Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 election

What do we mean by “Democracy”

We think we know, we think it is so good that others ought to have it, we even think that we should impose it at the point of a gun.  But what do we actually mean when we say “democracy”?

Some might say that it is sufficient for the government to be elected by a reasonably universal franchise. But that is surely too simplistic.

  • How frequently should the government be elected – would elections every 30 years be sufficient? I suspect not; but can we define a suitable interval? (The French presidency used to be elected every 7 years)
  • How wide must the franchise be?  It is only in the last century that your gender and whether you held property ceased to be relevant in the UK (Representation of the People Act 1928). In the USA several practices are widely seen as discriminatory on racial grounds (despite the 1870 15th Amendment). In the Scottish independence referendum it is proposed to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. In many parts of the world the franchise is severely restricted.
  • Is it sufficient for 51% to be able to impose their choice on 49%? (Lord Hailsham’s “Elected Dictatorship”)

When are our “democratic feelings” offended?

  • When a narrow majority wins power and uses it to persecute the minority?
  • When government is unresponsive? (“Not in my name”)
  • When government is overpowering?

The difficult case of Egypt raises a number of uncomfortable issues:

  • They had a vote last year – but most of the Western World did not like the result (a win for the Muslim Brotherhood – tough)
  • The Government according to some has been incompetent and lost the confidence of “the people”
  • The government has been overthrown by the military (acting on behalf of “the people”)

If we wish to argue that the result of “having a vote” was not the creation of a democracy, we have to look carefully at our own “democracy”. We also have to accept that we cannot just impose elections on countries and expect them to become “democratic”.

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3 thoughts on “What do we mean by “Democracy”

  1. An interesting couple of points reflecting on the situation in Myanmar/Burma:

    One of the great myths propagated by the West and its media is that democracy produces better governments. In recent decades, one need look no further than Australia, Cambodia, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Italy, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States or Venezuela to see that perfectly free and fair elections can produce perfectly rotten governments—which is exactly why elections are so valuable. The great gift of democracy is not the guarantee of electing a better government; it is the power it gives the electorate to vote out a bad one in a peaceful, orderly manner. The Catch 22, however, is that a bad government will often not allow itself to be dismissed in a decent and transparent process.
    The Irrawaddy Magazine 2 August 2013: Dominic Faulder: Lessons of ’88

    For many people, particularly in the Middle East at the moment, political change without pain is an elusive luxury. Even in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the notion of a loyal democratic opposition has yet to take seed in any of the 10 member countries—although Thailand and the Philippines might wish to dispute such an assertion. People rightly point out that Myanmar’s Parliament in Naypyitaw has badly flawed democratic credentials, particularly with its military block vote. But the inclusion of the NLD as an opposition force with a legal platform is a major first step along a difficult road.
    ibid

  2. Pingback: Miranda Wrongs | Outside the marginals

  3. Pingback: Miranda and Democracy | Outside the marginals

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