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Is UK democracy working as it is supposed to?

UK Democracy – Key Features (how it supposed to work)

       Pluralism: Power lies in many different places (judges, Parliament, Prime Minister etc.)

       Free and fair elections: All adults can vote. 

       Free press and media: The government does not control what newspapers print.

       The rule of law: Even politicians can be prosecuted for breaking the law. Tony Blair was quizzed by police over the Cash for Honours scandal and so too was Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s former spin doctor, over phone hacking.

       Freely operating parties and pressure groups: (Conservatives, Liberal Democrats)

        Corruption is punished: Several MPs were forced to resign over the expenses scandal and David Chayter, a former Labour MP, was imprisoned.

       Civil Rights are protected: Freedom to demonstrate.

       Constitutionalism: A system of rules specifying how the country is governed; Parliament passes laws

       Increase in direct democracy: referendum on London mayor / online consultations on super mosques and banning smoking. Several referendums on whether cities will get mayors in 2011 – most voted not to.

       Devolution: Regions have more power than before (Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly)

       House of Lords Reformed: Hereditary peers removed

       Human Rights Act allows citizens to use UK courts to protect their rights: An elderly couple were re-united after courts ruled placing them in separate care homes infringed their right to a family life.

       Freedom of Information Act: Citizens can request information that the government holds on them. Journalists have used the FOI Act to request information on sensitive arms deals.


Problems with UK democracy

  • The executive (government) dominates the legislature (Parliament). This means that the government can force through measures that have not been properly scrutinised. The introduction of ID cards turned out to be an expensive mistake, which occurred largely because members of the governing party largely voted in favour of it.
  •        First Past the Post is unfair and leads to what Lord Hailsham described as an “Elected Dictatorship.” Having two parties in power appears to have done little to prevent the government dominating the House of Commons. Witness how quickly the government has pushed through plans on scrapping Building Schools for the Future scheme.
  •        House of Lords is unelected. Some hereditary peers remain. The House of Lords is also weak – it can only delay legislation. This means that the government can push through its agenda relatively easily. The coalition has now packed the Lords with its own supporters, meaning it is less likely to stand up the House of Commons.
  •        Too much power is in the hands of the PM: They can use the “Royal Prerogative”, undefined powers such as the right to declare war and negotiate treaties with the EU. They also have immense powers of patronage (the right to award honours). Brown used the royal prerogative to send extra troops to Afghanistan and Cameron initiated military action against Libya before there was a vote in Parliament to authorise it.
  •  Stuart Weir: “The Rule of Law is what the government says it is”.
  • The government has made promises to strengthen Parliament – giving it a vote on all future military conflicts etc. Yet these promises seem permanently stalled. Few laws have yet been passed to beef up the role of Parliament. Secret ballots for Select Committee Chairs is about the only coalition reform of note.
  • Voter apathy is a problem (61% turnout in 2005 and 65% in 2010) and collective civic engagement is declining. Only 5% of the public attended a political meeting in 2000.
  • Perception of corruption is growing with the Cash for Peerages affair and Expenses scandal.
  • Some pressure groups are too powerful. The CBI is close to the government, putting interests of business interests before employees. Private healthcare companies wrote the Health and Social Care bill, which allows those companies access to provide operations on the NHS.
  • Freedom of Information Act was “watered down” by the government. The Guardian was not allowed to publish details about Saudi Arms deals.
  • Human Rights Act under threat. Cameron wants to replace it.
  •  West Lothian question: Scottish MPs vote on English only issues.
  • According to Democratic Audit, democracy in Britain improved between 1997 and 2001 but “regressed thereafter”. This was largely due to illiberal measures such as the increase in the time period of detention without trial and over zealous use of stop and search laws.
  •  There is a lack of choice between the political parties. According to Democratic Audit, only 30% of voters could see any difference between the parties, compared with 80% in the 1980s

The Invisible Primary

Is US Federalism dead?