask. Well, as far as I’m concerned, they damned well ought to be! The trouble is that we have had ‘democracy’ for so long, most of us just take it for granted. Worse still, some people would actually quite like to have an elective dictatorship, until they come to that Niemöller moment!

  • Alex Macfie 21st Jan '21 - 8:04pm

    Alan Jelfs: There is a massive difference between peaceful democratic campaigning to change policy following an advisory referendu on the one hand, and an attempted violent coup to undermine a change of government following a legitimate binding election on the other.
    To compare the actions of anti-Brexit campaigners with the rioters on Capitol Hill is actually deeply offensive and anti-democratic, as it almost legitimises the latter by downplaying the significance of their actions. No anti-Brexit campaigners ever advocated armed insurrection to try to stop Brexit.

  • Phil Wainewright 22nd Jan '21 - 9:29am

    As Liberal Democrats, it’s our duty to make constitutional reform electorally attractive. If it isn’t, that’s because we haven’t tried hard enough.

    We can start by making it less abstract and talking about strengthening communities, wresting power back from Whitehall and supporting local jobs and investment.

  • First, this article is excellent and raises many important issues. Democracy is clearly ‘fragile’ but we should first ask ourselves what ‘democracy’ actually means. It certainly isn’t deciding everything by plebiscite (ask Edmund Burke) – the electorate simply don’t know enough. In the days when we trusted politicians, we thought it better to expect them to get it more or less right, but to switch between Labour and Conservative every so often to keep everyone on their toes.
    The EU referendum was a complete farce, voters on both sides guided by gut feel and instinct. I voted Remain, but had no real idea about the powerful roles of the Central Bank, the Council of Ministers, or the European Court, nor how they interact with the European Parliament (the only bit we could vote for). For most of us, Euro elections were simply a welcome chance to vote according to party loyalty and see it correctly converted into MEPs, rather than the negative second-guessing about how to avoid getting a local MP we didn’t like, as happens in the ludicrous FPTP UK general elections. What actual good the EU Parliament did was a mystery to us, so when the crunch came the country was broadly split into those who were frightened of being overwhelmed by foreigners, and those who thought being nice to people from abroad was generally a good thing. None of this had anything to do with the realities of EU membership.
    Democracy has been made to look foolish by the populists, who appeal to beliefs and myths which have no connection with reality, but are powerful enough to be the ring in the nose by which the voters can be led. When populists get elected, and we saw this most starkly in the USA although it is also happening here, those who voted them in employ, unprompted, the usual strategy invoked by cognitive dissonance; when a fact shows you are wrong, don’t change your opinion, just disbelieve the fact. I say Democracy is made to look foolish because the populists offer a deliberate false prospectus to get elected, but taunt the losers (as they did with Lib Dems over Brexit) with the phrase “this is the will of the people”. In any election, a ‘democratic’ choice is only valid if people understand what they are voting for. Those in this string who say we have to ‘respect’ the Brexit decision are wrong, but we do have to accept it.
    What all this tells us about democracy is that it isn’t working.

  • We must first recognise a problem. We might want to talk about constitutional reform, but do others have any idea what we are talking about? I found when I was a councillor that people wanted to be involved in decision making. They were not keen on sitting in badly run meetings while a small group who had organised the meeting talked at them. In fact if there were face to face meetings of say 2 hours then if on average everyone speaks for an average of 3 minutes, this gives 40 people that can be sensibly planned for.
    However we have technology. We need to find ways of involving people using modern means of communication,
    This is a task that the party could address. How could we involve all our members in making decisions? At the moment we are tied to a nineteenth century view of the world.
    We should have been addressing this starting with the Autumn conference.
    We might have an election next year – I realise that now everything revolves around making sure that the prime minister. He will be keen to stay in office until he has hosted the coming international conferences. He is going to repeal the fixed term parliament act, so we need to be ready. He may wish to go for an election if he can preside over the U.K. leading the world in vaccinations and conquer the virus.
    If we are to preach democracy and involving people in decision making we need to be ready with the answers to the question about how it should be done,

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Jan '21 - 3:15pm

    We need nothing less than full constitutional reform, led by a Citizens’ Assembly and confirmed by a referendum uk wide. Most people will agree if the facts are presented fairly. Now is the ideal time with Brexit, climate change and Covid showing the need for more deliberative democracy and a rule book approach to the separation of powers.

  • Geoffrey Dron 23rd Jan '21 - 6:57pm

    @Peter Hirst
    We need a constitutional convention of constitutional experts and senior politicians not a citizens’ assembly. And no referendum.

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