Democracy is a word
frequently used in British Politics. We are constantly told that we live
in a democracy in Britain and that our political system is "democratic"
and that nations that do not match these standards are classed as
"undemocratic". D Robertson, writing in 1986, stated that:
"Democracy is the most
valued and also the vaguest of political terms in the modern world."
Robertson continued by
stating that the word only starts to mean something tangible in the
modern world when it is prefixed with other political words, such as
direct, representative, liberal and parliamentary.
This belief is based on
the right of every citizen over a certain age to attend political
meetings, vote on the issue being discussed at that meeting and
accepting the majority decision should such a vote lead to a law being
passed which you as an individual did not support.
Part of this belief, is
the right of every one to hold political office if they choose to do so.
Direct democracy also believes that all people who have the right to,
should actively participate in the system so that it is representative
of the people and that any law passed does have the support of the
Direct democracy gives all
people the right to participate regardless of religious beliefs, gender,
sexual orientation, physical well being etc. Only those who have
specifically gone against society are excluded from direct democracy. In
Britain, those in prison have offended society in some way and,
therefore, their democratic rights are suspended for the duration of
their time in prison. Once released, and having ‘learnt a lesson’, their
democratic rights are once again restored.
Direct democracy is fine
in theory but it does not always match the theory when put into
practice. Direct democracy requires full participation from those
allowed to. But how many people have the time to commit themselves to
attending meetings especially when they are held mid-week during an
afternoon? How many wish to attend such meetings after a day’ work etc?
If Britain has 40 million
people who can involve themselves in politics if they wish, how could
such a number be accommodated at meetings etc? Who would be committed to
being part of this system day-in and day-out when such commitment would
be all but impossible to fulfil? How many people have the time to find
out about the issues being discussed whether at a local or a national
level ? How many people understand these issues and the complexities
that surround them? How many people understood the complexities of the
problems surrounding the building of the Newbury by-pass, the
installation of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Greenham Common etc?
If people are to be
informed on such issues, who does this informing? How can you guarantee
that such information is not biased? Who would have time to read all the
information supporting the building of the Newbury by-pass and then read
the material against it, before coming to a balanced personal decision?
Because of the realities
of direct democracy, few nations use it. Some states in New England,
USA, do use it at a local level but the number of people involved is
manageable and the culture of the towns involved actively encourages
participation. The issues discussed are relevant purely to the town and
,therefore, there is a good reason for involving yourself if you want
your point of view heard. Meetings are held in town halls across New
England - which, apart from cities such as Boston, is not highly
populated. But how could the system work in heavily populated areas?
In the recent mayoral
election in London, the small turnout of voters indicates that one
aspect of direct democracy was not there - active participation by those
who could have participated. Of those who did vote, how many will
actively participate in the running of the city? Is the mechanism in
place for people, other than those appointed by Ken Livingstone, to
involve themselves in day-to-day decisions? This will be done by a
cabinet selected by the mayor. The people of London will have no choice
as to who sits on this city cabinet (just as the national electorate has
no say in who sits on the government’s cabinet when it is picked). Is it
physically possible to have a system that involves all those in London
who wish to do so? How many Londoners understand the complexities of the
issues which the city government will have to deal with? At this moment
in time, London cannot be run by a system of direct democracy.
in the future may change this. The expansion of the Internet and the
speed with which communication can now be achieved, may favour direct
democracy. The present government set-up a system in 1997, whereby 5,000
randomly selected members of the public (the so-called "People’s Panel")
are asked about their reactions to government policy. However, there is
no system in place which allows the public to help formulate government
policy, and critics of the "People’s Panel" have called it a gimmick
with no purpose.