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Decimating Democracy?

Labour MP Shahid Malik has resigned as justice minister after claims about his expenses were published in the Daily Telegraph:
Shortly before standing down, he claimed that the extensive media coverage of the expenses issue is in danger of ‘decimating democracy’.

There’s room for debate about whether Mr Malik is using the verb ‘to decimate’ properly. The word comes from the practice in ancient Rome of killing one in ten of a group of soldiers as a punishment for mutiny – not nine out of ten. But of course Mr Malik’s usage is now so common that it probably has to be accepted as part of standard English.

But what about his use of ‘democracy’? Do we live in a democracy? Most people think it is obvious that we do, and this might be taken to show that we should understand what the word ‘democratic’ means by looking at a system like ours. But in fact it’s not clear that our calling our system democratic is consistent with other things we believe about democracy.

Democracy, we all think, means ‘government by the people’. In a so-called direct democracy, the people really do govern – they make the decisions. Many powerful arguments have been offered in favour of such a system: that it respects the equal status of citizens, that it instantiates the exercise of autonomy of each, that it enables self-realization, and so on.

In what is described as a 'representative democracy’ like ours, in which we elect others to make decisions on our behalf, we are already at one remove from government by the people. The people do not govern day by day; rather, they choose those who govern. To use on old metaphor of Plato’s, our political participation lies not in steering the ship of state, but in electing a crew.

Now consider a paradigmatically undemocratic system: a form of oligarchy – rule by the few – in which power is held by a few families who pass it on among themselves.

One might see our political system as lying in between a genuinely democratic direct democracy and an entirely undemocratic oligarchy. It is, in effect, a form of elected oligarchy. This seems a particularly apt description when one considers (a) how many MPs have come, and continue to come, from a privileged, often privately educated, background; (b) the party system; (c) the growing centrism of the mainstream parties and consequent lack of choice for voters; and (d) the long period between elections.

How could we make our system more democratic? We could engage in more direct democracy. In the past, it was quite plausible to suggest that this was just impracticable. But with current technology that is no longer true. It’s not clear what participation levels would be were major issues put to public vote on the internet. But unless they were extremely low, a significantly greater proportion of citizens would be governing than at present. We could move further away from oligarchy through more frequent elections, or through selecting representatives by lot, the system used in ancient Athens – the so-called ‘cradle of democracy’.

Most people would not be especially interested in ideas like this. One reason is probably lack of interest. Political apathy is often criticized, but an alternative view is that political apathy is a sign of political health. If people were really unhappy about the way the country’s being governed, then they would have a stronger desire to get involved. Another reason is aversion to risk. The transition costs of a radically new system might be high, and there is always the fear of government by interest groups or extremists.

This suggests that the main justification for continuing with something like our present system is largely ‘forward-looking’ – essentially, it is good enough to do the job, though we might want to tinker with it. The old egalitarian and autonomy-based arguments for democracy have little weight.

These reflections then provide a way to think about the current expenses crisis. There is much talk of how MPs have betrayed public trust, and this explains the widespread demands that MPs be removed from office or even punished in the courts. These are backward-looking considerations, however, and taking them excessively seriously may destabilize government in this country, or at least make it significantly less effective in the short to medium term. As Rebecca Roache pointed out in a recent blog on this site( ), there are many more important things to worry about in the world than MPs’ expenses. If MPs are there essentially to keep things going, then we should accept that, though of course the rules on expenses have to be tightened up and some of the more egregious cases have to be dealt with, they have to be left alone to get on with their jobs.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Pure democracy does not work in political units with large populations. It requires a small enough population that most people can know most other people and decisions can be made publicly after public debate. I suppose it would work in San Marino or a town in New Hampshire. It also requires that there be issues about which the participants can talk about somewhat intelligently, and that there be few enough issues so that the participants don’t have to spend a great deal of their time governing rather than engaging in business or other useful pursuits.

    A representative democracy is a democracy in the sense that the demos has enough of a role in governmental decision making to lend that decision making legitimate, acceptable to all because of the authority of those who make the decision. I suppose that’s why you need a popularly elected legislature, in which there is some reasonable relationship between the members and some identifiable and fairly apportioned part of the population.

    But a Burkean would say that the relationship stops there, and that the representative may ignore the wishes of his/her constituents, so long as the representative exercises good judgment with some reference to the good of those constitutents. Then, of course, there’s the desire to be reelected (which Burke pooh-poohed, I think disingenuously).

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