The nature of democracy

A democracy needs a strong Parliamentary Opposition to flourish. Democratic governments should seek to defeat their Opposition in open debate, and by following policies which are demonstrably in the interests of the majority. They should not seek to prevent, stifle or subvert the Opposition by undemocratic means.

Most of us want to live in a plural society where we can enjoy free speech. The three central rules of democracy are:

1. Everyone lives under the law, including the lawmakers and government officials.
2. We settle our many disagreements by argument and discussion, where possible finding an answer which does the most good to the many and the least harm to the few. The one privilege Ministers enjoy is they can change the law for the future as they see fit, subject to Parliamentary support.
3. Where we cannot reach agreement, we settle differences by votes in Parliament, periodically asking the people to vote on who should carry out this task for them. Sensible governments respect minorities and seek to grant them freedom to disagree wherever possible.

The majority is happy with this system because they can have their way. The minority will be happy with it if they see that the law is fairly and fearlessly applied to all, and if there is a chance that they can through democratic means persuade people and MPs in the majority to come round to their way of thinking. This system allows evolution of policy through changes in public opinion, and allows peaceful development through a fiesty but fist free exchange of views. Change can occur by influencing the government, or by changing it in an election. There is no need for revolution or violent overthrow of those in authority.

This government is not popular. It would be wise to recognise that people want more freedom of information, more challenge to the executive, more lively debate, not less. That is why the arrest of Damian Green shocked people. When I was a Minister I offered civil service briefs to my Labour Shadows so we could have better informed debates. I asked them how much time they wanted to disagree with the main things I was proposing and let them have that. I was proud of what I was trying to do and happy to debate it. I thought they had every right to disagree, and to try to persuade people otherwise. It is a great pity that on so many occasions this government lacks the confidence to take its case to the public through Parliament, and is constantly looking for ways to close the debate down. It will be one of the reasons why people tire of it and throw it out.

If the Prime Minister is a democrat he will see the danger of the course of action unfolding concerning Mr Green. He will be worried that anti terror laws (which were imposed in partisan style aginst the wishes of many of us) are being used against a range of people who are in no sense terrorists or credible terror suspects. He will take a day off from the economic crisis and discuss with his Home Secretary how these anti terror laws are damaging the civil liberties of many law abiding people, and propose changes.

When I was a partisan Shadow Cabinet member whose duty was to try to make one departmental group of Ministers accountable on a day by day basis, I was aware that some of my opponents did not think I had the right to do such things and were looking for ways to use the law to close me down. It was not a pleasant feeling, but it was important for democracy to carry on behaving like a proper Opposition anyway.

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12 Comments

  1. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Our democracy has been under challenge if not direct threat since Labour was elected in 1997. Blair showed complete contempt for Parliament in so many ways which must not be forgotten. Brown's attitude to Parliament is at least as bad as Blair’s. Earlier this week I asked what Cromwell would have made of the initial refusal to grant a debate on the Pre Budget Report. I think we know the answer to how he would have reacted to the arrest of an opposition spokesman and the manner in which it was conducted. There is justified outrage at these events which must be rectified when Parliament reconvenes.

  2. jean baker
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    John,

    Media criticism and 'innuendo' preceded Sir Ian Blairs (reported) suspension; he confirmed he was "fired". His former post and responsibilities remain 'open'.

    Media criticism and 'innuendo' of the Speaker accused of authorizing the police raid on an innocent man is, likewise, leading to to media chants of "sack him".

    In the event that the Speaker is forced to resign his position,
    justified or not, I presume correct Parliamentary procedure for appointing a replacement is based on a 'democratic' basis, i.e. subject to the agreement of opposition parties – a neutral, unbiased 'referee'. The appointment of a labour-biased speaker could undermine the principles of the 'mother of all parliaments'.

    Many people find the unprecedent police raids on innocent people since Sir Blair's sacking extremely sinister – specifically Damien's (and the impact on his family). Firing the commander for ultimate state control of his troops ? And at costs to the taxpayers.

  3. James Strachan
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Some people have compared Damian Green's treatment with Zimbabwe.

    This is a bit over the top.

    A better comparison would be with South Africa, where the police and intelligence organisations have been systematically corrupted to support the interests of the ruling ANC.

    As here, anti terrorist legislation has been misused to protect the ruling party.

    In another parallel, the Speaker of the South African Parliament takes a very partisan – pro ANC – view of her duties.

    Isn't this a case for an emergency debate in the HoC ? It should certainly be asked for and, if the Speaker refuses, that would give a strong suspicion that his dabs are on the knife.

  4. Peter Whale
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    What should be done with the abuse of the terrorism act?

    Even though in this case it seems to have changed its spots it seems to be there as a threat to be misused by the authorities if they so deem.

    Why do I have a fear about a government and ministers that use the police to cover their incompetence?

  5. councilhousetory
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    John

    Good post. I only hope this isn't allowed to fizzle out. Heads need to roll, otherwise next time it will be worse. It would also be helpful if the tories could speak out more forcefully about the erosion of civil liberties and democracy in this country. In particular, the ID card and database scheme needs scrapping.

  6. Nick
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    A democracy needs a strong Parliamentary Opposition to flourish.
    —————-

    Twaddle. You're taking the political self interest route.

    We can have a democracy without an opposition.

    What is needed is direct democracy. Either politicians propose laws and taxes, and the voters get the right to veto in a referenda, or you extend it that all laws result from petitions, and then referenda.

    It's political self interest because politicians in general want their day in power, and you're therefore not prepared to give control back to the electorate to decide on an issue. You only let the electorate vote for a lobby sheep who gets herded by the whips.

    This is the democratic deficit in the UK. What's the point of voting for a sheep who does as he/she is told? It's the main reason why people are pissed off with politicians, and why you have the growth of single issue groups.

    Nick

    • Jack
      Posted December 5, 2008 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      I have never trusted liberal use of the term "parliamentary democracy" since the upper chamber is appointed and in the lower chamber an administration hasn't obtained a majority of the popular vote since 1935. No wonder most of the electorate don't bother to vote, clearly voting changes nothing. The British political system operates on a basis of privilege and patronage, neglecting to extend to the people true democratic choice. No wonder the Americans (Boston Tea Party), Irish and Scots have been desperate to acquire their own poltical systems, the British system offers little public representation or accountability, thus is our "democracy" system open to abuse.

      • Nick
        Posted December 5, 2008 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        It was interesting watching Brillopad last night. Both Portillo and Abbot agreed that the problem is that MPs loyalty is to party and not to parliment.

        Abbot also admitted that policy is set centrally by Labour's central committee.

        ie. MPs are lobby cows designed to be herded to vote the way the few tell them to vote.

        Since that's the case, parliment is by and large irrelevant.

        It's nothing more than a collection of very overpaid social workers dealing with the odd constituent with a problem. In my experience even here they are hopeless.

        If we then look at the BNP, they are going to be successful by moving to the Sein Fein model, of cutting grass for people who can't. Helping them at the low level, with things like housing and small issues and gain support.

        That's the fundamental issue. The lack of real democracy is going to drive people either to single issue groups, or to the extremes.

        Lets have it that we vote on the main issues. Once per year. MPs and parties can put the issues together and run them once passed.

        Then you really will get people interest in politics.

        I also suspect that they will be conservative with a small c

  7. mikestallard
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    As this government moves farther and farther away from their electors, it is inevitable that it will make more and more unpopular and wrong decisions. The process of bulletproof limos, use of the royal flight by ministers, the purchase of larger and larger mansions and the gating of Downing Street has insulated ministers from reality.
    To make matters worse, as you so rightly point out, it has taken steps to insulate itself from any form of discussion by "outsiders".
    Dictatorship never works: it depends on ignorance and, quite often, on the whim of the current mistress, wife or corrupt official.
    We have seen quite a lot of wrong decisions over the past ten years (Iraq, the economy, David Kelly) and I look forward, with confidence, to many, many more as all sensible discussion is deliberately shut down.
    More and more it is only possible to reach the decision makers by being part of a strong pressure group (Heathrow, Bernie Ecclestone, BMA, CBI, the Press), or else by plain downright bad manners and violence (fox hunting demo, Islamic extremism).
    We English do not like this at all and, believe me, we are beginning to get angry about it. Look, for instance at the letters page of the Daily Telegraph.

  8. Stuart Fairney
    Posted November 30, 2008 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    With apologies for going slightly off topic, if you see the last paragraph of this report
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/77560

    "Also, forcing local authorities to spend more money on youth services and the creation of civilian security force consisting of military trainers, civil servants, police officers, judges and other logistical staff"

    What on earth do they want a civilian security force for??

  9. Adrian Peirson
    Posted November 30, 2008 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    And Ed Balls is proposing a civilian security force, just like Barack Obama is in the USA.
    Isn't this what the Nazi's did, and the East Germans.

    Coincidence, or part of their New World Order.
    http://www.prisonplanet.com

  10. Freeborn John
    Posted December 9, 2008 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    The problem however is the growing body of EU law with which national law cannot conflict. As the volume of this superior body of law swells remorselessly it shrinks the arena within which democratic politics as you describe it can operate. Politicians in power today actually have an incentive to legislate at EU level because this legislative route allows them to bind the hands of the Opposition, who once in office are only able to repeal the national legislation they inherit. I hope to see some plan in either the 2009 and 2010 Conservative manifestos as to how you plan to address this issue, because it is central to the future of democracy in this country.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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