WCSQM Essay - Ruby Cowmeadow

How would you improve the democratic system in this country?

When Winston Churchill famously said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government except for others’ in 1947, he was speaking at a time when all forms of government were under scrutiny. Britain and her allies had just won an ideological war against a dictatorship of fascists, and were now entering a long-lasting stand-off against a dictatorship of communists in the Cold War. It could be said that the Second World War was not fought between Britain and Germany, but between the opposing ideals of democracy and dictatorship. However, this poses the question, ‘what is a true democracy?’

A form of democracy has been in place in the UK since king John was forced to sign Magna Carta in 1215, but that democracy has never been a true democracy – the country’s many suffrage movements are proof of that. To understand what a true democracy is, we have to look at what the word actually means. This brings us back to its origins in ancient Athens. Democracy is a Greek word meaning ‘government by the people’, therefore a true democracy is surely one where everyone is able to have a say in who runs their country. Although a majority of countries today claim to be democracies, there are other forms of government.

One form of non-democratic government is oligarchy. Oligarchy, which means government by the few, is when a small group of people have control of the country based on wealth (plutocracy), religion (theocracy), military power, social status (aristocracy) or a combination of some or all of them. The main difference between an oligarchy and a democracy is the fact that in an oligarchy, the people have very little say in how their country is run.

A more extreme form of non-democratic government is autocracy. Autocracy is when one person has all the power of decision making for a country. They usually come into power by using military force or by inheritance. There are two types of autocracy: a totalitarian dictatorship, in which the government, which is controlled by the leader, has all of the power; or an absolute monarchy in which a king or queen controls all law-making within a country. Autocracy is the complete opposite of democracy. The people who live under an autocratic government have no say in how their country is run and most people cannot vote. A historic example of an autocracy is the Soviet Union under Stalin. A more modern example is North Korea, in which voting is mandatory but there is only one party to vote for.

Looking at the other forms of government that exist, it would seem that democracy is the only fair way to govern because it is the only form of government in which everyone has a say. However, democracy in the UK is flawed, and this is what Churchill meant by his statement. To make this country a fairer place, everyone must be allowed to vote, even prisoners, for example. The European court of human rights has ruled that the UK’s blanket ban on all prisoners voting is a violation of human rights; after all, the UK is the only western European country in which no prisoner is allowed to vote. But apart from it being a violation of human rights it is also a violation of our democracy. How can this country ever claim to be a true democracy when 86,000 members of the population cannot vote? While it makes some sense not to allow people who have committed murder or other violent crimes to vote, 71% of the prison population have committed non-violent crimes and 47% were sentenced to 6 months or less. If an election occurs during the time these people are in prison it can never be called a truly fair election, until they are also allowed to vote.

One flaw Churchill may have seen was that, even given the right to vote, many people choose not to use it. Although the last election in the UK had an impressive increase in young people voting and a turnout which reached a 25-year high, still only 68.7% actually voted. If the current government only represents 68.7% of the population, can we call it truly representative? Many people agree that those who do not vote have no right to complain if they disagree with the government. Unfortunately, a lot of the time people who don’t vote are from groups that are socially excluded and often ignored by the government. This suggests that the act of not voting does not come from a lack of interest, but a disappointment in British politics. If the country wants a higher voter turnout, the solution is not to make voting mandatory, but to be more inclusive of all people.

A reason people may feel disappointed in the government is that the MPs who represent them actually have nothing in common with them. Winston Churchill himself came from a very privileged background – his father was a lord and he lived in Blenheim Palace, a stately home in Oxfordshire. Less than 2% of UK adults are worth more than a million pounds, yet at one point two thirds of David Cameron’s cabinet were millionaires. Another disconnecting factor is education – only 7% of UK children are privately educated but 48% of Conservative MPs and 17% of Labour MPs went to public school. It is understandable that people don’t wish to vote for people who lead such extremely different lives to them and often have very little understanding of their lives as a consequence.

Social media is one way in which the divide between MPs and their constituents can be broken down. It is an incredibly fast-growing and effective means of persuasion. To appeal to large groups of people through common interests is much easier online. The president of the USA, Donald Trump, said in March that he believes he wouldn’t be in office without the power of Twitter. Twitter is also a good platform from which to encourage young people to vote. The last election in June saw one of the highest turnouts of young people ever. This young turnout is proof of how social media can create a far greater interest in politics and get people involved who would usually be uninterested. Social media is also a good organisational tool. We may not agree with the people it is organising, but it is still an effective means by which we can exercise our right to freedom of expression. Virtual organisation can also help us create physical organisation in the form of protests and rallies.

Unfortunately, social media can also be used for anti-democratic purposes. Often, social media platforms are places where it is very easy for false news and information to be broadcast. False information can often cause hate crimes and intolerance and give people justification for such things. Because platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are used so often, they have come to be a trusted source of information. People’s trust in things posted on these websites can often lead them disappointment if they vote a certain way because of something that isn’t actually true or is only partially true. For example, the 350 million pounds that was claimed during the 2016 referendum to be paid by the UK into the EU was presented without mentioning how much money the UK actually received from the EU.

As Churchill said, the democratic system in the UK is certainly better than in a lot of countries, but it is still not perfect. When Churchill was speaking in the 1940s, he would have been very aware of the power of communication, for example the propaganda of the war effort. However, he could never have foreseen the rise of social media and the role it now plays in politics. In the future, I believe that social media will play an even bigger part in how our democracy works. Social media platforms should be improved so that it is harder for misleading information to confuse people and disappoint them. Additionally, the people who represent us in parliament need to represent us more accurately in terms of wealth and education. Parties should also create wider enfranchisement and be more inclusive in their manifestos.

Churchill knew that democracy is flawed and probably impossible to perfect. In relation to the other current options, however, it is definitely the most fair form of government.

By Ruby Cowmeadow