Preface of "Our Fight for Democracy"

Our Fight for Democracy
A History of Democracy in the United Kingdom

Part I – History


“All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy” – Speech by Governor of New York, Alfred Emanuel Smith in Albany 27th June 1933

It was a cold February morning.   The sky was overcast, although at times the weak winter sun would make a valiant effort to break through.   I was well wrapped up for such a day.   As I walked, along Whitehall with my wife, two of my sons and up to two million other people, I wondered what had brought me to this point.
What was I doing, carrying a banner, taking part in my first mass protest demonstration – the biggest demonstration ever seen in the United Kingdom?   All around me were thousands of banners held high by other protestors, most of them produced by the “Stop the War” campaign, but mine was the only blue one amongst this sea of black and white.   My banner was different: Conservative Against the War” was written on it.   Together we all slowly shuffled to a rally in Hyde Park addressed by the great and the good and the not so good.   The atmosphere was very friendly, kindred souls marching together in a cause, which united them, my shuffle occasionally interrupted by someone applauding my banner and confessing that they were also a Conservative.
Saturday February 15th 2003 will be known in history as the date of the largest public demonstration in the United Kingdom.   If two million people could turn out for a march on a chilly February day, then I thought, they must represent the views of twenty million.   The politicians must listen. (Several years later Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor at that time, told me that whatever the size of the march the Government would not have changed its mind).
     The day was full of little incidents – I gave a live interview to French television, seen by my local MEP, James Elles who was in Strasbourg at the time – I bumped into a fellow Buckinghamshire Conservatives Supper Club member in the middle of Hyde Park who was also against the war – Little Miss Dynamite performed her music on stage.   Tony Benn and the Reverend Jesse Jackson made passionate speeches against the war.   All in all this was a momentous day.   One hundred million people converged on six hundred cities in sixty countries to show their feelings.   This was a protest by the World.   Did it matter?   Would it matter?
One month later on March 15th 2003 I was in more familiar surroundings at the Conservative Party Spring Forum in Harrogate.   War with Iraq was imminent and a special slot had been given to the Leader of the Party – Iain Duncan Smith MP to speak about it.   He supported the government.   My heart sank.   After he had spoken there were a few minutes allocated for speeches from the members of the Party.   With trepidation I put my name in to speak.   After the first two or three contributions supporting Iain Duncan Smith I was called to speak.
I started with a blatant attempt to get the sympathy of the audience by explaining how nervous I was speaking against the views of the Party Leader.   I went on:
“There are two major policy changes that distinguish this proposed war from others.   They are the policies of pre-emptive action and/or regime change.   Both are highly dangerous to world stability.
The question that has to be answered is this: If Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and we believe that he is prepared to use them, then under what circumstances would he most likely use them bearing in mind that the policy of containment has had twelve years of success?
I suggest the most likely circumstances in which he would use them would be if he is attacked or trapped in Baghdad.   If this were to happen the war would have triggered off the very action that it is supposed to prevent.
On the other hand if he does not have weapons of mass destruction or if he is not prepared to use them, then thousands of innocent men, women and children will lose their lives for the mistaken beliefs of our Prime Minister and President Bush, and when the bombs fall who here believes that the Iraqi people will say “That’s alright, these bombs are not meant for us they are meant for Saddam Hussein”.
The speech went down well and several Conservative MPs, two of whom were in the Whip’s office, congratulated me.   Independently and separately both told me that over forty per cent of the Parliamentary Party opposed the war.
On Tuesday March 18th in the House of Commons a cross party amendment insisting the case for war had not yet been made was defeated by 396 votes to 217.   A majority of Conservative MPs voted with the government to defeat the amendment.
On 19th March we went to war with Iraq.
In August 2003 the Prime Minister Tony Blair MP addressed both Houses of Congress in the United States.   By now no weapons of mass destruction had been found and Prime Minister Blair was changing his story as to why we went to war.   He said:  “Can we be sure that terrorism and WMD will join together?   Let us say one thing.   If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering.   That is something I am confident history will forgive."
As the Prime Minister was basking in the applause and praise, on a scale which only America is capable of providing, the body of Dr. David Kelly (the Government expert on WMD) was lying in an Oxfordshire wood, propped up against a tree, dead.
How could all this happen?   I had thought that in a democracy the people were sovereign and in a representative democracy Parliament represented the people.   At the time we went to war the opinion polls showed a slight majority of the people in favour of war.   How could Parliament and the people get it so wrong?   Could the decision be changed?   Could we withdraw from Iraq now the public mood was changing?   The more that I thought about democracy the more questions I began to ask myself.   Do we have it?   Have we had it?   Is it an illusion?   Perhaps I must go back to basics to understand it.   As I am not an academic I was looking for a practical guide to democracy – a history of how we got to where we are, to see what lessons we can learn from the past.   How do freedom of speech, liberty, justice, democracy, going to war, the Royal prerogative, the separation of powers, the judiciary, the executive, Parliament, the role of the State, all intertwine into a free society?
Many great minds have focused on the subject of democracy and I quote extensively from them, but it seems to me that the basic elements, which make up the practice of democracy and their development, have not been comprehensively dealt with.   This is my view of how democracy has developed, where we are now and where we could go in the future.
There are many books on the ideas around democracy, but I cannot find a single book which is its history in the United Kingdom, from the start.   Without understanding this history, I feel many of the arguments about the principles of democracy which are expounded are shallowly grounded, indeed they have no context.
Having spent much of the past six years looking into the history of democracy in the United Kingdom, I have drawn a number of conclusions about democracy’s nature which I have outlined, which in turn I have used as a reference point when exploring the significance of the events as they happened.
Why is democracy so important?   Essentially it is about the legitimate control of power; who has the power, how it is obtained, how it is exercised, and how it is lost. Democracy allows power to be transferred between people who would not willingly choose to give it up, without recourse to bloody revolution.   Differences are talked over, not fought over; open debate, not violence, is the means of determining policy.
How is democracy used?   It is inherent in a democracy that the power to make decisions should not be reserved to the few in isolation but that the decision makers must be responsive to the views and attitudes of all citizens, and must in a real sense be accountable to them.
In a crude sense democracy is a tool for decision making.   The decisions may be taken directly by the people, or indirectly.   In a representative democracy the people choose the decision-makers.   If they get it wrong or make decisions, which offend the majority of the people they can be ejected.   Because they know they can be ejected the very threat of ejection has to be considered when making their decisions.   Occasionally the people are themselves the decision-makers in a referendum, but this is rarely used although with the development of technology and the use of the Internet we may see more of this in the future.
The former MP Tony Benn asks the following questions of those in power:
“What power do you have?”
“Who gave it to you?”
“In whose interests do you exercise it?”
  “How can we get rid of you?”
What is democracy for and what can we expect it to accomplish?   In his book “The Wisdom of Crowds” James Surowiecki asks the following questions:
“Do we have it because it gives people a sense of involvement and control over their lives, and therefore contributes to political stability?   Do we have it because individuals have the right to rule themselves, even if they use that right in ridiculous ways?   Or do we have it because democracy is actually an excellent vehicle for making intelligent decisions and uncovering the truth?” [1]
Surowiecki went on to illustrate the wisdom of the crowds:
“Most political decisions are not simply decisions about how to do something.   They are decisions about what to do, decisions that involve values, trade-offs, and choices about what kind of society people should live in.   There is no reason to think that experts are better at making those decisions than the average voter.   Thomas Jefferson, for one, thought it likely they might be worse.   “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor”, he wrote.   “The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” [2]
Why do people vote?   Is it:
to protest,
to judge the powerful,
to say thank you,
to express fear,
to hope,
to demonstrate idealism,
to obtain personal benefit,
to confirm your political identity,
to show you belong to a political tribe,
to show you are an adult,
to express shear cussedness?
It may be some or none of these things, but in voting we are expressing a view and collectively we create the wisdom of the crowds in determining our future, but only if those votes count.
The purpose of this book is to set out the historical development of democracy in the United Kingdom, to judge how democratic our political institutions are today and to show how democracy could develop in the future.   In order to do this I have created a benchmark against which progress can be measured.   This is a challenge in its own right.
There are many differing views as to what “democracy” means and I set out in the Introduction the wide and varied interpretation of the meaning of the word, but for the purpose of tracing the development of democracy I have chosen a definition based on measurable data.
The main difference in definitions is between those that see democracy as a practical, specific means of measurement with basic elements, which can be tested, and those that see it as a theoretical concept.   When people talk about concepts it is difficult if not impossible to get agreement for concepts can be interpreted in different ways.   Most important issues are contentious, but that does not mean we should give up on them and academics certainly have not done so.   The conceptual view deals with society, rights, fairness, class and liberties, all of which have wide meaning.   Endless argument ensues about them.   Academics and politicians love this conceptual approach much more than others do.   I wish to avoid endless argument so have tried to stick as closely as possible to the original Greek definition of “rule by the people” and in doing so treating the word “democracy” as a fact – something that the “man in the street” can understand and recognise.

We need to modernise our definition of democracy for practical reasons and clarify “rule by the people”. As populations grew and the city-state developed into the nation state it became impossible for the people to make every or even important decisions.   Communication was slow, limited, ponderous and basic.   This problem was overcome by the development of representative democracy from the direct participatory democracy of the Greeks.   Any definition of democracy has to take this into account.   Similarly the definition of the “people” in Ancient Greece was very different from the view taken today when the consensus is that all people regardless of race, gender or creed are equal.
          Freedom and democracy are two sides of the same coin.   Both are reliant on each other.   Freedom looks to democracy to protect it and democracy without freedom is meaningless.  
          Millions of words have been written about freedom and it is rather arrogant to try and summarise it in a short sentence.   Nevertheless, whilst recognising the contributions of many whose expertise is much greater than mine I will try.   Freedom is the ability of people to rule or to govern themselves.    In a modern society, the protection of the rights of minorities and the liberty of the individual, form part of the basic elements of freedom.   Clearly there are occasions when the views of the majority conflict with the rights of minorities or the freedom of the individual and it is the mark of a civilised society that institutions will balance those conflicting rights.   The institutions can be varied and many but would include parliament, the courts, pressure groups and others such as the United Nations.   In the process of balancing the conflicting rights it is essential that the majority consent to any particular rights given to individuals or groups of people and just as the majority are able to confer privilege on the minority they must also be capable of revoking that privilege.   Without the capability of revocation the minority would become all-powerful.
          In a debate on the India Bill of 1783 Pitt said, “Necessity was the plea for every infringement of human freedom.   It was the argument of tyrants; it was the creed of slaves. 
        So whilst protecting the rights of minorities how do the people govern themselves?   Within our definition of democracy we must include the protection of the rights of minorities.
            Democracies are like elephants.   You know them when you see them.   To be effective there has to be the rule of law, a strong and healthy media, freedom of information and transparency.   Without the rule of law democracies cannot exist.   It is a fundamental pre-condition.   If there is no consensus amongst the people about the law then it will increasingly be ignored and anarchy or a dictator takes over.    The people also have to know what the law is and communication between those that govern us and the governed is essential.   A strong and healthy media is essential in this process.   Equally important is constructive criticism of any proposed laws to prevent errors being made.   The media have a role in this.   Information is power and transparency is critical if we are to have the information on which decisions are taken.

Where does democracy, as I define it, stop?   Do you elect judges?   Do you elect park keepers?   Do you elect the monarch?   I believe democracy stops where the people decide it should stop and when they want to, the people can change their minds.

                Democracy in the United Kingdom is facing a crisis.   In a letter to “The Times” on June 17 2004, Tony Cowling – Chairman of Taylor Nelson Sofres wrote about a survey his company had conducted:

                “In a majority of countries a substantial majority (around 60%) agree that “they live in a democracy, and elections are free and fair”.   As you might expect in Western Europe these percentages are much higher.

                However, when asked “Is your country ruled by the will of the people? A bigger percentage (over 60% in many countries) believes that their country “is not ruled by the will of the people”.    The disturbing thing is that countries such as the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the US score some of the highest percentages.
Clearly there is a significant majority of people in Western Europe who on the one hand agree that elections are fair and free, but on the other consider that this has no relevance to the way that their country is ruled, or to the way that major decisions are taken, so it doesn’t matter how you vote, or even if you vote at all.”
                When people become disillusioned or discontented about the way they are governed they begin to ignore the government.   In a democratic nation one of the first signs of discontent is when they stop voting.   It may be of course that people stop voting out of apathy or contentment so the real reason for a drop in voting has to be established.   It must not be assumed that the drop is out of discontent.   If the disillusionment and discontent persist the next stage is that they take to the streets in demonstration often on diverse and unconnected subjects.   We have seen this in recent years in the fuel tax protest, the march of the Countryside Alliance and the protest march about the war in Iraq.   If politicians fail to heed these warnings the next stage of the protest historically has been violence.   The English Civil War, Peterloo, the Chartists, the Suffragettes all bear witness to politicians ignoring the people and I will be looking at these events during the course of my examination of our history.   Fear of revolution has more than once prompted our politicians to act.
                Riot and revolution are the mother and father of democracy.   From the riots in Athens to the English Civil War, from the American War of Independence to the French Revolution, from the riots which occurred when it was thought that the 1832 Reform Act would not pass in which 12 people died and 400 were seriously injured, to the suffragettes nearly all major advances in democracy were accompanied by civil disturbance.   Can further progress be made without violence?   Before convening force should you ask whether it is being employed in a good cause?

Can revolution be justified in order to secure democratic rights?   The history of revolution suggests that it can be justified.   The French and the American revolutions were the beginnings of a process, which eventually led to democracy.   Is the terrorist fighting for democratic rights a freedom fighter?   Many would argue that if democracy does not exist then those that fight for it have no alternative other than violence, even if innocent people are killed in the process.   Nelson Mandela started as a terrorist and ended up as a freedom fighter Of course, in war innocent people often become the tragic casualties.   In a democracy violence cannot be justified, but is violence justifiable to overthrow tyranny?   Our history shows that nearly all the advances towards democracy were accompanied by violence.

                There is clearly some truth in that contentment can produce apathy leading to lower voter turnout, but if the lower turnout is due to antipathy to the voting system then disillusion and discontent sets in with all their consequences.   In the General Election of 2005 eighteen million eligible voters decided not to exercise their right to vote.   Was this due to disillusionment and discontent or apathy and contentment or neither?   Could it be that the electorate has realised that their vote does not count?

                A large number of the people are cynical about politicians for good reason.   Often politicians manipulate the economic cycle for electoral purposes.   They borrow as the election approaches and repay or raise taxes after the election.   In effect the electorate is bribed and the end result is borrowing is increased.   One politician will support another’s pet scheme and in return the other politician supports his or her pet scheme.   Special interest groups get their own scheme adopted and the silent majority loses.
                Today, most people are able to participate in our democratic institutions but their votes do not have equal value.   In the European Parliament, Luxembourg has a member for every 75,500 people whereas in the United Kingdom there is a member for every 759,600 people.   In other words a vote in Luxembourg is ten times more valuable than a vote in the United Kingdom.
                Is the will of the majority determined in the Northern Ireland Assembly where the minority has a blocking mechanism on decisions taken in the Assembly?   Key decisions can only be taken on a cross-community basis; either parallel consent, i.e. a majority of those members present and voting, including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting; or a weighted majority (60%) of members present and voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting.   The intention of this provision is to ensure that any proposition secures at least 40% support from each community.   
 Is it right that the House of Lords consists of mainly appointed people with a few hereditary peers?

                Can a democratic society have an established religion?
                Should prisoners in jail have a vote?
                At what age should the franchise be given?
                How long should a Parliament last?   Is it right that the Prime Minister can call an election at any time suiting his or her political advantage or should there be fixed term parliaments?
                How secret is a postal ballot?
           How far should we go with the separation of powers of the judiciary, the executive and the legislature?
                As for the future of democracy, has technology advanced with the growth of the Internet sufficiently that we can move towards more direct democracy?
                Should the people elect the Prime Minister?   He or she is elected by the voters in their own constituency and by Party members, yet represents the whole nation when signing Treaties or in the European Council.   Should not the Prime Minister be accountable to the whole nation?
                Should there be transparency at Cabinet meetings so the people can see the reasons for a particular course of action and the priorities given for different policies? 
                In a representative democracy transparency is essential. 
                Is it time that the Prime Minister’s use of Royal Prerogative power should be curtailed?   Has the Royal Prerogative in effect become the Prime Ministerial prerogative?
                Is it time for proportional representation to be introduced for election to the House of Commons to iron out the distortions in our present electoral system?   In the 2005 general Election only 34% of MPs were elected with over half the vote in their own constituencies.   This was the lowest proportion in our history.
                These are some of the issues I will be examining when looking at democracy today.
                During the course of researching the book I have come across several curious facts: Foreign cities which had seats in the House of Commons.   Women had the vote before 1918.   How an MP could end up in the Tower of London for not attending Parliament.   In addition there were some extraordinary stories: How legislation affecting our fundamental rights was passed as a result of a joke
                I have learnt from these and other issues that our progress towards democracy has not been a straight line.   I started by thinking it would be, but have learnt that there were considerable setbacks on the way.   I discovered that the desire for power and the determination of those that have it to hold onto it is at an individual level stronger than the desire for democracy.   It is only when individuals get together collectively does democracy become stronger.
                I thought we lived in a democracy, but now I am not so sure.   What I do know is that there are many flaws in our democracy and a lot to do to rectify them.   I suspect that my view of democracy was commonly held by the people, but as turnout declines perhaps they also are beginning to realise that our democracy is fundamentally flawed.   The question is: Will the people do anything about it?   My own conclusion is that they will and I have set out in this book some of the ways our democracy can be improved.   Will they happen?   I think so.   Something will trigger a reaction by the people.   I do not know what or when, but our history shows us that there are long gaps in our progress towards democracy when nothing appears to happen, but then there is a sudden burst of activity.   I think we are about to see that burst of activity spring into life.
                Democracy is durable, but it is continuously under threat.   Within themselves the British people have a strong streak of deference.   They like law and order, but if they believe that the state is getting too powerful an equally strong sense of libertarianism makes itself felt.   There is a balance between law and order, freedom, liberty and justice.   When these principles get out of balance the people look to democracy as the fairest way bringing them back into balance.   We are at that point today.
                Part I of the book is predominantly a history of the Westminster Parliament.   Other institutions are covered but not in as much depth.   Wales, Scotland Ireland and the European Union have their own detailed history, but are not dealt with in as much detail as I would have liked.
                The first chapter of the book looks at the meaning of the word “Democracy” with all its hidden connotations and how I arrive at my definition of the word.   I have tried to avoid getting into theory whilst writing the book, but in order to understand the prism through which I am looking at the progress of democracy and ultimately the current problems we have with it I I have used the introduction to establish a theoretical base.   I apologise in advance for this, but assure the reader it is necessary to understand where I an coming from.
                I then look at the history of democracy in the United Kingdom.
In Part II I look at the history of the institutions in our democracy, where we are today, issues like Globalisation and the European Union where democracy is being ignored and finally I put forward suggestions as to how our democracy could be improved and developed.
                It took almost a thousand years after democracy originated in Athens for the first stirrings of democracy to begin in England and a further thousand years before we had the most rudimentary of forums at which the people’s representatives could voice their views. Much progress has been made, but can we say today that we have “rule by the people”?

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