The fragile roots of Britain’s democracy

We all know the mantra. Britain has its problems but, for all its faults, our nation is a mature, stable democracy. We don’t do civil wars or revolutions. We haven’t been occupied since 1066 or lost a major war since America gained its independence. Fascists, Nazis and Communists have never broken through. A British version of Donald Trump would surely never succeed.

Could that view be dangerously complacent? Are we sure that we are uniquely immune to the attractions of anti-democratic populism?  A century ago, Max Weber identified the three sources of authority as tradition, rules and charisma. Twentieth century Europe showed what can happen when rules and tradition fail to improve people’s daily lives and a toxic version of charisma sweeps all before it.

New research for Tortoise suggests that the risks of our democracy fraying are greater than we might think – not, perhaps, in the form of a constitutional thunderclap, but in the growing appeal of “strong” leaders who seek over time to override the checks and balances that stand in their way.

The size of this danger emerges clearly from a survey for Tortoise conducted by Deltapoll. An exceptionally large sample of more than 10,000 people throughout Britain was asked a range of detailed questions. The most dramatic finding is that 30% of all adults think that “Britain these days needs a strong leader who can take and implement big decisions without having to consult parliament”. That 30% represents around 14 million people – as many as voted Conservative at the last general election.

That said, twice as many people, 61%, sided with the opposite view: “It is dangerous to give leaders too much power; it is better for Parliament to debate and sometimes amend government proposals, even if this takes more time.” However, given that parliamentary scrutiny of the executive is fundamental to our democratic system, we might expect a much higher figure if that system reflected a real national consensus.

Another finding shows how far we are from such a consensus. Deltapoll asked: “Leaving aside the issue of whether you support or oppose Britain’s present government, how democratic do you think Britain’s political system is these days?” Barely half the public – 52% – say Britain is “very” or “fairly” democratic. One in three say it is “not very” or “not at all” democratic. The remaining 15% don’t know whether Britain is democratic or not. Once again, many millions of voters harbour grave doubts about British democracy.

One might think that the 34% who lack faith in British democracy are broadly the same as the 30% who hanker after a strong leader. One would be wrong. Those who think Britain is democratic are just as keen to circumvent Parliament as those who doubt our democratic credentials. Something deeper is going on.

A clue comes from the adjectives that people choose, from a list of eight, to describe their feelings about the way British democracy operates these days. The top three are “uneasy”, “disgusted” and “angry”, while the bottom three are “confident”, “happy” and “proud”. When we dig down into the different groups surveyed by Deltapoll, we find that “uneasy” is the word chosen most by those who think Britain is not democratic – but also by those who say Britain IS democratic.  

Pride is notable for its absence from public sentiment. Not only do just 8% of all voters select it as a word that expresses their feelings about the way democracy works : even among those who say Britain IS democratic the figure climbs to just 14%.

Why the unease – and the lack of pride? Our views of our politicians explain much of the disenchantment. Two in three of us think “most MPs are mainly out for themselves”; just one in four say instead that most MPs are genuinely interested in public service and helping their constituents”.

Even worse, only 20% think MPs generally “care about the concerns of people like you”. Fully 74% think they don’t care. We should note that voters do not blame politicians alone for being uncaring. Directors of large banks fare even worse, as do the directors of large companies generally. Conservative strategists should note that their own voters are almost as hostile as Labour and Liberal Democrat voters to the bosses of big business and big finance. So much for the Tory Party being the party of private enterprise.

One of the consequences of all this is that most voters reject the central tenet of representative democracy: that our MPs should be representative and not delegates. Only 24% side with Edmund Burke’s view that their MP should support policies s/he thinks are in the public interest, even if most of their constituents hold a different view. 61% want their MP to vote “according to the wishes of the majority of people in my area, even if it means voting against policies s/he thinks are in the public interest”.

For all that, the principle of “everyone having an equal say in the future of Britain through the right to vote” still matters. When people are asked to pick the three or four best features of British democracy, from a list of 12, the right to vote comes first, followed by having the Queen as head of state. However, the two features that top the list of WORST features of British democracy are “rich and powerful people having more influence than ordinary voters” and “the quality of our MPs at Westminster”. These two come way ahead of the other ten in the list. (To rub the point home, 54% cite “the quality of our MPs at Westminster” as one of the worst features of our democracy, while a mere 5% cite it as one of the best features.)

Which brings us back to the desire of 14 million people to have a strong leader who can sidestep Parliament. It reflects the extent to which so many of us think our MPs are low-grade, self-serving and uncaring. If the occupants of Parliament are held in such low esteem, we should not be surprised that so many of us lack faith in the institution of Parliament.

That is why Weber’s classification of the three forms of authority are so helpful in analysing the problem of democracy in Britain today – and so alarming in its implications. The gradual evolution of our political system over centuries should give Parliament an advantage as the ancient heart of our democratic traditions and the established maker of our rules. Our response to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee shows that tradition and rules still matter to us. It’s just that we no longer look to Parliament to uphold them.

No wonder that so many of us seem willing to give our blessing to Weber’s third source of authority, charisma. It might not happen – our institutional checks and balances, from an independent judiciary and impartial civil service to public service broadcasting and inquiring journalism, could stand in the way. It would help if voters were willing to stand with them against the perils of charisma and the poisonous promise of simple solutions to complex problems. Deltapoll’s findings suggest that fewer of us are willing to join the barricades to defend parliamentary democracy than we might hope or expect.

this analysis was first published by Tortoise