A Short History of British Non-Democracy

The Diggers

Plato to Mrs Thatcher In About Five Minutes

It’s a fairly established position of this irrelevant internet blog to argue that the UK isn’t a democracy. It’s not a fascist dictatorship by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s probably one of the least worst countries to find yourself living in. But it’s not democratic at all in the proper, original sense of the word. It’s this analysis that underpins our whole outlook on British electoral politics – including our view of what principled, pragmatic left-wingers should do in next month’s general election (short version – acknowledge it’s all an anti-democratic sham, but vote anyway).

Wikipedia/the infantilisation of everything means you don’t even have to bother getting a book out to look up democracy and its origins anymore. A fraction of a second on Google will tell you that D-word stems from the Ancient Greek term demokratia, itself a combination of ‘demos’, Greek for people, and ‘kratia’, Greek for power or rule. Democracy is ‘people power’, or ‘rule by the people’.

Nowadays we tend to divide democracy into direct and representative democracy – the former being a situation in which the general public make the political decisions themselves, the latter being the one that exists in practically every self-hailed democracy in the world, where the public vote in representatives who make the decisions for them. But the Greeks wouldn’t have seen Type 2 as democracy at all.

Plato and Aristotle, very much the Paul and Barry of ancient political thought, spent a lot of time thinking about and categorising different types of regimes. And they’d have seen the modern Western system as a form of elected aristocracy – fundamentally one about installing elites to make decisions. Or, if their time machine dumped them in 2015 rather than 1950, possibly an oligarchy, rule by a rich, self-interested minority. (In case anyone starts to idealise the ancient Greeks, though – in common with a lot of their contemporaries, Plato and Aristotle were staunchly anti-democratic, seeing democracy as the chaotic rule of the selfish, reckless poor).

Electing officials can probably play a part in a genuinely democratic system – if that system also features substantial involvement by citizens themselves, and mechanisms that allow the people, the only source of power and legitimacy in a proper democracy, to reprimand, overrule and remove the individuals that represent them. A system based purely around electing officials hasn’t got much chance of being very democratic at all.

Today’s Parliament has its roots in an assembly of rich landowners that used to advise the English King. Edward I especially liked the idea, and would sometimes order each town and each county to elect two representatives to come and deliberate important decisions, especially ones concerning taxes. Before long elected representatives had become a permanent feature, although by the mid-fifteenth century, new rules meant that only rich landowners were allowed to vote.

What started out as a (relatively) subservient relationship became more tumultuous as time went on, with balshy parliamentarians demanding more decision-making power. In the mid-seventeenth century, that relationship soured considerably when Charles I and his parliament went to war against each other, culminating in the latter chopping off the former’s head and declaring a republic.

Britain’s gutsy challenge to autocratic rule got off to an excellent start when the Parliamentary faction’s de facto leader, Oliver Cromwell, declared himself Lord Protector for life and squashed emerging egalitarian, democratic movements like the Levellers (who called for regular elections) and the Diggers (religious proto-socialists who seized and farmed private land). After Cromwell died, Parliament decided it had changed its mind and now wanted monarchy back. Charles I’s son Charles II returned from exile, and we’ve had monarchy ever since.

Between 1832 and 1928, eligibility to vote went from being restricted to the aforementioned minority of rich male landowners to being extended to all adults over 21.

Contrary to some of the more starry-eyed accounts of British history, this wasn’t the result of noble generosity by the upper orders. It was largely motivated by a mix of fear of being toppled in a French Revolution-style bloody uprising and attempts by the two main parties, the Tories and the Liberals, to get the edge on one another by enfranchising chunks of the population they thought would vote for them rather than the opposition.

Between 1928 and the 1970s, British society was probably about as democratic as it ever had been – which was still not very. Ask the democratic acid test question – how much meaningful say did the average person on the street have in making the political decisions that affected them, and in shaping the future direction of the society they lived in – and the answer was virtually none.

We stupidly brushed aside replacing rusty old first past the post with a shiny new proportional voting system (hence why the only votes that will really matter next month are ones cast in a few ‘marginal’ constituencies, not strongly leaning towards either Labour or the Tories).

But at very least, finally, almost everyone could vote. The main parties, by now Labour and the Conservatives, had mass memberships numbering in the millions. And while the range of options those parties offered was still fairly narrow, from the War onwards, they were at least camped out on a public-spirited bit of the political spectrum. Growing social and economic equality, and the modicum of social mobility afforded through the (very imperfect) mechanism of grammar schools meant that for the first time parliament wasn’t completely dominated by the rich and powerful. All three – mass participation, public-spirited political debate, social mobility – are vital if a system exclusively based on electing representatives has any chance of being democratic.

Then all that changed. Between the late 1970s and now, membership of political parties has shrunk, social mobility has been thrown into reverse, and all the main parties have all camped out on a very different sliver of the political spectrum – the post-Thatcherite neoliberal consensus where big business and big money is king, ‘competence’ and ‘responsibility’ mean running the economy in the interests of big business and big money, and in which suggesting that unbridled capitalism might not be completely perfect 100% of the time is unthinkably radical.

In other words, parliament is back doing what it’s done for most of its history – being monopolised by the richest and most powerful people in society at the expense of everyone else.

How much meaningful say does the average person on the street have in making the political decisions that affect them, and in shaping the future direction of the society they live in? None.