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Are we truly democratic? Yes, we are. The UK might be going through tumultuous times, and political parties may be experiencing internal turmoil, but we still live in a democracy. Our Parliament is called ‘the mother of all parliaments’, and rightly so. Democracy in the UK has endured for centuries and never succumbed to totalitarian dictators or fallen to a power-hungry monarch. These are some of the many aspects of our system to be proud of.
Nevertheless, our system is not perfect. Indeed, the unelected House of Lords used to be more powerful than the elected House of Commons. Referendums have only recently been a feature of British democracy, with the first referendum over the status of Northern Ireland in 1973. Regarding Brexit, there have been calls for a second referendum or a ‘People’s Vote’ in an attempt to cancel the result of the first referendum to leave the European Union in 2016. While it is legitimate and democratic to protest a government’s course of action, it seems dubious to me that so soon after a referendum another one is called for. Furthermore, the explicit call by the Liberal Democrats to revoke Article 50 appears to be nothing other than a flat negation of that referendum.
If they were to win a general election, however, they would have a mandate to implement that decision. One of the curious aspects of recent political events is the supposed tension between referendums and representative democracy. It is fair to say that referendums are an unusual feature in British politics, however it is important to remember that the House of Commons voted to have the Brexit referendum, and to trigger Article 50. Direct democracy and representative democracy need not be at odds with each other. Indeed, there are serious matters of debate that transcend party political identities – such as euthanasia, abortion or the implementation of the death penalty – that ought to be put to the nation due to their personal nature. It would not be fair or just to force individual MPs to follow a party line on such a matter.
The same goes for our constitutional arrangements, such as our membership of the European Union. While the major parties (especially the Liberal Democrats or UKIP) took a view on whether or not the UK should be a member of the EU, individual MPs and party figures were free to pursue their conscience if they did not agree with the party line. For the nation to have these important conversations honestly, it is essential everyone is able to disclose their point of view without fear of being forced out of a political party if they are a member of one.
There are issues within our democratic system. The confusion around prorogation, and the extent of the executive’s remit within our constitutional framework – made worse by an unwritten constitution – and what limits it. I am not a legal expert by any means, but the High Court ruling that prorogation is a political and not a legal matter does makes sense. It may be unpopular in some quarters, but there is precedent for prorogation in our democracy. Temporary prorogation – temporary being the key word – is not undemocratic. It is undesirable to suspend parliament but there may be times, such as in preparation for a Queen’s Speech, when it is necessary. If the House of Commons is failing to rally around an alternative government; or an election, then prorogation may be the only recourse for a government to put forward or refresh its policy agenda.
Irrespective of one’s personal political affiliation, it is difficult to argue that we do not live in a democratic system. Parliament is front and centre of national attention, the purpose and use of direct democracy is very much being considered in the political discussions of the day. I hope it continues. Unless we relentlessly examine how we may improve our democratic institutions, then we will surely fall to dark tyrannical forces.