So America isn’t a democracy. Is Britain?

America an oligarchy, not a democracy, claim academics | Princeton. A new study by two academics claims what many people already believe: that the USA is not a democracy but an oligarchy, where rich and powerful elites have a 45% chance of getting what they want politically, as against 18% for other groups. This may seem an obvious conclusion — indeed, 18% might seem optimistic. However, it is based on extensive testing, and thus provides an evidence base for what many people have suspected for some time.

I’m not American, and, really, it is not my place to criticise, but what about the United Kingdom? Americans see our House of Commons and House of Lords as a stereotypical compromise between aristocracy and some form of polity. Of course, the Lords are no longer, for the most part, hereditary, but politically appointed. Nonetheless, although this makes Britain rather less like an episode of Downton Abbey, it does not fundamentally change the balance of things.

The terms democracy and oligarchy are first linked for us by Aristotle. He defined six kinds of government, of which three are in principle ‘good’, and three are bad. Monarchy is where a single ruler rules for the benefit of all, aristocracy is where the noble rule for the benefit of all, and polity is where the citizens rule for the benefit of all. The debased forms are tyranny, where a ruler rules for their own benefit, oligarchy where a few rule for their own benefit, and democracy, where the common people rule for their own benefit — in each case at the cost of the benefit of others.

Our notion of democracy is essentially that of Aristotle’s polity. We have extended the notion of citizen to include all adults with UK nationality, excluding only incarcerated criminals and peers of the realm from the right to elect MPs, MEPs, councillors and now police commissioners.

To what extent does voting give people power in Britain? To what extent do vested interests win out?

A cursory examination would suggest that our voting system is broken, but perhaps not so badly as it might seem. Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for a truly proportional voting system, and were — one might say — rather too easily led into supporting a voting system which was as complex as a truly proportional system, but was not really any more proportional than the current system. Nonetheless, despite the huge geographical biases which mean that around 40 seats, depending on how you count, control who gets to be the next government, power in Britain does change hands relatively frequently. More importantly, the threat of losing a general election forces parties to stick closer to the middle ground.

Is our system as democratic as other modern democracies? Certainly not by comparison with the Dutch, Germans or even French, where each vote has far more power to sway the outcome of the election. Nonetheless, no party can lay claim to ‘owning’ government.

But what of the other aspects of democracy? Some would argue that representative democracy is merely another name for temporary oligarchy. We elect a few powerful individuals, who are themselves beholden to even more powerful individuals, so that final decisions on the fate of the nation are made by perhaps twenty people. On the other hand, if everyone got to vote on everything, we would rarely get anything done, and we would be in danger of institutionalising the fickleness of a mob.

Underpinning any kind of democracy are four or five things, without which no amount of voting creates a government which we would see are democratic.

These are:

  • Independent and objective judiciary
  • Instruments of the freedom of speech (traditionally a free press)
  • Educated citizens who are able to participate in major decisions
  • A professional and impartial civil service
  • An active political sphere (traditionally through political parties)

We might argue that the backbone of British democracy is not parliament but the courts. Indeed, when things go wrong at an election, it is to the courts we turn. Likewise, no legislation is meaningful until it has been tested in the courts.

The question as to whether the press really is free has come under a great deal of scrutiny recently. The Leveson Inquiry, and the appearances in front of House of Commons select committees of Rupert Murdoch and others have raised the question: if the press is owned by just three or four magnates, is it really free at all? If national newspapers were all that there was, we might have to conclude that our free press was more imaginary than real. However, radio, regulated television, and increasingly the internet should soothe our troubled minds. True, the internet is more used for pictures of cute kittens and people’s children than anything else, and most of the ‘facts’ available are, in fact, fakes, hoaxes, misunderstandings or selective citation. Nonetheless, more than ever before, the ordinary citizen can express themselves to a wide audience with only the least amount of interference from any outside body.

Educated citizens is more troubling. It was Tony Blair’s ambition that 50% of the population should go to university. However, even among those who have been, understanding of the great issues of the day is more the exception than the rule. A nation of whom 70% believed that Nigel Farage won the debates with Nick Clegg — despite working from ‘facts’ which subsequently proved to be unsupported by any reputable studies — is not a great advertisement for the benefits of our education system.

Sir Ken Robinson argues that education has always been constructed in purely economic terms. We used to educate the masses to the level of factory workers because that was what the economy required. Now that we are moving to a knowledge economy, we educate people for that. His underlying thesis is that this is not what progressive education should be about. Robinson emphasises developing creativity, which I endorse. However, developing citizenship, not merely in a module entitled ‘citizenship’, should surely be a key outcome in a society which wishes to be democratic.

Civil servants come in for a great deal of criticism — perhaps more so in the post Yes Minister generation — but the system generally functions well. We may at times baulk at the enormous salaries that civil servants appear to command, but that is perhaps partly because the private sector tends to keep very quiet about the enormous salaries that company directors command. We could look at rejigging the whole of society to reduce the disparity between low and high earnings, but, while it exists, excluding civil servants from such things is merely a mechanism to lure people our of the civil service and into the private sector when they reach a certain level — something which is already happening, and should cause us concern.

Politics may be much more professional now than it was one hundred years ago, but the civil service provides a backbone of effective execution which could never take place through politicians and their appointees alone. By and large — though with many biases and institutional priorities which may be at odds with the will of the people — the civil service does its job.

Which brings us to political parties. By comparison with the rest of the democratic world (if that we have accepted that the USA is an oligarchy), Britain has few parties, and they are perhaps far too powerful. Where proportional voting is the rule, which is almost everywhere else, there are more parties, alliances tend to be more fluid, and coalition is a recognised and highly effective form of government. Our system trains politicians to become as tribal as possible: other parties are the hated enemy, only ‘we’ are right and good. This was evident in some of David Cameron’s frantic back-pedalling at the start of the coalition, and in the unease, and, indeed, distaste of many Liberal Democrats.

It is hard to form coalitions when parties are so large. To form a coalition with the Conservatives means that Liberal Democrats are in with a party of Euro-sceptics and Euro-phobes. Euroscepticism may be a good balance, but Euro-phobia is surely something which progressive politicians detest. On the other hand, to go in with Labour means going in with a party whose views range from centrist social democracy to neo-Marxist statism. Again, it is hard for Liberal Democrats to want to work with the entire Labour spectrum. However, Someone + Liberal Democrats is not the only possible, or even logical combination. Tribalism prevents a Labour-Conservative coalition, and, while the parties are as big as they are, such a combination would seem nigh-on impossible.

The hidden term in this — which leads us dangerously close to American-style oligarchy — is that it is getting ever more expensive to fight elections and run parties. Membership based organisations simply cannot generate the £20-30 million necessary to fight a general election, without extensive fundraising in addition to membership subscriptions. Fundraising inevitably raises questions of favouritism. We look down on — and so should we — any notion of cash for peerages and cash for questions in the house, but, at the same time, it is evident that major donors to political parties have a level of access to senior politicians denied to ordinary people.

The other worrying trend is the sharp fall in membership of all parties since the 2010 General Election. This has begun to reverse for the Liberal Democrats, which saw a rise in membership in 2013, but no party can claim to be the movement it was even ten years ago. The fewer the members, the greater the power of large donors.

The first task of government these days seems to be accepted as running the economy, to paraphrase Bill Clinton’s famous dictum. Polls suggest this is what voters most want the government to do. However, in my view, reinvigorating democracy ought to be the fundamental obligation of every government. We are not at the stage yet — but we can see it beginning to form on the horizon — when the costs of campaigning are so great, and the interest of ordinary voters is so small, that Britain, too, begins to resemble not a democracy, or even an aristocracy, but a plutocracy.


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