Introduction - The Meaning of Democracy

From its earliest origins the meaning of the word “democracy” has been disputed.  Aristotle believed that whenever men ruled by virtue of their wealth, regardless  as to whether they were a majority or a minority then were an oligarchy, but if the poor ruled then you had a democracy.   He directly links democracy to the many poor.
        Democracy is hard to define.   It is a word, which can be used to describe a concept of society or a practical process. If it is regarded as a concept there will be no precise and agreed meaning and this would explain the different interpretations and connotations of the word throughout its long history.   Many people have differing views as to how a society should operate. Words often evolve over time and in some cases have multiple meanings.   Because democracy is a word which has come to denote good many people have taken a view of democracy based on their own personal agendas and attached it to them.   Defining democracy as a practical process enables one to be more specific.
The word democracy is derived from the Greek demos meaning “people” and kratos meaning “rule,” hence the modern interpretation “rule by the people.”   The Oxford Classical Dictionary tells us that the word first emerged around the turn of the 5th to 4th centuries BC after revolts in Athens had removed a dynasty of tyrants from power.  
In his book “No mean City” the travel writer Simeon Strunsky wrote in 1944 “People who want to understand democracy should spend less time in the library with Aristotle and more time on the buses and in the subway”.   In order to write about democracy we have to try and understand exactly what it means so that will involve trying to reconcile the academic view of democracy learnt in the library with the practical reality as it affects ordinary people.
The Oxford Dictionary gives two definitions:
(1)   Government by all the people, direct or representative.
(2)  form of society ignoring hereditary class distinctions and tolerating minority views.
The first definition is a factual process.   In a modern context it may need to be expanded but nevertheless it is explicit.   The second definition is conceptual.   
For example:   Do all the people have a vote in determining how they are governed is a question of fact.   If they do not who does not have a vote?   This is also a question of fact.   Is the vote direct or is it used to choose a representative?   This is also factual and these items can be measured.   They are all part of a process.   On the other hand how do you measure a “form of society”?   The answer can only be opinion.   It cannot be specifically measured. There can be many forms of society, which ignore hereditary class distinctions and tolerate minority views.

Is it because of the blurring of the definitions between democracy as a process and democracy as a concept that there are so many different opinions as to what it means?  

John Dunn in Setting the People Free states:

 “What we mean by democracy is not that we govern ourselves.   When we speak or think of ourselves as living in a democracy what we have in mind is something quite different.   It is that our own state, and the government which does so much to organise our lives, draws its legitimacy from us, and that we have a reasonable chance of being able to compel each of them to continue to do so.   They draw it today from holding regular elections, in which every adult citizen can vote freely and without fear, in which their votes have at least a reasonably equal weight, and in which any uncriminalized political opinion can compete freely for them.   Modern representative democracy has changed the idea of democracy almost beyond recognition.   But in doing so, it has shifted it from one of history’s hopeless losers to one of its more insistent winners".

The Oxford Dictionary’s first definition has echoes of the speech by Theodore Parker at the N. E. Anti-Slavery Convention on 29th May 1850 in the U.S.A. when he said “A democracy, that is, a government of all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake, I will call it the idea of freedom.”   You can see in this quotation how the factual and the conceptual become entangled.   It widens the definition to encompass justice, freedom and religion all in one sentence.
Lenin did not accept The Oxford Dictionary’s second definition.   In his view, set out in “State and Revolution” published in 1919 he says, “No, Democracy is not identical with majority rule.   No, Democracy is a State which recognises the subjection of the minority to the majority, that is, an organisation for the systematic use of violence by one class against the other, by one part of the population against another.”   Lenin is referring to his perception of the reality of democracy but in doing so he distorts the word in order to promote his political ideology.   An approach which is not unique to Lenin.   Like many politicians Lenin was also prone to exaggeration.   He once asserted “Proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy; Soviet government is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic”.

 Lenin was not the only person to have a distorted view of democracy.   The late Ayatollah Khomeini opposed democracy calling it “a form of prostitution”.   He argued that whoever gets the most votes wins the power that belongs only to God.   Khomeini raises the question as to whether it is possible for democracy to exist in a fundamentalist Islamic State.   The simple answer is “No, it is not possible”, but I will explore this further during the course of the book.

 In 1962 the late S.E.Finer wrote a book called “The Man on Horseback”, published by Pall Mall Press.   He listed six of the official titles with which leading military dictators “have decorated their regimes”:

                Nasser                    Presidential Democracy

                Ayub Khan           Basic Democracy

                Sukarno                 Guided Democracy

                Franco                   Organic Democracy

                Stroessner              Selective Democracy

                Trujillo                   Neo-Democracy.

                And Sammy Finer was only writing about military regimes.   The Soviet Union, China, and their allies or puppet states all took very seriously their proud description of being “Peoples’ Democracies”.   They believed that the working class should be emancipated, should rule over other classes in a time of revolutionary transition until a classless society was achieved, the rule of the people - democracy.

 It is easy to mock military regimes but for as long as democracy has a connotation of mother and apple pie politicians will use the word for their own ends.
Throughout history the establishment, consisting of the educated elite, have regarded democracy as a threat, probably through their fear of the “rule of the mob” and because they saw it jeopardising their comfortable existence.   Only in recent times has this fear subsided as democracy has slowly been introduced without their comfortable existence disappearing.           The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives an extended definition of the word.   It says there are three basic senses in contemporary usage:

(1)  a form of government in which the right to make political decisions is exercised directly by the whole body of citizens, acting under procedures of majority rule, usually known as direct democracy;

(2)  a form of government in which the citizens exercise the same right not in person but through representatives chosen by and responsible to them, known as “representative democracy;” and

(3)  a form of government, usually a representative democracy, in which the powers of the majority are exercised within a framework of constitutional restraints designed to guarantee all citizens the enjoyment of certain individual or collective rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, known as liberal, or constitutional, democracy.

 Once again we can see the clash between the factual definitions (1) and (2) and the conceptual definition in (3)

  We can see from definition (3) that the concept of democracy is widened considerably and it is this that creates the greatest argument.   For to define it you have to say what restraints are imposed and what rights are given and if rights are given are responsibilities accepted at the same time.   This vagueness is exemplified by the definition given by – “The principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community.”    What on earth does that mean?

I started this introduction by quoting the Greek meaning of democracy as “rule by the people”.   Abraham Lincoln extended this definition to encompass “freedom” in one of his most famous speeches at Gettysburg on November 19 1863 when he spoke of “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Democracy is a system of government.   It is not a perfect form of government and often there are difficulties with it.   On the 11th November 1944 in Parliament Sir Winston Churchill declared “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe.   No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise.   Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In a radio broadcast to schools in 1934 Stanley Baldwin said “Democracy is a most difficult form of government – difficult because it requires for its perfect functioning the participation of all the people in the country.   It cannot function – function well – unless everyone, men and women alike, feel their responsibility to their State, do their own duty, and try and choose the men who will do theirs.   It is not a matter of party; it is common to all of us, because democracy wants constant guarding.”

In his book “The Age of Consent” George Monbiot describes democracy as:

"…a form of government in which sovereign power belongs, in theory, to the people, in which those people have equal rights, and in which the will of the majority is expressed and exercised through elections between competing candidates and parties". 

All these commentators, with their differing viewpoints are agreed that democracy is a system of government of the people so my definition will start from that point:

Democracy is a system of government of the people……

But Abraham Lincoln went further when he added “by the people”.   Here he is letting the people exercise power.   After all government is a decision making process for directing society and when he talks about “the people” he does so without any qualification.   In other words all people regardless of sex, race or creed are able to participate.   For all the people to participate then they must do so either directly or through their representative and as people have differing views we have to determine the view of the majority.   This is not as simple as it may appear at first sight.

How do we define people?   Clearly, foreigners whose allegiance is to another government are excluded from government of the people; otherwise there could be a conflict of interest.   It cannot be right that the people that legislate for the people are not subject to those laws.   They would not meet the definition of “by the people, for the people”.   The people determine who shall govern themselves.   In so doing they define the limits of who is governed.   Effectively they define the extent of the nation.   The people cannot determine how people are governed who have no say in the way in which they are governed.    That would not be “by the people”.   Can the people be restricted?   For example should prisoners have a vote?   The simple answer is No, there should be no restriction.
Democratic forms of politics are grounded in the principle of popular sovereignty or consent by the people and thus the question of who are “the people” is profoundly important.   Where “the people” become so divided by group antagonisms that there is no sense of political identity then democratization is impossible.   As Rustow pointed out, a country cannot even start on the road to liberal democracy until there is some sense of at least minimal national identity. 
We might think that the definition of the United Kingdom as a Nation is clear, but is it?   The European Union imposes laws on the United Kingdom.   There is therefore a case for arguing that the European Union is a Nation and as such is required to meet our definition of democracy, so when we talk of “the people” we should state that we mean “the people of the Nation.”
If democracy is rule by the peopleand freedom is the ability of people to rule themselves then in a free society we use democracy as a process by which you determine the will of the majority.
John Stuart Mill, for all his misgivings about democracy believed that all the people should participate:
“              …it is evident that the only government which can fully satisfy all the exigencies of the social state is one in which the whole people participate; that any participation, even in the smallest public function, is useful; that the participation should everywhere be as great as the general degree of improvement of the community will allow; and that nothing less can be ultimately desirable than the admission of all to a share in the sovereign power of the state”.
Edmund Burke wrote in the eighteenth century “A law against the majority of the people is in substance a law against the people itself; its extent determines its validity; it even changes its character as it enlarges its operation.   A law directed against the mass of the nation has not the nature of a reasonable institution, so neither has it the authority: for in all forms of government the people is the true legislator; and whether the immediate and instrumental cause of the law be a single person or many, the remote and efficient cause is the consent of the people, either actual or implied; and such consent is absolutely essential to its validity”.
In his book Democracy Anthony Arblaster said of Rousseau: 
 It was Rousseau’s conviction that no one could be truly free who did not govern him - or herself, and that therefore only some kind of direct democracy provided the framework within which government and freedom could be reconciled. 

Rousseau contended that English people were only free during the election of Members of Parliament.   As soon as an MP was elected the people became enslaved again, even if the MP was deemed to be your representative.
On the other hand a representative democracy means that the people can directly elect those that govern them or alternatively through the ballot box dismiss them.   In a perfect democracy those elected would reflect the views of all the people, but that is not possible because the views can be so varied and can change from day to day, but that does not stop us from aiming for the ideal.   There are practical steps that can be taken; e.g. each representative from a constituency has an electorate consisting of the same number of people or as similar number as is practical.   There may be arguments as to whether the will of the majority is best obtained by differing systems of election such as “proportional representation” or “first past the post” but the essential element is that whichever system is used the result is accepted by the majority of the people.
Societies are complex and many decisions need to be taken.   This means that we cannot just vote on issues, but we need to select individuals (representatives) to decide for us and give them the ability to translate their decisions into action (government).   So democracy can be exercised either directly or through a representative.
To connect all these points together there has to be a mechanism and the mechanism we have is the vote.   Of course people’s views change so there needs to be a reasonable frequency of voting.
We can now extend our definition as follows:

Democracy is a system of government of the people in which the people of the Nation exercise power directly, or indirectly through their representatives, by a process in which the will of the majority is determined.   In determining the will of the majority, all people, regardless of sex, race or creed, are able to participate….
Democracy cannot be said to be fully realised in a country until all adults enjoy the right to vote.   This involves giving equal voting power to persons having unequal ability to think intelligently on matters of government, unequal willingness to equip themselves for exercising their political rights, and unequal responsibilities, both functional and financial, as citizens.   But it ensures universal application of a principle, which is fundamental to the rights of the individual – the opportunity to have a voice in determining how he shall be governed – and eliminates the possibility of political discrimination on account of income, language, colour, creed or sex.
Participation in free elections is a vital condition of democracy.   Elections are the only peaceful means by which governments can be made ultimately answerable to all of the community and by voting people are showing that they wish to have at least some say in public policy.
Voting at general elections, however, is such a limited form of political participation that it only takes us a fairly small way along the road to democracy.   General Elections normally take place every four or five years, while decision making is a continuous process.
We can see that each person should have equal voting power i.e. a vote of equal value and when exercising that vote they must be able to do so without any fear of intimidation or violence.   It must therefore be a secret ballot.
Freedom of speech is one of the key elements of democracy.   As Anthony Arblaster states in “Democracy”:

If we look to the people to play a more positive role, freely voicing their demands and hopes, their fears and grievances, as well as introducing ideas and initiating policies, plainly this can only happen in an atmosphere of the greatest possible freedom and openness, free from any taint of intimidatory anxiety or apprehension as to the possible consequences of speaking out”. 
Freedom does not only consist of freedom of speech but freedom of action is involved also.   In “The Age of Consent” George Monbiot says:
Freedom is the ability to act upon our beliefs.   It expands, therefore, with the scope of the action we are prepared to contemplate.   If we know that we will never act, we have no freedom: we will, for the rest of our lives do as we are told.   Almost everyone has some sense that other people should be treated, as she would wish to be.   Almost everyone, in other words, has a notion of justice, and for most people this notion, however formulated, sits somewhere close to the heart of their system of beliefs.   If we do not act upon this sense of justice, we do not act on one of our primary beliefs, and our freedom is restricted accordingly.   To be truly free, in other words we must be prepared to contemplate revolution”. 
For the people to make decisions with their vote they need information on what is being done in their name.   Society is complex and to reflect this complexity requires an active media to provide lots of different views of what is going on.   An active media can provide effective communication from the people to their representatives and from the representatives to the people.
Our definition of democracy must incorporate these points.   We can add them:
Democracy is a system of government of the people in which the people of the Nation exercise power directly, or indirectly through their representatives, by a process in which the will of the majority is determined.   In determining the will of the majority, all people, regardless of sex, race or creed, are able to participate - each person having a vote of equal value and the vote is exercised by way of a secret ballot without fear of intimidation or violence…..

This almost completes the definition, yet Abraham Lincoln spoke of government “for the people”, and that means all the people, the minority as well as the majority. 
In his first inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, said “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
However, full democracy guarantees institutionalised, regular and open discussion of different opinions and the effective protection of political minorities. It can generally be described as government by debate; hence democracy needs to develop appropriate procedures to secure the availability of both complete information and different interpretations of that information.   If opinions that differ from the beliefs of the majority are oppressed by formal means the democratic system runs the risk of collapsing, because the ruling majority will continue to reinforce its power, eventually excluding the minority permanently from participating in politics.   If the opposition minority has no chance of gaining majority support and status through open debate and compelling arguments its only chance to gain the upper hand consists of a coup d’etat.   Democracy by contrast is characterised by the possibility to change leaders and political direction without violence.   Here too lies one of the roots of its stability.
Where political organisations fight each other in an uncompromising life and death struggle, eventually the party in power will be driven by fear to introduce repressive measures against its opponents.   They in their turn will find their only means of expression in the illegal use of force.   A degree of moderation is thus necessary to democracy
        In his book The Age of Consent George Monbiot states:
         "Those that possess power will surrender it only when they see that the costs – physical or psychological – of retaining it are higher than the costs of losing it".

        Hence the relationship between the majority and the minority is one of the best tests of democracy, for each must play a constructive part.   Although the majority governs, it has to recognise that there are limits to the restraints it can impose on the minority, and that beyond a certain point (as for example, when fundamental liberties are threatened) people are not prepared to submit to majority rule.   The task of the minority is to make the majority justify its views and policies.  To suppress dissenting views is as J. S. Mill argued, “to assume infallibility in public affairs.”   In a healthy democracy, the arguments of opponents are tolerated.   They may be correct; but even when they are not, or only partially so, they provide that controversy without which the ideas of the majority become stale.   The absence of challenge engenders a mental laziness which causes people to lose “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error” (J. S. Mill, Essay on Liberty).
     Opposition groups accept majority decisions for both moral and practical reasons.   Not only would it be thought wrong to resist the greater opinion and to impose policy on a reluctant public, but also, under a democratic constitution, the Opposition hopes that one day it will become the majority.   Should it do so, it will then have the power to implement its own policy, and in turn will be dependent upon the tolerance of its rivals.   A wise Opposition party, therefore, sets a good precedent.
Democracy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for good government, and that ideas of the rule of law, and of human rights, and the claims and liberties of groups within society must often limit the will of democratic majorities.
    There can be no tyranny of the minority.   On every issue there is a minority and it is a changing minority issue by issue.   If their views are not taken into account they will either withdraw from the process or a question starts to be raised about the sense in which "for the people” is being applied rather than a “large proportion of the people”.   The fair treatment of minorities is essential for a democratic society to function. 
When Lincoln spoke of “for the people” he was not only bearing in mind the minority.   “For” is a qualitative element, which means that decisions are beneficial to the people.   The “for” is there as we need to keep those individuals representing the people when the natural tendency of politicians is to aggregate power for themselves and start making decisions which benefit themselves and not the people.   This arrogation of power is one of a number of forces, which need to be controlled for a sustainable democracy.   To sustain democracy and keep governing for the people we need to have ongoing participation of a high proportion of the people or else we cannot be sure we are reflecting their views
      I can therefore complete my definition of democracy by adding a sentence to it:

Democracy is a system of government of the people in which the people of the Nation exercise power directly, or indirectly through their representatives, by a process in which the will of the majority is determined.   In determining the will of the majority, all people, regardless of sex, race or creed, are able to participate,  - each person having a vote of equal value and the vote is exercised by way of a secret ballot without fear of intimidation or violence.   In a democratic society the majority will take into account the views of the minority when exercising their will and so govern for all the people.
This is my definition and as I trace the history of democracy in the United Kingdom this definition will be my benchmark for progress. 
With this benchmark we can trace through our history:
How power came to be exercised by those elected by a gradually increasing number of the people.
How religious and sexual discrimination has been diminished by extending the franchise to different religions and giving the vote to women.
How secret ballots came to be accepted so that people could vote without fear of intimidation or violence.
How the franchise was developed to ensure that each vote was of equal value.
How we moved towards determining the will of the majority.
For it is only by taking all these issues together that the will of the majority can be determined.   If this process is distorted then freedom is destroyed for if you cannot determine the will of the majority then people will not have the ability to govern themselves in the manner in which they want.
A prior condition to the existence of democracy is the rule of law and its acceptance by the people.   Both depend on respect for the rule of law, acknowledging the dignity of human beings and the need to preserve institutions and laws that are above and superior to criminal behaviour.
If democratic government is to be effective and enduring, it is essential that the laws passed by the elected representatives of the citizens shall be applied and upheld.   There must, therefore, be courts of law, commanding the confidence of the people by their expeditious, efficient, firm and impartial dispensation of justice.   Without such justice, the law would be held to ridicule, and eventually order would degenerate into anarchy.
Consistent law making, which is fairly applied, is needed to translate the will of the people into the decisions of the government, which manifest them in law.   Every constitution aims at stability, is based on norms and rules securing continuity, and provides means of interaction between government and people

Although imprecise, the concept of the mandate is important, for it expresses the basic requirement of democracy that persons chosen to govern must keep to the broad policies of their election statements.   If they do not (and subsequent events may make it difficult), the Opposition should ensure that some explanation is given to the electorate in Parliament – and eventually at the polls.   In the final analysis, therefore, the mandate is dependent on public opinion.   In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Public opinion is everything.   With it nothing can fail, without it nothing can succeed.   He who moulds public opinion goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, for the moulder of public opinion makes statutes impossible to execute.”
The public as a whole may be able to do little more than elect MPs; yet if the system of government is to remain basically democratic in character, public opinion must be effectively heard during the decision-making process.   In addition to the ballot box at election time and the not necessarily undistorted reflection of views through the media, there are other devices developed to enable the decision-makers to hear the voice of collective public opinion.   They include pressure groups, public opinion polls and referendum.   All of these are becoming more important as the use of the internet increases giving more opportunity for higher numbers of people to be involved.
 In a democracy can the people vote away their own power?   By a popular majority they can do so, but the result would no longer be a democracy.   In any constitution the principle must be enshrined as unchangeable, whether the constitution is a written one or unwritten.   The rise of Hitler, who was democratically elected, but then changed the Constitution, is a lesson from history which must be learnt.   In the case of the United Kingdom we must rely on the judiciary defending this principle even if that brings them into conflict with the politicians.   There is also the irony that democracy can only accommodate democratic principles.
Paine in “Rights of Man” says:
“Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations, which preceded it… Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations, which are to follow”.
Lord Chatham, speaking in Parliament in 1770 asks the question and gave his answer: “What if the Commons should pass a vote abolishing their own House, and surrendering the rights and liberties of the people?   Would it only be a matter between God and their own consciences?   Would nobody else have anything to do with it?   No!   You would have to do with it.   Every man in the kingdom would have to do with it.   And every man in the kingdom would have the right to insist upon the repeal of such a treasonable law.”

In a democracy the people may vote to give away their democratic rights, but having done so they cannot be stopped from taking them back again.  
Anthony Arblaster in “Democracy” argues that:
"If every generation has the right to decide for itself how it should be governed, then it cannot be legitimate for one generation to will away that right on behalf of its successors.   One generation may sign away democracy, or consent to dictatorship, but the next has an absolute right to revoke those decisions.   So, in effect, popular sovereignty must be inalienable if it is to mean anything at all substantial". 
Sometimes politicians equate silence with consent.   They could not be more wrong.   Today the people of the United Kingdom have been relatively quiet about the faults in our democracy, but how long this situation will remain is open to question.   Anthony Arblaster sums up this attitude well:
"The facile equation of silence with consent frequently results in those in power forming exaggerated ideas of the degree of support or acquiescence they can command.   They are then disagreeably surprised when the resentments and even despair, which are so often concealed by silence breakout in angry and violent rebellion". 
Finally democracy is about the wisdom of the crowd.   James Surowiecki says:
"It is a way of dealing with (if not solving once and for all) the most fundamental problems of co-operation and co-ordination: How do we live together?   How can living together work to our mutual benefit?   Democracy helps people answer those questions because the democratic experience is an experience of not getting everything you want.   It’s an experience of seeing your opponents win and get what you hoped to have, and of accepting it, because you believe that they will not destroy the things you value and because you know you will have another chance to get what you want.   In that sense, a healthy democracy inculcates the virtues of compromise – which is after all, the foundation of the social contract – and change.   The decisions that democracies make may not demonstrate the wisdom of the crowd.   The decision to make them democratically does". 
                The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides:
"Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country directly or through freely chosen representatives....   The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.   This will be expressed in periodic and genuine elections".
                John Stuart Mill summed it up long ago:
                "There is no difficulty in showing that the ideally best form of government is that in which the sovereignty, or supreme controlling power in the last resort, is vested in the entire aggregate of the community; every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local or general".

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