Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Democracy trumps despotism

The best protection against tyranny is informed, engaged citizens, believes Darren Hughes

It is something of a cliché to note that Britain’s constitution was built on gradualism and minor reforms over the centuries – minus the civil war of course. But it can be as much of a cliché to blame our democratic flaws on the lack of a fully-codified constitution.

The freedoms and democratic rights we enjoy are fragile. But it is not because they are not all contained in one document.

October saw the anniversary of parliament burning down in 1834. There is a famous William Turner painting of crowds clapping and cheering at the flames – reflecting the antipathy people felt at the time. It is easy to hope people would not do the same today. But there remains a democratic malaise in our politics.

Recent IpsosMori polling showed that a lack of faith in politicians and government has made its way into the top 10 issues for Britain for the first time.

And Hansard’s 2018 audit of political engagement showed a rise to 57 per cent of respondents saying they are interested in politics, while only 29 per cent say they are satisfied with the political system. Political interest is going up – alongside political anger. That is not a healthy combination.

The referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union – for all its flaws (and we pointed out many) – was a rare moment that people felt their voice would definitely be heard. No ‘holding your nose’, ‘x can’t win here’ or electoral stagnation. People could reverse their sense of powerlessness.

But of course, politics snapped back to its usual top-down, elite‑driven nature after the vote, and the rhetoric of ‘take back control’ appears to be baseless.

In that scenario, it is easy to see how anger can fester. And how that anger could be channelled by a demagogue.

📖 Is British democracy vulnerable?

A constitution – whether written or not – is only as strong as its defenders. And at the moment, Westminster’s system lacks that public legitimacy. It is desperately in need of an overhaul.

Despite some devolution, the UK remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe. Council chambers are all too often one-party states, while 22 million votes were ‘wasted’ at the last general election, not contributing to the result.

In the face of overwhelming support for change, the House of Lords remains totally unelected and unaccountable. There are more members of the royal household in there than manual workers.

Institutions are only as strong as their foundations. As we are perhaps witnessing in the United States, you can have as many formal legal protections for the press as you want. But if independent media is denounced as ‘fake news’ and attacking journalists is encouraged – these values will be built on sand.

The populist tide sweeping Europe and the US has taken place with little notice of institutional protections. Where there is rage, constitutional barriers might only inflame the tensions: ‘the system is rigged against us’.

Westminster’s system is vulnerable to exploitation because our democratic culture is weak. Our citizenship education lags behind many advanced democracies. Elections are a race to spend the most rather than develop the best policies. Major constitutional decisions are made either in ancient halls or through flawed plebiscites, with little of the informed deliberation we witnessed recently in Ireland.

The biggest guard against tyranny? A democratic culture and citizens who are and feel listened to. Jeremy Corbyn speaks of democratising the economy: but our society must be democratised first.

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Darren Hughes is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society and supports Politics for the Many – the trade union campaign for reform

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Darren Hughes

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