There will be a general election in a few months. I began to think about what this democracy thing really is. Why do we have governments anyway?
Originally a leader would undertake to protect his people from marauding gangs in return for food, some service or labour. This is still the foundation of government but the protection has now extended to flood, fire, famine, our fellow man disease and poverty. In return we pay taxes.
Leaders embody greater strength and effectiveness if more people join them. They, in turn, must strive to improve the lot of more people. Just now there seems to be a struggle to decide how many powers should be centralised to Westminster or Europe and how many devolved to other counties, regions and cities within the United Kingdom. These matters transcend party politics.
One person, one vote?
Democracy is “one person – one vote” every school child knows that. But it is much more than that for it can only exist under certain conditions. During decolonisation we tried to establish democracies in the newly liberated countries. Some of the new presidents took the mantra to be “one person, one vote, once.” They then became dictators for life and set up a ruling dynasty of their family.
We haven’t given that much thought to enfranchisement recently. Since 1928 in fact when all women became entitled to vote. At the same time women gained the right to become members of parliament.
Some countries in Europe have been slow to extend suffrage to women. It did not happen in Switzerland until 1971 and Lichtenstein in 1984. Saudi Arabia does not allow women to do much, they are supposed to get the vote in 2015 but it has already been put off twice. We in UK are planning to extend suffrage to 16 year olds and, if the EU prevails, to prisoners also.
Emmeline Pankhurst 1858-1928. Born in Manchester and died just weeks before the Representation of the People Act (1928), the act granting universal suffrage, became law. During her life of political activism she had worked for the Labour Party, the Liberals and eventually the Conservatives who she thought were more effective in countering Bolshevism.
As well as universal suffrage we need three other important institutions. One is the right to free speech (and this is being questioned today). Another is a strongly independent rule of law. The third is a two way trust between the people and the government that we are prepared to live under a democracy.
The institutions interact with democracy in important ways. At the end of the 18 century the government supported slavery. We were growing rich through the slave trade and the use of slave labour. It was good for the economy. No politician would wish to speak against it. But, because of free speech many people became aware of the injustice of it. “Am I not a man and a brother?” was the logo of the anti-slavery group and printed on a medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood. Through speech and publication the movement grew until the government abolished slavery in 1833.
The laws are made by the government but administered by the judiciary. Governments cannot jail people they do not like or are a nuisance. Only the judiciary can do that and only if laws have been broken. This idea came from the Magna Carta in 1215.
Magna Carta – The Great Charter – declared that all are equal under the law, even Kings. Everyone is entitled to a fair trial and people should not be taxed unless they have some say in government.
There are 4 copies of the Magna Carta, two in the British library, one in Lincoln and one in Salisbury cathedrals.
The trust is a two way thing, it is part of an unwritten constitution. The leader trusts the people to support and co-operate with him and the government. We, the people, agree to do that for a period of time but then we can re-assess the government and change it. Part of that trust is that the elected government will guard the interests of all the people, even those that did not vote for it.
This trust broke in Egypt recently when the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood began to govern solely for the benefit of its own people. The tender young shoots of democracy cannot thrive in those conditions. Neither can democracy survive in countries where the supporting institutions are weak or absent, Iraq, for instance.
What about freedom? The great strength of democracy is that it gives more people more freedom than any other form of government. We are all free to do whatever is not contrary to the rights of others. What are the rights of others? They are embodied in another great institution – Human Rights.