Of all the catch-phrases of our times, "democracy" has been most used and abused. Those with long memories will remember that some of the world's most ghastly autocracies invariably termed themselves "Democratic Republics" or something similar, in the belief maybe that the D-word would hide their true nature. But nearly as confusing was George W. Bush's use of "democracy" to encompass a bewilderingly wide range of concepts that seemed to span market fundamentalism, votes for all but rule by plutocrats and the "American Way".

So, as we are of the view that democracy is under threat from many enemies, it behoves us to define what this delicate flower is with more precision than ex-president Bush ever did.


Its semantic root comes from the Greek Demos, which broadly meant those citizens of a City State who were entitled to vote and participate in the governance of a community. The Demos did not include all people, only a small number. Most other inhabitants were regarded as inferior and not able to have a say in government. So the practice of democracy being reserved for a privileged few had early roots!

But the concept of entitlement to participate in governance has evolved mightily in the West into a system where the democratic right to vote for elected representatives is afforded to all save for small specific minorities like the insane or convicted criminals. The democratic process in many countries enables voters to cast their ballot papers for representatives who sit in a parliament. In most countries, representatives in the main belong to political parties.

The party whose representatives form a majority are usually expected to form a government. A twist in the Western system is that this government is then expected to serve the interests of Society at large, including those people who did not vote for the majority party.

A further refinement in the idea of democratic representation in the UK is that members of the parliament are supposed to represent the interests of all their constituents, but not to be their direct delegates. In other words, members of parliament are supposed to do the best they can to make balanced judgments taking into account what their constituents may want and what he/she thinks is for the best interests of society. This subtle distinction is very important, for it serves as a buffer against raw populism and mob rule. Attempts to institute direct popular rule do not have a good track record - the State of California being an example. Californians were invited to vote on such matters as taxation and the provision of public services - and managed simultaneously to vote for low taxes and good public services, thus facing the legislature and governor with a no-win situation, resulting in the state effectively going broke.

Different philosophies of democratic Government

In most western societies, governments are expected to represent the formal interests of a nation to the external world, ensure that the integrity of the nation and its boundaries are defended against attack of any kind, but especially physical invasion. Governments at national and local levels are enabled to levy taxes to provide for essential security and to provide universal services like education. What exactly governments should and should not do is the subject of huge intellectual and philosophical dispute between people with a range of political opinions.

But maybe we can isolate three different strands of thinking:

Democratic dilemmas

There are several:

  1. "Democratic dictatorship"

    Several countries have seen the extension of an initially democratically elected government into what is effectively a one-party dictatorship, despite periodic elections. We are probably watching this process evolve in the Russian Republic. There it appears that an essential organ of a democratic state - a free press - is being taken over by the government. Opposition is progressively being squashed and a kind of self-perpetuating oligarchy emerging. In the case of Russia, the power of the private sector to run the economy or to influence government policy has also been efficiently dealt with - any oligarch who shows tendencies to use his power and wealth to oppose the government is put in prison or exiled. Large "private" companies may be used by government to further the interests of the state.
  2. Non-democratic interests buying political power

    Even where the democratic voting system works, there are serious threats that have always been there but are emerging very strongly with the development of globalisation. These are several:
    • Global finance and industry. The growth of massive global companies in such industries as banking, but also in the tobacco, oil, drinks and pharmaceutical manufacturing. It is now the case that some global investment banks have all but escaped the influence of democratically elected national governments - as we have all seen in recent years. And there is no evidence that the battle for democratic control of the banking system has yet been won. The IMF reported that companies from the financial services industry spent on average more than $500,000 on political lobbying during the last presidential election. And given the torrents of pro-banking propaganda in recent months the industry is still at it. Even the IMF commented that the lobbying power of the banking industry was not in the public interest.
      But there is an enormous amount of lobbying and propaganda pushed by other kinds of company. This includes the funding of "research" to prove that the products of particular industries are benign or that they do not represent a menace to human society. A lot of this effort is aimed at the media - but even more behind the scenes at governments and members of the legislature. One has only to see the antics of elected representatives on behalf of various interests that provide them with largesse to understand that the democratic process is becoming not-very-subtly "bent". This certainly applies to the US and the UK, where politicians are "recruited" by wealthy organisations and individuals either through political contributions to party funds whilst in power or through the certain promise of rich pickings in the political after-life, provided the politician keeps his/her nose clean.
      This website aims to be politically impartial, so the contributions of the Trades Union movement to the Labour party should not be forgotten despite that fact the "New Labour" party has shown a marked tendency to favour the banking industry and the interests of the super-rich.
    • The power of media empires owned by powerful individuals or families. The most obvious is the Murdoch empire that exercises great power in the UK and USA. In the UK, ownership of major media outlets like "The Sun", "The Times" and Sky TV, gives the Murdoch empire great reach and influence. Whilst it is quite impossible to pin down direct owner influence, there is little doubt that politicians in the two major parties are more than anxious to have the endorsement of Murdoch media. But the story does not stop here. The commercial media have been waging a long term and virulent campaign against the BBC, which is funded by a licence fee paid by the public, and one of the few priceless national assets left in the UK. The BBC's Charter demands that it is politically neutral, but it is assumed by both major parties to favour the other. Currently, it is most under threat from the Conservative Party, publicly endorsed by Murdoch media, which is openly issuing dire warnings aimed at stopping the BBC from reporting stories it doesn't like. Some would argue that Murdoch has kept several prominent newspapers in being, and this is certainly a balancing factor to be considered.
      Other media are the Mail Group, owned by a family. The Mail has for a long time had a simple line - the country (UK) is going down the tubes and most of the trouble is down to the antics of foreigners, social and political liberals. The "Daily Telegraph", owned by the non-domiciled Barclay Brothers, has for a long time pursued a pro-Conservative line, to the extent that it has been dubbed by some as the "Daily Torygraph". This leaves a relatively smaller space for more liberally inclined papers, the most prominent being the "Guardian" and associated papers, owned by a Trust dedicated to editorial freedom. This paper and the smaller "Independent", owned by an exiled Russian oligarch, which pursues a Green agenda, are often vilified by the more politically dedicated media.
      In the United States, it also appears that the power of the Murdoch empire is extensive. Murdoch companies own the New York Times Fox media and News, which seems to pursue a relentless neo-conservative line, (and is, amazingly to some, reported to be the most trusted in the US) - and a mass of others. The reach of the Murdoch empire is massive, stretching worldwide, but with particular concentrations of power in the "Anglo-Saxon" countries, the USA UK and Australia. Worldwide revenues in 2009 were about $31 billion, 70% of which was earned in the US.
    • The power of super-rich individuals
      There are two countries that have seen a massive increase in the wealth of a relative small coterie of fantastically rich individuals - matched by a huge rise in inequality.
      These are, of course, the United Kingdom and the United States.
      The super-rich tend as a class to have a common interest - the avoidance of tax. This sometimes leads members to go to quite extreme lengths to avoid their dues to society, including adopting strange nomadic lifestyles and passing their wealth to relatives who live in tax havens.
      In Britain, the issue of the burgeoning number of super-rich living in London and in large houses elsewhere in the UK but non-domiciled for tax purposes has sprung to the fore in the coming election campaign. The New Labour government has sought to make London a friendly place for non-domiciled tax-avoiders and several have shown their appreciation by making donations to the party. But the biggest furore is currently about Lord Ashcroft, whose tax status was until recently uncertain. Despite this, he was appointed to the House of Lords and made deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, the campaigning of which he generously supports.
      The issue of rich individuals buying favours is something of a disgrace in Britain. Bernie Ecclestone, the rich owner of Formula One motor racing, made a generous donation to the New Labour party shortly after it was elected under Tony Blair. Then, F1 was granted a favour: tobacco advertising was to be allowed to continue for a period only in this particular sport. Some amongst us saw that as the first sign that New Labour was, despite protestations, as open to being influenced by money as the previous Conservative government. That suspicion has been richly borne out by subsequent events and by the antics of the Conservative opposition. British politicians of both major parties are only too open to being "bought" by rich and powerful interests.

Ways of avoiding political preferment

  1. Outlaw political lobbying
    In the current political climate in the Anglo-Saxon countries, this is unlikely - too many interests have too much to lose. But if it ever became possible; there are two simple solutions:
    Political parties would be publicly funded, political lobbying and donations by commercial enterprises and individuals would be prohibited, and:
    No active national politician would be able to take up a remunerated role with a commercial enterprise for 3 years after standing down.
    They should be able to take up positions with registered charities, not-for- profit social enterprises and perform volunteering for community and social causes.
  2. Encourage coalition governments
    The electoral system should be changed to better represent the wide spectrum of opinion amongst the electorate. Minor political parties should be able to participate in government through joining coalitions.
    This notion has several huge advantages:
    • It is more difficult for non-democratic interests to buy the favour of several parties in coalition - it is almost certain to leak and cause dissention.
    • Coalitions encourage political debate. Coalition members have to debate and agree major policy items - this prevents single political parties and their leaders from "steamrollering" policy through legislatures. Some might argue that this leads to weak government - but the example of the US with two parties deadlocked in the legislature, thus crippling the executive is also telling - and this is happening in a two-party system.
    • The party system becomes weakened. Over-strong political parties have become a bane in Britain. When a party has a strong majority in parliament, the position of the party leader becomes massively over-powerful. The only source of political preferment leading to senior positions and possible long-term financial advantages becomes the party leadership and their disciplinary "police" (known as "Whips" in Britain). Anything that weakens a system that begins to resemble an elected dictatorship and lets minority influences have a say is a democratic bonus. The fact that Britain is in a minority of countries that appears not to be able to manage coalitions simply reeks of party interest and political immaturity. Those who oppose coalition government and the electoral systems that support it because the "markets" don't like it are actually referring to currency dealers and of course investment banks, which like to have clear targets for their lobbying.

The greatest threats to democracy are often characterised as being terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda, which are indeed an evil menace that can undermine democratic freedoms if governments react too strongly to restrict freedoms in the name of security. But such organisations do not really undermine the bases of popular democracy. The greatest threats are much more subtle. Oneof the most dangerous is the "recruitment" of democratic politics and politicians by rich non-democratic interests for their own purposes.

The more the current financial crisis unfolds, the more it appears that political systems which encourage special interest lobbying inhibit the development of political collaboration in the national interest and are a burden in the post-crash world.

And behind this lurks a deeper malaise - the commercialisation of public life and public service. Our age may well be seen by historians as one in which the West was engulfed by commercialisation and consumerism - offering false promises of a new Nirvana, but delivering dissatisfaction, impoverishment of the majority, deterioration of public service - and moral and ethical decline. Maybe moderate Muslims have a point.

But this is a subject for another time......

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