Which dangers to democracy threaten most?

‘Democracy’, Boris Johnson wrote in his weekly Daily Mail; column on March 8th, ‘is always more fragile than you think.’   But what are the most direct threats to British democracy which we face at present?

For the Prime Minister, Michael Gove, many other Conservatives and the right-wing press, the most urgent threats come from Islamist terrorism and disorder on the streets.  Pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London may have been non-violent but are seen to be intimidating; climate-change activists have blocked streets, and put banners on the Prime Minister’s constituency home.  Gove will be issuing a new definition of extremism later this week, which is expected to focus on Muslim organizations and direct-action groups for ecological issues; how far it will also flag up right-wing extremists remains contested within the government and the right-wing media.

But these aren’t the only threats to our fragile democracy.  The government appears unmoved by the collapse of public trust in Westminster politics – even, according to opinion surveys, to democracy itself among the younger generation. Politics moves onto the streets when citizens lose confidence that their voice will be heard within political institutions.  Membership of all political parties has shrunk in the past two decades – Conservative membership most than that of other parties.  Popular cynicism about corrupt politicians looking after their own interests has led to lower turnout in elections, and is one reason why 8 million resident UK citizens are missing from the electoral register.  Efforts to ban public protest by those who have lost faith in conventional politics responding to their concerns risk making disillusion deeper and provoking the violence the bans are intended to block.

Either by conviction or for political advantage, many Conservatives elide Muslims and Islamists, while downplaying the reality of threats from right-wing extremists.  Michael Gove published a book on the roots of Islamic terrorism in 2006, <em>Celsius 7/7</em>, hailed by right-wing commentators; expert critics called it simplistic and ill-informed. Attacks on Sadiq Khan in two London mayoral campaigns have claimed that as a Muslim he’s manipulated by Islamists.  William Shawcross was appointed by the government in 2021 to review the anti-terrorist programme, Prevent, in spite of the anti-Muslim views he had expressed for many years.  Meanwhile, Liz Truss associates with Steve Bannon as he praises Tommy Robinson, and others in the Conservative Party work closely with hard-right groups in the USA, Hungary and elsewhere.  And conspiratorial theories about ‘the deep state’ and a hostile ‘liberal establishment’, imported from America, carry an irrational, Trumpian tone.

Government actions in recent years have weakened the quality of our democracy.  Local democracy has been undermined.  Local councils have been merged into larger authorities, so that fewer citizens are in touch with any elected representatives; these authorities have then been starved of funds, and forced to cut basic services.  Constituency boundaries have been redrawn around a tighter numerical quota, so that the principle of the single-member constituency (that it reflects a relatively coherent local community) is now being lost. Directly-elected mayors have been imposed on larger authorities, whether wanted or not, with the Tories then abolishing the supplementary vote that gave some chance that they might represent a majority. In Watford, last year, a Conservative was elected mayor on barley a third of the vote.  Limits on campaign spending have just been sharply raised, giving the Conservatives a structural advantage in election campaigning.

Our response to Conservative cries that ‘democracy is in danger’ should therefore be to insist that the remedy is to improve the quality of our democratic institutions, not to exclude those on the margins of politics still further.  Disillusion with democratic politics requires changes in the way our politics works: a more open voting system, a Commons less dominated by ministers and government whips, a transformed second chamber, and a revival of local democracy.  And of course tighter controls on government patronage and contracts, and strict limits on party finances to end the political influence of big money.  All this is Liberal Democrat party policy; and some of it is Labour policy, too, although the Labour leadership is dangerously fond of strong government and centralised executive power and might well prove reluctant to push democratic reforms through if and when it returns to power.

There is a real threat to the safety and lives of MPs today, which must concern us all.  But the response must be to rebuild public respect for politics and politicians, to reconstruct the local networks that used to link Westminster politics to the lives of ordinary citizens – not to stiffen the penalties for peaceful demonstrations, nor to demonise groups, beliefs and organizations that criticise and campaign against our deeply unpopular government.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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34 Comments

  • The biggest threat to democracy is when the public choose to sacrifice their freedoms for security or protection. This may lead to them voting for a “strong leader” who undermines democracy from within by overriding conventions and processes. Extremists who lack popular support aren’t a threat to democracy as such.

  • The government legislation will ‘possibly’ have a £10,000,000 get out clause….

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Mar '24 - 11:17am

    Rhetorical question
    Do the Conservatives really believe in democracy or do they really believe in power for themselves and the right to hang on to it at all costs?

  • Steve Trevethan 12th Mar '24 - 1:53pm

    Thank you for a most important article!

    Might it be that our country has already ceased to be a democracy?
    Might it be more accurately labelled as an oligarchy, or, even more accurately, as a plutocracy?

    Such is demonstrated by the contrast between the past and currently present permanent hunger/starvation of our country’s children, which is already damaging them and our nation’s future, and the multi-million donations to the Conservative party and members?

    Under our current plutocracy, impoverished families get no real say in the running of their country while millionaires + get a very direct, wealth backed, say.

    With the classic model of “Input-Process-Output”, the lack of anything but a facade of democracy is evident.

    Input – unrepresentative elections, exclusion of poorer citizens, lack of objectivity and assertive analysis by most of the mainstream media including the B. B. C.
    Process – a House of Commons where yobbery dominates and a supine Speaker breaks much vaunted traditions to the benefit of his political party
    Output – austerity aka neoliberalism, poverty and deprivation for increasing numbers of regular people and increasing [child] hunger

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2024/mar/12/labour-calls-on-sunak-to-return-frank-hester-tory-donation?ref=mc.news

    /news.arlafoods.co.uk/news/empty-tummy-disadvantage-hunger-leaves-millions-of-school-children-at-risk-of-missing-career-ambitions

  • William, I’m surprised you don’t mention the flood of fake news on social media, often spread by people who see a meme that they emotionally connect with and they then reshare without bothering to do any fact-checking – and which is something that people of all persuasions are guilty of. To my mind, that’s the biggest single threat to democracy – because democracy fundamentally relies on people having reasonably accurate information.

    Related to that: I also can’t help noticing that you only talk about bad things the Tories are doing, and give no mention to possible threats coming from other groups. This makes your article – to my eyes – read like an attempt to scapegoat the Tories for everything rather than a serious attempt to assess what threats to democracy exist. I generally agree with what you’ve written and have no wish to defend some of the awful things this Government has done – but at the same time, it seems remiss not to also mention threats that mostly come from the left – notably, the increasing tendency to stifle debate by just labelling people as something-phobes rather than respectfully engaging with their viewpoints, or to dismiss people with right wing views as ‘scum’ etc.

    To my mind, defending democracy is something that should transcend party politics – it’s not something you want to do party-point-scoring over.

  • David Evans 12th Mar '24 - 2:00pm

    @Marco. Your main point is valid, but the question has to be asked, when you say “Extremists who lack popular support aren’t a threat to democracy as such” – how much popular support do extremists need to become a threat?

    Haiti is a clear current example where extremists (portrayed as criminal gangs in the British media, but I am in no way expert enough on that nation to form any judgement on that) have undermined what bit of democracy that country had. How much popular support they have beyond “They have guns and will kill their opponents” is impossible to estimate.

    Donald Trump with lots of popular support but less violence has ratcheted up the existing wide divisions in the USA and is getting ever closer to achieving his ambition there.

    Closer to home, and within living memory, the IRA, using a combination of targeted and random acts of violence, came very close to making democracy unworkable in Northern Ireland, and ultimately the peace settlement has got them much closer to achieving the aim of reunification. Whether they ever had anything like ‘popular support’ even just within the Catholic community is doubtful.

    Ultimately a united Ireland governed by a further boosted nationalist Sinn Fein will prove to be a better thing than what it replaced (both North and South) will remain an open question for a long time.

  • There is absolutely no reason for any child to be starving in the U.K. today, for those ( very few ) that genuinely are, there is much more going on as to whether there parent/s are in work or out of work.

    Yes children whose main carer/s spend money on non essential luxuries may be more hungry than we would like but that is often as much down to spending decisions as it is income.
    Again hungry is not the same as starving; they are different, any child starving in Britain is not doing so purely because of lack of family unit income.

  • William Wallace 12th Mar '24 - 4:56pm

    The obsession with ‘extremism’ as left-wing and often Islamic is one of Michael Gove’s fixed ideas, not shared by all his colleagues – hence the reports of arguments within government about a new definition. Sunak’s insistence that current street demonstrations are more threatening and violent than ever before shows how new to politics he is; the anti-tuition fees demonstrations were more violent, and the anti-Iraq demonstrations far larger. And for those of us who remember anti-Vietnam… And they can’t see that there’s anything wrong with our current semi-democratic institutions.

  • For anyone tempted to go down the ‘ heat or eat ‘ trope.

    Eating is heating as I know only too well from a brief period when my own circumstances led me to call a tent home.

  • Katharine Pindar 12th Mar '24 - 8:52pm

    William, your article and comment also are extremely relevant and useful. It will be up to the Liberal Democrats and the liberal-minded people of our country to help to preserve democracy and try to restore general faith in politics here. It is a subject which Social Liberal Forum Council is taking up, and can be explored further I hope at the York Conference.

  • @ David Evans I see your point although I think the IRA did have quite a lot of support in some nationalist areas. Certainly fragile democracies are at risk of a coup but that is less of a threat to Western democracies as the security and armed forces could contain them. The real threat here is more incremental.

  • Nigel Jones 12th Mar '24 - 9:32pm

    Marco, I think you miss the point i.e. that a process takes place before you get to the point of people sacrificing democracy for security and protection. In addition, fear of loosing identity also plays a part. However, It begins with repetitive strong arguments by certain groups that our normal way of life, identity and control is being eroded by other somewhat foreign cultural forces. Hence Reform UK saying they want our country back. If this gets combined with significant numbers of people loosing out economically and even more perceiving that, then the anti-democratic groups grow in influence, especially since they portray themselves as acting according to the will of the people against the long existing establishment. This needs to be countered by having a message of hope within an improved democratic system and tempting as it is for a general election, only emphasising people’s current difficulties because of the current government is necessary but insufficient and in the long run counter-productive. In any case we are perceived by some (perhaps many) as part of the current political system.

  • Given that Johnson tried to illegally prorogue Parliament – probably the biggest attack on democracy here in decades – please don’t give the buffon any “air space”. The guy is a political has-been and should be ignored.

  • Martin Gray 13th Mar '24 - 6:04am

    Where is this rabid right wing Tory government ?
    Record levels of net migration, record levels of asylum claims being granted . The evidence doesn’t stack up .
    Whatever you may think of Braverman’s & Anderson’s comments – don’t be under any illusion that they don’t resonate with a significant number of voters .
    On the culture wars the progressive left has fell into the trap of no debate . It hides it’s intolerance in the name of inclusivity. Nobody has a right not to be offended . Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of a liberal society…

  • @Geoffrey Payne. Since 1979 ? It goes back further than that to the oil crisis during the Heath government in the early 70’s.

  • The traditional “far left” have been singularly unsuccessful in changing British society. The old Communist Party of Great Britain – God bless ’em – would have gone green with envy at the sight of Russian oligarchs influencing the party of government in the UK. On the other hand the far right inside and outside the Conservative Party have got away with poisoning our culture, hacking away at public services and belittling Britain’s international reputation. While we live in a dangerous world and on a threatened planet we have to be alert to the guilty state shrinkers within.

  • Peter Martin 13th Mar '24 - 10:18am

    “…….a lot of disillusionment revolves around austerity which has dominated our politics since 1979. A smaller state is meant to be liberating, well that is the theory.”

    The theory is also that economic austerity should lead to a smaller state. The problem for the political right is that it didn’t and there’s no reason to think that it should. The theory is incorrect. Economic Austerity, as applied by a currency issuing government, is a counter inflation policy which did, as we saw, work well enough to that effect.

    The side effects of a counter inflation policy were also easily observable. Growth levels slump. Workers lose their jobs. Businesses go bust. Everyone feels poorer. The demands on the state increase.

    It wasn’t just one own goal. Everyone in the football team groans when this happens. It was more like the team didn’t even know they were scoring at the wrong end.

  • Tristan Ward 13th Mar '24 - 11:05am

    What we are actually talking about is “liberal democracy” – not “democracy”. Contrast Orban’s “illiberal democracy” and (possibly) the USA under Trump if it all goes horribly wrong. “Democracy” just means winning plenicites.

    There ought to be an opportunity for Liberal Democrats here somewhere….

  • Peter Martin 13th Mar '24 - 4:53pm

    “The traditional “far left” have been singularly unsuccessful in changing British society”

    I don’t know about that.

    Going back to the 19th century Marx and Engels called for a ” A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.” and “Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form”. Not everything they advocated has come about they certainly have had a measure of success.

    The abolition of the British Empire, the emancipation of women, recognition of the equality of the races would all have been considered “far left” causes at one time. In more recent times the same can be said of opposition to the Vietnam war and the South African apartheid regime.

    The so-called “far left” have rarely been on the wrong side of history.

  • @ Nigel Jones surely the real point is that the threat of extremism provides a useful straw man for those who want to leverage popular support to undermine democratic rights and freedoms. The same goes for “online harms” and “misinformation”. Their perceived threat used as a pretext for action.

  • David Garlick 13th Mar '24 - 11:12pm

    We must continue our community politics and press for citizens assemblies on major issues for local areas. Northamptonshire was wrecked by the Tories, local district and Borough Councils lost to be replaced by two failing unitary Councils. Listening is a lip service exercise on agreed outcomes and rarely changes anything. Politics as usual is not an option and we need to find ways to engage the public at large.

  • Robert Howes 13th Mar '24 - 11:34pm

    We need to purify our democracy. Whenever we have a government with a healthy majority, and the PM then stuffs the House of Lords with his supporters, with have a virtual dictatorship. The government can become arrogant and authoritarian.

    This has always been a threat to our democracy, and can only be changed with the Liberal Democrats policies to reform the voting system, the House of Lords and a revival of local democracy.

  • @Peter Martin: Not so sure about the ‘The so-called “far left” have rarely been on the wrong side of history‘. Looks to me like the ‘far left’ got it right on some things but were spectacularly wrong on support for Communism/the USSR/other left-wing dictatorships, that capitalism would destroy itself, that there was no need for religion/spirituality, on having a largely nationalised command economy, on seeing society mostly as a class war, and on opposition to NATO. They also went way too far on trade union powers, and were very late to the party on protecting the environment.

    @Marco: While it’s true that the threat of extremism can cause people to over-react, and that over-reaction can damage democracy, I don’t think we should deny that extremism does exist and does need to be tackled. Ditto online harms and misinformation. It’s a question of getting the right balance.

  • David Allen 15th Mar '24 - 6:01pm

    People are losing faith in democracy. The answer to that may not simply be to insist on giving them more of it.

    Arguably, the claim that the EU suffers from a “democratic deficit” is wrong. The EU benefits from a managed democracy and a creative separation of powers between the Commission, the Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament. The Commission can achieve government by experts, which is why the EU for many years led the world on tackling climate change. The horsetrading at the Council of Ministers looks messy, but makes sure every nation has a voice. The Parliament brings in democracy and public accountability with reduced risk of capture by demagogues.

    Pure democracy does have a major flaw. It can too easily be captured by a Hitler, a Trump, a Modi. Managed democracy is better.

  • @David Allen ..The EU & democracy ! … Democratically elected governments in the EU had austerity imposed upon them at will – by what was in effect a bunch of German financiers . That’s what happens when you have one currency in the hands of a few powerful organisations. The poorest in those countries were impoverished further in the name of saving face for a lavishly funded clique ..

  • “Democratically elected governments in the EU had austerity imposed upon them at will”

    This comment is just factually incorrect. 27 countries out of the then 28 countries in the EU had to undergo varying form of austerity as their expenditure was greater (vastly greater in the more extreme cases) than their income and/or ability to borrow. Such a situation is not sustainable. That also applied irrespective of which currency they were using (including here in the UK). Nor indeed was it a solely EU phenomena as the overwhelming majority of US states also had to undergo austerity.

  • Chris Moore 17th Mar '24 - 4:53pm

    In fact, countries around the world cut back their spending.

    Austerity was not an invention of the Evil Coalition or indeed the EU.

    And the UK in particular under the Coalition was only too happy to reside over/ run/ benefit from profound and sustained budget deficits.

    Ditto for other countries.

  • Peter Martin 18th Mar '24 - 9:04am

    @ Chris Moore

    “This comment {about EU austerity} is just factually incorrect.”

    No it isn’t.

    The EU’s so-called “Stability and Growth Pact” does impose fiscal rules which can well lead to what can be described as ‘needless austerity’ under certain conditions. What seemed reasonable in the 00s wasn’t reasonable a decade later after the GFC. Having a common currency, or a pegged currency which relies on the intervention of the central bank, does require that some rules be imposed. The problem for the EU was that these needed to be varied according to macroeconomic conditions. This needed the EU to have a government to decide on EU macroeconomic policy as whole. They didn’t have one.

    There was no reason to impose fiscal rules on the UK government which had its own independent freely floating currency.

    Austerity is essentially a counter inflation policy. This worked well enough for both the UK and EU as we saw. It isn’t a reliable way of reducing Govt deficits. If a Govt reduces its spending it also reduces its income. If it raises taxes it slows the economy which also reduces its income.

  • Peter Martin 18th Mar '24 - 9:45am

    My comment above should have been addressed to both Chris Moore and Paul R.

  • Martin Gray 18th Mar '24 - 8:37pm

    @Paul R..
    “The political impact of the austerity imposed on countries of the EU periphery, which were confronted with significant debt, led to “a predominant economic and social dislocation”….Troika
    Most of the money lent went to shore up the financial sector … The ECB & European Commission were the major two institutions in imposing that austerity.
    With the ECB dominated by German financiers.
    As for ordinary folk – the social aspect of the EU was and is a myth….

  • Peter Martin 18th Mar ’24 – 9:04am:
    There was no reason to impose fiscal rules on the UK government which had its own independent freely floating currency.

    That would have meant breaking “international law” (as some call breaching an EU treaty.) In theory, we only had to “endeavour” to meet the deficit criteria and could not be fined. In practice, we were treated no differently to eurozone members; the ECJ ruled that all EU members were subject to the same provisions…

    ‘EC reprimands Brown over UK deficit’ [January 2006]:
    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2006/jan/11/economy.uk

    The chair of the Centre for a Social Europe, Labour MP Ian Davidson, stood up for the chancellor, accusing Brussels of “trying to run Britain’s budget”. Although the UK – like Denmark and Sweden – is not a member of the euro, its economy is subject to the provisions of the stability and growth pact.

    The commission will begin “excessive deficit procedure” against the UK, warning the chancellor he should cut the deficit by at least £6bn, although Britain’s self-imposed exclusion from the single currency means it is not liable for fines.

    The commission has been criticised for not in the past imposing fines on member states that did breach the rules,…
    […]

    Previous commission attempts to rap national treasuries over the knuckles have ended in bitter confrontation and even a court case, which the commission won when European judges said member states had to comply with the pact’s deficit provisions.

  • Peter Hirst 25th Mar '24 - 3:36pm

    A new government will be an opportunity to restore trust in our governance. This cannot be done piecemeal. It requires a radical reform of the checks and balances so it reflects modern reality and concerns. This would be best done by a deliberative democratic process with input from experts and polilticians and a final confirmatory referendum.

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